In a season that looked in danger of going off the rails before September was out, Manchester United slowed down the seemingly non-stop negative news cycle with a night full of positives and perhaps hope for the future against Crystal Palace in the League Cup.
The 3-0 victory came off the back of an absolute must-win (Erik ten Hag himself alluded to that after the game) at Burnley on Saturday, a game which saw Jonny Evans make his first league start for United in over eight years in a patched-up United side, assist Bruno Fernandes’ stunning strike and generally perform with honour.
The first feel-good story of a torrid start to the campaign set the tone for Tuesday night’s win. Several players returned to first-team action and others to form, a home debut was logged and even a full debut for youngster Dan Gore, as well as a first Old Trafford outing for Evans since his surprising return to the club.
Raphael Varane, who came off the bench at Turf Moor to close out a narrow 1-0 win, captained the side alongside deposed skipper Harry Maguire, also making his return to the squad and his first start of the season. In midfield, Mason Mount got his first 45 minutes since the loss at Tottenham and looked extremely sharp for someone who had not played in over a month.
Another midfield signing, Sofyan Amrabat, made his full debut but not in the middle of the park, instead operating as an auxiliary left back of sorts, often inverting into midfield and even ending up on the right-hand side at one point in the first half.
The Moroccan World Cup star’s all-action display saw him touch the ball more times in 60 minutes than Scott McTominay in over 200 this season. A strong audition to be a hopeful upgrade, like Hannibal Mejbri, who once again showed the fight and desire that has been lacking from his senior players to date this season.
Perhaps the energy, industry and pace of Mount, Amrabat and Hannibal were what Casemiro needed to get his mojo back, as he looked more like his old self and less like the hobbled old man at the heart of United’s midfield of late. He also once again showed his eye for goal, powering home a header from Mount’s corner – a direct set-piece goal for United, miracles do come true.
Other positives came in a second clean consecutive clean sheet for Andre Onana (much needed after 10 goals conceded in the three games prior to Burnley), a first win of the season by more than a single goal (bleak) and the performances of the wide men.
Alejandro Garnacho responded to being dropped – and criticism from Ten Hag – with a hard-working display and a goal – unlike another winger – while Facundo Pellestri was his usual busy self, taking on players on the outside and showcasing why he might have a role now within the squad.
All of this contributed to United’s best performance by a mile this season and possibly their best since their cup final win over Newcastle way back in February. Obviously, it was a weakened Palace but beggars can’t be choosers and it has to act as a launchpad/restart for the rest of the season.
It certainly felt more like what this writer had in mind when he discussed what a Ten Hag side might resemble this season as Garnacho, Mount, Hannibal and Amrabat hounded and harried players, a world away from the mannequin positioning and defending of late – not a dig at the usually statuesque Anthony Martial, who scored a nice goal and is still needed given the lack of cover for Rasmus Hojlund, who got another 20 minutes under his belt.
Two wins and no club statements represents a good week for United at last and there is a good opportunity for Ten Hag and his team to change the narrative and mood before they break for another dreaded international break in less than two weeks.
Palace are back at Old Trafford this Saturday and while it will be a stronger side, Roy Hodgson is still missing several players including Michael Olise and new signing Jefferson Lerma. Then there’s another two home games against Galatasaray and Brentford, the latter also facing a mini injury crisis.
There is no excuse for United’s form to date this season but off-field issues and injuries are a mitigating factor. As both seem set to ease, three wins – which would put them exactly in line with last season’s record at the same stage – are absolutely mandatory if United want to do anything this season of any note.
To do this and in general for the months to come, Ten Hag has to get his side firing in front of goal in the league, with a paltry return of seven goals from six games so far. Hojlund approaching full fitness and Marcus Rashford hopefully getting into gear should help remedy this, and they have prime opportunities over the next two weekends to do just that.
While everyone knows the club’s off-field issues, drama and takeover saga are far from over, the dark clouds circling Old Trafford could somewhat dissipate if the team and Ten Hag do their jobs in the next 10 days.
It once again shows you the effect a few wins can have on a football club, its momentum, confidence and fan hope/delusion. Over to you, United.
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