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Ken Early: Playing against the ball suits United right now, and Ten Hag recognises this

United have played six matches this season and only dominated possession in the two they lost

Maybe, in years to come, getting thrashed in the first two games will be seen as Erik ten Hag’s first masterstroke.

Losing 4-0 to Brentford had a wonderfully clarifying effect on Manchester United’s board. Suddenly no signing was too expensive. €70 million on a 30-year-old defensive midfielder? €100 million on an Eredivisie winger? These deals only sound expensive until you tot up how much it would cost to spend a season in the Championship.

Ajax fought to keep Antony, only dropping their resistance when United offered a nine-figure sum to make the 22-year old the most expensive transfer of the 2022 summer window.

It’s hard to say whether their negotiating stance reflected their confidence in his ability or their confidence that United would keep increasing their bid.


For United, the more relevant question is whether Antony is better than Anthony Elanga, the player he replaces in the line-up. He did not get many chances to show his quality on his home debut, but when the one big chance came his way he took it expertly to send United on their way to an impressive victory.

United have recovered from Brighton and Brentford to win four in a row, a feat only Arsenal have been able to match in the Premier League this season. There is no great mystery about the reasons for their improvement. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking the worst-performing players out of the team and giving someone else a go.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s lack of dynamism had long been crippling the attack, while Harry Maguire’s crisis of confidence was spreading uncertainty through the defence. United’s improvement coincides with Ten Hag’s decision – which should already have been taken by his predecessor, Ralf Rangnick – to drop the pair of them.

Lisandro Martínez is hardly the kind of iceman who never makes a mistake, but his air of confidence and aggression is a welcome change from the hauntedness that has lately gripped Maguire. At the other end of the field, there are encouraging signs that Marcus Rashford is winning his long struggle against impostor syndrome.

Last season he scored four and assisted two in the league in about 14 full matches’ worth of playing time. Yesterday in one game he scored two and assisted one. Why is Rashford playing better?

The main reason, of course, is that now he is playing up front as the team’s main striker, rather than carrying water for Ronaldo. But it’s also because United have been playing the kind of football that suits him – playing on the counter and looking to launch him into the space behind high defensive lines.

United have played six matches this season and only dominated possession in the two they lost. In three of the four wins, the opponent had more of the ball – much more of it, in the case of Liverpool and Arsenal.

The fact is, playing against the ball suits United right now better than trying to control games, and Ten Hag has recognised this. So the kind of intricate build-up play that had been preyed on by Brentford has been set aside, David de Gea has been kicking it long, and the team has looked to Bruno Fernandes to unlock defences with quick passes into space.

Fernandes has six through-balls already, more than any other Premier League player except Kevin de Bruyne, and he has been playing through-balls this season at about twice the average rate of his previous United career.

“[The coach] is a lot about being on the front foot, you can see how high we want to press,” Christian Eriksen said after the game, but this front-foot football for now exists only in theory.

Ten Hag is showing he is ready to be flexible in pursuit of results. Without wins on the board, he won’t get the time and space to build the kind of team he wants.

The current style is actually rather reminiscent of how United played in the first successful months under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Solskjaer’s team never did develop into the kind of side that dominates rather than counter-punches – but Ten Hag has at least shown himself capable of building such a side elsewhere.

It took Mikel Arteta 2½ years to build that kind of side at Arsenal, but on Sunday, rather than affirming themselves as title contenders, his team will instead be accused of the traditional failing of crumbling before their first significant challenge.

You can imagine Arteta telling his players to “put it in the bin, guys” – then lying awake all night wondering how they managed to lose. No coach who makes a daring triple substitution in the 74th minute, then concedes the killer goal in the 75th, is going to sleep well.

Should he have been more patient, more cautious? It never would have come to that if only his players could have been more clinical. It was evident from Arteta’s post-match demeanour that he thought his team should have won the game, but this is the sort of result that often happens when you only hit the target with three out of 17 attempts.

Maybe it would have gone better for Arsenal had they not had the worse of a distinctively 2022-23 controversy early in the game. Arteta complained that what would have been an opening goal for Gabriel Martinelli was ruled out for a Martin Ødegaard foul on Eriksen.

The challenge was obviously a foul and there would be no argument about the decision – except the referees have been making a great show of turning a blind eye to that exact type of foul.

Pushing someone over from behind is now usually fine – unless the referees randomly choose that moment to enforce the old or “official” rules, as on the Martinelli goal. It seems the referees thought this random enforcement element would be a fun change, but instead a lot of people are angry and screaming about corruption.

Really, who could have seen that coming?