Erik ten Hag has debunked Manchester United midfield theory with Christian Eriksen decision
After being battered 4-0 by Brentford a little over three weeks ago, very few people would have expected Manchester United to enter the start of their Europa League campaign with the target of registering a fifth straight win.
Sunday’s 3-1 victory over Premier League table-toppers Arsenal secured a fourth successive triumph for the first time in more than 12 months for United, suggesting that their fortunes are starting to change. Erik ten Hag, game-by-game and week-by-week, is starting to develop a firmer understanding of his squad and it is evident that he is now starting to have the impact United’s supporters had dreamt about.
After back-to-back away successes over Southampton and Leicester City, the visit of Arsenal, who arrived in M16 boasting a 100 per cent record this term, was always going to represent the Reds’ sternest test yet. Despite the scoreline suggesting that United made light work of Mikel Arteta’s side, the actual pattern of the game told a whole different story.
The Gunners were the better side for large portions of the contest and had referee Paul Tierney not chalked off Gabriel Martinelli’s early opener for a foul in the build-up, the game could have mapped out very differently. But United are no longer a wounded animal feeling sorry for itself; they are a team growing in confidence and belief, which is understandable after an upturn in fortunes.
One of the secrets behind United’s recent revival has been Ten Hag’s reluctance to tinker. He has made just one change to his starting line-up in the last four matches, bringing Antony straight into the fold at the expense of Anthony Elanga on Sunday. Casemiro, United’s most-needed signing of the summer, is still awaiting his first start.
But Ten Hag has not felt the urge to alter things in midfield, even though the fans are beginning to get itchy feet about not seeing Casemiro from the off yet. While Scott McTominay has taken care of defensive matters, Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes have imposed themselves in the other direction, each producing excellent performances in the wins United have recently recorded.
Eriksen, snapped up from Brentford on a free transfer, has been given the license to roam in an unfamiliar No.8 position, whereas Fernandes has pulled the strings in his trademark No.10 role. The duo have complemented each other wonderfully, particularly in the win over Arsenal.
Eriksen played a key role in each of United’s three goals, with the opening two being crafted as a result of forward, attack-minded passes from the Dane into the feet of Fernandes. When the 30-year-old arrived at Old Trafford in July, United were still optimistic about their chances of signing Frenkie de Jong from Barcelona, meaning all of the pointers suggested that Eriksen would be battling it out with Fernandes for the No.10 position.
The prospect of them playing alongside each other in the same team was a worrying prospect, such was United’s lack of a defensive-midfielder. But even though United were forced to change their stance on their main midfield signing, choosing Casemiro, a world-class holding midfielder, opposed to a ball-playing operator in De Jong, there were still concerns that it would be too attack-minded.
But traditions are changing at Old Trafford. Not only are United’s players arriving much earlier than they previously did for games at Old Trafford, Ten Hag has also ditched the belief that United must play with a double pivot in midfield in a 4-2-3-1 system.
Eriksen has helped Ten Hag break that trend and show that it is possible, even against the top teams, that results can be secured without the need for two defensive midfielders to be on the pitch. In tandem with Fernandes, he has provided United with the control they had been longing for in midfield and ability to unlock the opposition in the blink of an eye.
With Casemiro still to come in, Eriksen’s and Fernandes’ bond should only grow stronger once the former Real Madrid man is embedded within Ten Hag’s plans. Any fears that the duo could not play in the same team have been well and truly banished.