If the season started badly for Manchester United as they suffered a home 1-2 defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion last week and they were seeking to bounce back at the Community Stadium against Brentford, they were obviously in for a huge shock. The Bees stung four times, courtesy of Josh Dasilva, Mathias Jensen, Ben Mee and Bryan Mbeumo, all in the first half.
Before trying to dissect what exactly went wrong for the 20-time English champions, it needs to be said that the home side deserve much credit for winning the contest in such a comprehensive manner.
Manager Thomas Frank had arranged his men in a seemingly defensive 5-3-2 setup. They defended deep for long spells, keeping their lines close and practically unbreakable, and even the two forwards, Mbeumo and Ivan Toney, were rarely more than 35 yards from David Raya’s goal. However, they occasionally switched to an extremely aggressive high press, and the change always produced results, catching United at unawares as they tried to play out from the back.
Further more, Brentford have some very interesting set-piece routines, obviously worked out to the smallest detail in training, and their counterattacking ability is quite formidable as well.
Make no mistake, Manchester United were poor in this match, but Brenford should be commended for the way they continued to hit the ‘sore spot’ over and over again, forcing United frequently into panic and exploiting every weakness they found; and there was plenty for them to find.
There have been sarcastic remarks throughout the world of social media about this being the worst thing that ever happened to Christian Eriksen on a football pitch. Obviously, that isn’t so as the Denmark international suffered cardiac arrest at the Euros last year and barely survived. But it was certainly a hard day at the office for the former Tottenham Hotspur star.
Eriksen may have expected a warm, emotional reception at the stadium where he spent the second half of 2021/22 after his contract with Inter Milan was terminated, but the Brenford faithful were obviously in no mood for it. They booed loudly whenever he touched the ball and cheered with great delight whenever he made a mistake, adding another component to what would’ve been a miserable afternoon for him anyway.
Perhaps it was a bit harsh on the 30-year-old. After all, he did do his best for Brentford while there and in all honesty, it wasn’t really to be expected that he’d extend his stay at the Community beyond the expiration of his short-term contract. Despite the warning of his health, a player of such quality surely deserves to be playing European football.
The taunts from the stands, however, didn’t end with booing.
Brentford fans singing “You should have stayed at a big club” to Christian Eriksen 😬
— Tim Burgess (@Tim_Burgess) August 13, 2022
As for his contribution to the match, Eriksen did little except making an occasional dash into the box to try and confuse Brenford’s defensive ranks; a few attempts that his teammates completely missed. At the other end, he was culpable for the second goal, being the one who lost the ball to Jensen, but he wasn’t the only one at fault.
All in all, it was a match Eriksen will want to forget as soon as possible, though it will probably haunt him for a long time.
There was much celebration among the United fans when the club completed the signing of Lisandro Martinez from Ajax, using the Ten Hag connection to snap him up under the very noses of Arsenal. Questions were being raised about his (lack of) height and it presenting a potential problem in the Premier League, but Martinez had a very high percentage of aerial duels won with Ajax, and he achieved it mostly through smart, well-timed positioning, rather than outjumping or outmuscling opponents.
However, it speaks volumes that Ten Hag decided to withdraw his former charge from the team at halftime. The 24-year-old simply wasn’t up to the task of dealing with with Brentford’s powerful players, who appeared to be having a field day whenever he was the one marking them. The well-worked set-pieces from the home side obviously made things even worse, and things picked up somewhat for United, at least at the back, when Raphael Varane came on after the break.
Ten Hag surely won’t give up on Martinez after this match, but he may choose the matches to name him as a starter with more deliberation in the future.
Ten Hag’s task
After a promising pre-season, the two opening matches of the Premier League campaign have revealed the task Ten Hag faces in all its enormousness, if he is to live up to the expectations and restore Manchester United to where their supporters believe this once great club should be.
Watching the games closely, there are hints of what the Dutch tactician wants his player to do. The problem is, most of them aren’t nearly as flexible (or hard-working, for that matter) as he needs them to be to successfully put his plans into operation.
Playing out from the back is proving a nightmare which this game only highlighted, but it was there before. David De Gea is usually a fantastic shot-stopper, though what happened in the 10th minute certainly didn’t show him in that light, but he’s never been much of a distributer, and the weakness is mostly reflected in the choices he makes with the ball at his feet.
Of course, it doesn’t help that his defenders, captain Harry Maguire first and foremost, don’t position themselves well enough to receive the ball and work their way out of a high press. It all usually goes too slow, the moves are predictable, frequently offering the opposition every chance of winning possession in dangerous places.
Upfront, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho appear to be trying to make themselves noted, but without proper organization, it simply isn’t working. Bruno Fernandes also appears to be working harder than before, but the creativity which he was known for for the first year or so after his arrival isn’t there anymore. Has it dried up, or have the opponents simply found ways to neutralize it? That’s a question that Ten Hag needs to find the answer to as soon as possible.
Cristiano Ronaldo was known for a large chunk of his incredibly illustrious career as a player to rely on to produce something out of a magic hat if things aren’t going well for his team. But looking at him now, at the age of 37, those moments appear to be gone beyond recall. Now, when his team aren’t playing well, he mostly walks about in a frustrated manner, and he simply cannot come to terms with the fact that refereeing decisions aren’t going his way as much as they used to. He managed a couple of potentially dangerous headers, but that was about it when it came to threatening Raya in the Brentford goal.
The Portuguese believed he was fouled in the situation which preceded the opening goal, and there was certainly a lot of aggression from the Brenford players, but referee Stuart Attwell didn’t see any cause to stop play and the VAR did not intervene after De Gea spilled Dasilva’s low shot into the back of the net.
It may be that the return of Anthony Martial from injury brings some improvement for United in the attacking areas, but at the moment, things are looking bleak throughout.
Will Ten Hag find answers to these (and many other) problems in time? Well, he needs to find them quickly, given that Manchester United are now at the bottom of the Premier League table and that there have been calls for his sacking already, as well as what awaits around the corner.
And around the corner – Liverpool.
United’s arch-rivals ran riot against them in both matches last season, winning them with a combined score of 9-0. It was 0-5 at Old Trafford, and a large number of fans left the stadium after less than an hour. This time, there has been word about some fractions of the supporters pushing for empty stands for the Liverpool game, in protest against the ownership of the club.
The thing is, their anger doesn’t seem to be directed at the right target. Large amounts of money have been spent on expensive players in recent years, so the owners can hardly be blamed for ‘not backing managers up’ in the market or whatever. So unless the supporters expect Joel Glazer to run out onto the pitch, save opposition shots, command the defence and score goals at the other end, they need to look a bit deeper into the hierarchy of the club, at the people making genuine football decisions.
Liverpool haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory either so far this season, earning no more than a point on their trip to Craven Cottage last week as Fulham gave them a good run for their money. Their second game will take place on Monday evening, when they welcome Crystal Palace to Anfield.
But even so, the prospect of the team that won both domestic cup competitions, finished second in the Premier League and beat champions Manchester City in the Community Shield, on top of reaching the Champions League final, coming to Old Trafford at this particular moment, won’t be a welcome one for Ten Hag, his players or the club’s supporters. Even if they did beat beat them 4-0 during pre-season.
As for Brentford, Frank will be extremely pleased with the way the campaign has started. It’s not rare that a team that enters the Premier League has a decent first season, as they did, but then they usually struggle greatly to survive in the second. With that in mind, the Bees are off to a great start to avoid relegation struggles once again and establish themselves firmly as a regular member of the English top flight.
Having come back from two goals down to avoid defeat against Leicester City in the opening round, they’ve just handed a proper thrashing to the 20-times English champions, a memorable day at the Community Stadium.
Next up, it’s Fulham at Craven Cottage, and given what we’ve seen so far this term, it may actually prove a tougher challenge than the one Manchester United presented on Saturday.
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