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Friday, June 14, 2024

With excitement and errors aplenty Manchester United perfectly encapsulate the Erik ten Hag era

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If this proves Erik ten Hag’s farewell to Old Trafford, at least it summed up some of the finest elements of the Dutchman’s fraught second season at Manchester United. There was entertainment in abundance and goals by three youngsters; Kobbie Mainoo and Amad Diallo were given their chance by Ten Hag, Rasmus Hojlund signed by him. A patched-up team delivered a victory against one of the better teams in the country, Casemiro was talismanic if also culpable, the Stretford End sang supportively and the roof didn’t leak.

In the bigger picture, it may only postpone various forms of disappointment for four days. United need to better Newcastle’s result on Sunday to move out of eighth and avoid their lowest finish for 34 years. Stay there and they will need to win the FA Cup to qualify for Europe. Eddie Howe’s side may instead be the United in continental competition next season. Newcastle are still on course to finish above Manchester United for the first time since 1975, but now there is some final-day jeopardy for the Geordies.

For Ten Hag, there was excitement and excellence, but also errors. United’s defence were run ragged by Anthony Gordon. They somehow only conceded twice – Newcastle had 21 shots, to add to the multitude United’s opponents have enjoyed in recent months – and there were few indications a high-class team is being forged. But there was a terrific performance by Bruno Fernandes as a roving striker, a late strike by the substitute Hojlund and earlier goals from Mainoo and Diallo; neither was near anyone’s first-choice team at the start of the season and now each could end the campaign starting the FA Cup final.

Bruno Fernandes’s return was an influential factor in Man Utd’s performance. (AFP via Getty Images)

Mainoo is the younger and was the first to make his mark; Amad has surged into contention in the last two months. For each it was a second Old Trafford goal, and the first came against Liverpool. Perhaps that suggests each has a big-match temperament, though if the eventual verdict is that these sides only contested a Europa Conference League place, perhaps not.

But after consecutive defeats, Ten Hag’s team reconnected with their attacking instincts. The next generation brought youthful verve and an end product. Amad, who starred for Sunderland last season, registered an assist and a goal against Newcastle. For the breakthrough, he weaved a pass through a group of Newcastle players to Mainoo. Played onside by Kieran Trippier, a potential England teammate this summer, the teenager placed a shot into the bottom corner. It was an unfortunate return for Trippier, making his first appearance since March and producing the second worst interpretation of an offside trap seen at Old Trafford in the last few days, though not the only imperfect execution of it on the night.

If it damns Amad to suggest he is an upgrade on Antony, he looks far more than that. The £85m Brazilian is not even the best left-footed right winger at Old Trafford and the Ivorian whistled in a shot from 14 yards, connecting sweetly with a half-volley after Jacob Murphy headed a corner away. When he departed, Hojlund came on and angled a shot into the bottom corner of Martin Dubravka’s net.

Kobbie Mainoo sent Man Utd ahead with a classy goal in the first half (AP)

But United’s defence was scarcely watertight; Bruno Guimaraes headed just wide while Andre Onana saved from Sean Longstaff and Joelinton. Sofyan Amrabat clipped Gordon’s heel in the box, ripping his sock but not conceding a penalty.

And the Merseysider, scorer of a December winner against the other United, added a May equaliser, even if it came in defeat. Gordon stole in behind Casemiro, again lingering behind the rest of the defence, to meet Jacob Murphy’s cross. Too quick and persistent for United, Gordon was the supplier when Alexander Isak’s shot looped up off Amrabat and hit the bar.

Yet Newcastle encountered unexpected resistance in the idiosyncratic shape of Casemiro. With Lisandro Martinez’s comeback occurring as a late substitute, the Brazilian had a third consecutive outing at centre-back; a liability at the back in the previous two, he enjoyed a redemptive first half. He made a perfectly-timed penalty-box tackle on Gordon and cleared Dan Burn’s header off the line. On an early foray forward, he almost scored with an audacious overhead kick. Casemiro suggested the spirit is willing, whatever the limitations of the legs.

Man Utd boss Erik ten Hag had a great night at Old Trafford but there are signs his team still needs to improve. (Getty Images)

He did, though, have a part in two Newcastle goals, heading an injury-time corner out only for Lewis Hall to dispatch a sweet shot from 25 yards beyond Onana. It all added to the drama and there have been 49 goals in United’s last 11 games. Which, in part, is because they have conceded the majority of them, but as they shaded a five-goal thriller, they retained their hopes of finishing seventh. But while even that reflects badly on Ten Hag, this was a night to show his season has not all been bad.

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