Benched Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Maguire sent clear message as Erik ten Hag’s vibrant Manchester United beat Liverpool

“No tippy-tappy from behind this week,” laughed Gary Neville as David de Gea put his final kick onto the field.

Mostly it was nice to hear that Neville was having some semblance of fun on a Sky Sports show again. Tortured United Nations addresses in the state of Manchester get tired after a while.

It is highly unlikely that Erik ten Hag parked at Ajax school for life and decided the solution to United’s woes was for their goalkeeper to flick the ball back to the opposition at every opportunity. But De Gea’s refusal to tempt the yapping Liverpool press was an example of how a manager already under a keen microscope got the assist absolutely right in Monday night’s 2-1 win.

Ten Hag will continue to juggle the demands of the present with the hope of a long-term transformative project at United. Poor last-minute decisions have put the club in their current predicament and the last 10 days of the transfer window should be approached with vigilance.

Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo was benched again in a game at Burnley on February 8, 2022

MORE: Manchester United vs Liverpool result: Marcus Rashford starts Erik ten Hag era against listless Reds

On the other hand, you can’t be outdone by Brighton & Hove Albion before getting hammered by Brentford and picking a team for imaginative, sunlit Highlanders in a couple of months. United’s 5-0 humiliation in that game last season was fresh in the mind, and with good reason.

Manchester United will play from behind again. De Gea will pick the wrong pass, stand on the ball, fall down or any combination of the three at some point and the fingers will point back to the Old Trafford Brain Trust.

Against an injury-stricken and bizarrely lukewarm Liverpool, this club has been pocketed again. De Gea had 40 touches and lost the ball 23 times. United’s players treated this like a wild derby match from the first whistle, while their opponents had not been unduly persuaded to expect free-fight sparring.

Martinez and Varane shine in Maguire’s absence

Lisandro Martinez, so vilified after having the audacity of being 5ft 9in at Brentford, bought into Mohamed Salah with some snarling shoulder punches in the first minute. One of Ten Hag’s trusted lieutenants at Ajax, the Argentine defender was consistently fantastic as he and Raphael Varane rattled through 16 spaces between them.

Their pairing was one of Ten Hag’s great challenges. Harry Maguire has too often looked like a footballer in existential agony over the past year and it has been hard to argue against the decision to keep him out of the line of fire, whatever that might mean for his club’s captain.

Maguire might have envied him a bit at how cohesive and committed the players were, acting in front of the back four all night. He would have looked like a much better centre-back at Brentford if everyone in the front six hadn’t been basically rubbish.

That foreground energy – best embodied by a suddenly engaged and buoyant Marcus Rashford, whose quick emergence from his sustained funk Maguire may give Maguire cause for optimism – brings us to Ten Hag’s other big calling: Cristiano Ronaldo has been raised in favor of Anthony Elanga and Rashford the bench set started as a centre-forward.

Even with the Dutch tactician switching things up at half-time, Anthony Martial replaced Elanga and played in Rashford just before being offside for United’s second goal. The main purpose of Ronaldo’s belated introduction appeared to be to rouse a little more energy from a crowd who, contrary to the expected protests, had already screamed themselves hoarse with cheers.

Bruno Fernandes another player without Ronaldo

United moved quickly and purposefully whenever they had the opportunity to attack during a frantic 20-minute opening. Instead of sinking in the midfield mud or measuring his usefulness by how best to serve Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes was freed.

Fernandes wore the armband in Maguire’s absence and memorized United’s best attacking moments, happily picking out the willing runners ahead of him – particularly those who favored the comedic porous union between Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez on the right side of Liverpool’s defence attack. Both were utterly pathetic and the rest of their peers found themselves frequently chasing shadows as United covered 113.8km over the course of 90 minutes. At Brentford, they shuffled desperately to 95.5km, far underperforming their opponents, and were called up on a day off to catch up.

Fernandes was at the heart of Jadon Sancho’s brilliantly struck opener, first thundering a ball to the right for Rashford to pursue. He regained possession and hissed a pass across the penalty area, which Christian Eriksen controlled well. It wasn’t precise or particularly well executed, but it kept United moving and didn’t allow Liverpool to commit.

Some playmakers are better when they have the opportunity to put their foot on the ball and think; Fernandes is one of those guys who is better when he’s not. He likes to act and push through when the pace is fast and opportunities are at hand.

He was one of several United players who appeared to come back to themselves when they outplayed Liverpool, which could also be said for Sancho as his softshoe shuffle made James Milner look like he’d fallen off a water slide and Virgil Van flipped Dijk into a handcuffed Liam Gallagher.

With all the setbacks of recent seasons, it has been too easy to look elsewhere in the squad or in the transfer market for answers to United’s woes. Ten Hag came up with some solutions on the pitch to bring down Liverpool. It’s now up to Maguire and Ronaldo if they want to be a part of it on the manager’s terms.

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