Manchester United’s hard reset after Liverpool horror: How did they look?
Manchester United were back in action on Thursday night for the first time since their Anfield horror show, when Erik ten Hag blasted his flops’ lack of professionalism. So how did they fare in Thursday’s Europa League last-16 first leg against Real Betis … and was Bruno Fernandes on his best behaviour?
Did Ten Hag wield the axe?
The exact opposite. The starting XI responsible for the joint-worst defeat in United history was handed the chance to put their embarrassing performance right.
At least that is the more generous interpretation of Erik ten Hag’s surprising decision. Another is that the Dutch manager’s selection represented a punishment, with ten Hag telling those responsible for the debacle to rid themselves of the stigma.
It represented a calculated gamble although, given current injury problems with Anthony Martial, Christian Eriksen and Donny van de Beek, his alternatives were limited.
One would have been to start Jadon Sancho, at the expense of Wout Weghorst or Fernandes but dropping the latter, his club captain, would have been inconceivable, considering ten Hag had so publicly backed him 24 hours earlier.
Did Bruno behave himself?
As might be expected, given he was the object of national derision after Anfield, the on-field United captain was on his best behaviour.
Significant or not, he was one of the few players on either side to opt to go without gloves on a freezing, snowy Manchester night – a small point but one that implied he meant business.
And he did, from the off, leading a couple of counter attacks, one of which led to the opening goal, before he assisted on the second and claimed the third himself, covering up his ears as he celebrated to tune out the criticism he has faced this week.
There was the occasional show of frustration, the throwing up of arms after a pass did not reach its intended target, for example.
But all of that was routine and understandable and nowhere near as petulant or self-destructive as his childish antics at the weekend.
His booking was justified, though not particularly malicious, as he slid in and fouled Claudio Bravo, and the incident briefly threatened to turn ugly although the United man remained relatively composed.
Ten Hag said: “I think he was the best player on the pitch. He showed his personality. He played a bit of a deeper role and I think he did it brilliantly.
“I think he was the leader and made the game from the back, with a lot of good passes in between the lines.”
How did they approach it?
There was nothing wrong with United’s early approach or work rate, particularly from Fernandes and Antony – two of the main contributors to the weekend disaster.
Their performances offered them some, minor, retribution and justified ten Hag’s team selection.
And after an energetic, but controlled, start brought United their early opening goal, they did well to weather spells of Betis pressure, particularly on the counter-attack.
There were some uncertain moments from Diogo Dalot and David De Gea but, crucially, unlike Sunday, the players around them did not go into hiding and capitulate.
What were the crowd like?
Hard to gauge, given the impressive racket that around 4,000 Betis fans made for the first half, at least, drowning out their hosts, apart from immediately after the United goal.
It was safe to say that the attitude among United fans was to treat Sunday as if it was some dark nightmarish vision that had never happened.
In the brief lulls in noise from the visiting fans, there was the occasional refrain of “Glazers out” and some of the more traditional standards, which grew louder as their team took control.
But, crucially, there was no suggestion of the Old Trafford crowd getting on the backs of a starting XI that had performed so shamefully four days earlier.
And Fernandes and Weghorst’s goals were met by a couple of the biggest cheers of the season before a handful of Betis supporters engaged in altercations with stewards, for no apparent reason – a scene which may well prompt a Uefa investiagtion.
Events at Anfield will linger, like a permanent scar, in United psyche for generations to come.
But this was the start of the healing process and, to their credit, there was not much more that could have been expected.
Not that ten Hag would have elected to do so, but the game also gave his side the opportunity to recover from a set-back – the Betis equaliser – as his side showed character and organisation that was so sadly lacking at Anfield.
It was a sign of the good-will this Ten Hag side has already banked, in winning United’s first trophy in six years, that their fanbase appears prepared to forgive, if not forget.