Manchester United’s hitherto miserable start to this new season had provoked plenty of debate about Erik ten Hag’s style of play. Is David de Gea comfortable enough with the ball at his feet? Do Lisandro Martinez’s abilities in build-up make up for his small stature? Is Christian Eriksen a false nine, a false six or just a symbol of yet another false dawn?
But at a time when the intricacies of each and every manager’s tactical philosophy are pored over, sometimes it really is a lot more simple than that. Sometimes it is about pride.
That may sound like basic, facile analysis, maybe even the type of under-thinking that has dominated at Old Trafford for the best part of a decade and reduced the most successful club of the Premier League era to the pile of rubble witnessed in West London.
But then United’s humiliation at Brentford was so vast, so profound and so complete, that Ten Hag’s rebuilding process had to start at the very foundations. It had to begin with a fundamental question: do you think you are good enough to play for Manchester United?
If the answer the weekend before last was a resounding no, then several members of Ten Hag’s squad will feel able to answer that question confidently and in the affirmative after this unexpected, much-needed win over no less than their historic and most hated rivals.
The pre-match consensus was that unrest against ownership would work against United. If anything, it worked in their favour. Even if those watching inside Old Trafford had paid an admission fee directly to the objects of the ire, they generated the same noise and fury as those protesting against the Glazers outside.
On the pitch, the tone was set within the very first minute by Martinez. A little shove on the shoulder of Mohamed Salah not only let the Liverpool forward know he was there but sustained the febrile energy in the stands.
He was not the only United player to feed off it. Scott McTominay snapped into tackles. Diogo Dalot relished a body-to-body tussle for the ball with Luis Diaz out by the touchline, his eyes widening as it ended with him winning a foul. Jadon Sancho, a meek and muted presence in the vast majority of his United appearances to date, demanded the ball, as though finally ready to announce himself. His feint to create space to score the first not only committed James Milner but Alisson too, leaving an entire corner of the goalmouth to aim at.
The hope will be that this is the end of the beginning of Sancho’s Old Trafford career, the point at which he at last kicks on.
For his fellow goalscorer Marcus Rashford, it may be the start of a second chance. The sight of Rashford streaking in behind a defence and bearing down on the Stretford End in the manner he did before United’s second has been a rare one for too long now.
And even on those rare occasions, the chance has regularly gone begging. This time, the way the evening was going, the way Old Trafford’s expectant roar urged him forward, there was only going to be one outcome.
Yes, Ten Hag did do some things differently from a tactical perspective, despite insisting nothing would change. De Gea was much more assertive and consequently much more direct with the ball at his feet, going long before hesitation took hold. United did not flood their opponent’s penalty area with the same abandon as they did against Brighton and Brentford, thereby abandoning their centre-halves and leaving them to defend counter-attack alone.
Ten Hag tailored his game plan. The calibre of their opponents demanded that much.
There was no Cristiano Ronaldo either, until a late cameo. No Harry Maguire too. Yet the most obvious difference to those inside Old Trafford would have been a team of players who, out of nothing, had suddenly found belief.
Many of them are arguably not as good as their reputations suggest on recent evidence, but they are not as bad as the caricatures promoted on social media after years of ridicule either. There is talent here, enough for a coach with a clear and coherent idea and a knack for people management to get a tune out of.
This cannot be described as a ‘statement’ win. It is too early for that for Ten Hag and his United. There is plenty of work to do. But, two games later than expected, it is a new start.