Manchester United’s draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday was one of the rare occasions when both managers came out of the fixture with credit.
Erik ten Hag’s set-up had United on the front foot early on and his instruction after Jorginho’s penalty for the full-backs to get wider helped create Casemiro’s dramatic equaliser.
For Graham Potter, the afternoon started badly, but his bold move to make a tactical substitution after just 35 minutes helped stem the flow of the game, which to that point had been dominated by United.
It was interesting to listen to Potter talk about why he had opted to make the switch, bringing on Mateo Kovacic for Marc Cucurella and adding an extra body into midfield.
“The sense in the game was that we were getting a little bit overrun in midfield and we needed an extra player in there to create a bit more pressure and stop them building their attacks, and therefore making it harder for us to build ours,” he said.
It must have been a while since another elite side made a tactical change because of something United’s midfield were doing, but it probably sums up the improvement in Ten Hag’s team, not just from last season but from August and early September as well.
There were times last year when United’s midfield was run ragged and not just when numbers were even. The axis of Fred and Scott McTominay remained a major issue when it came to controlling games and too often United would lose the midfield battle.
That’s no longer the case under Ten Hag. Fred and McTominay have both had roles to play this season and they’ve made key contributions, but neither would be considered part of Ten Hag’s strongest XI.
The past week has been a triumph for Ten Hag and United have looked like a much more complete side in taking four points off Tottenham and Chelsea. They have arguably looked the better side in both games and are playing like you would expect a big six team to play.
The presence of Casemiro has added quality to United’s midfield, giving them an outstanding defensive midfielder but also someone with excellent passing ability, especially when it comes to moving the ball forwards. Bruno Fernandes has returned to form this week and Fred and Christian Eriksen have both played a part.
It’s a simplistic way to look at it, but United had more possession against Tottenham and Chelsea in these games. They had just 30% in the win against Liverpool and 40% in the success against Arsenal.
Those games produced two wins but they required plenty of defending and involved key moments on the counter-attack. This week United have taken on elite teams at their own games, becoming a more ball-dominated side, rather than thriving in open spaces.
Throughout the game against Tottenham and in the first half at Stamford Bridge, United controlled the game in midfield. Casemiro set the tone for both and on Saturday it was Eriksen and Fernandes who helped to pull the strings. The movement of those three and their ability to get players into dangerous areas in the final third was particularly impressive.
To put United’s control of the ball into context, they had gone 13 successive games against big six rivals without having more possession than the opposition before last Wednesday. For it to then happen twice in four days suggests a clear change in mentality under Ten Hag.
This is the philosophy the Dutchman came in with, that he would create a team who prizes possession and builds from the back. The evolution of midfield has been key to that, but the quality on the ball of Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane has helped.
Both central defenders showed their quality on Saturday before Varane’s afternoon was cruelly cut short. Their ability to play out from the back and find passes between the lines or out to full-backs has been key in having great control of the ball.
That all contributed to United playing like you would expect a ‘big six’ team to play this week. It’s been a major step forward for Ten Hag’s Old Trafford project.