It was always going to be a massive risk, but it was a risk that paid off. Manchester United’s best performance of the season came thanks to gambles all across the pitch, with Erik ten Hag not afraid to drop anyone for the match against Liverpool, regardless of their reputation or stature.
Under former managers, United would have gone for the risk-adverse Fred and Scott McTominay axis in midfield, one that has been tried and tested in recent years. There would have been no problem if they had done that on Monday night either. Sure, ‘McFred’ isn’t a long-term fix, but as much as they are restrictive in what they give, they also give a pretty reliable output of movement and mobility.
Yet, instead of playing the percentages, the Dutchman went big, perhaps a risk he wouldn’t have deemed necessary had United not lost their first two matches of the season. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and that is what they got.
The Scotland international kept his place at the base of midfield, but this time he did so as a sole operator, occasionally helped by the industrious Christian Eriksen, with Bruno Fernandes given license to attack in front of them.
It was this selection that was just as important as any for Ten Hag on the night, with United matching Liverpool’s movement early on and possessing the creative talent to carve open a high defensive line that left acres of space behind it.
Early on, Fernandes hooked the ball back for Anthony Elanga, though he didn’t have the finish to match as the post took a pounding instead. Soon after, it was Eriksen who kept his cool, sliding the ball forward for Elanga again. This time he squared to Jadon Sancho to give his side the lead.
As the game wore on, the signs of fatigue began to show, and as Liverpool soaked up possession, the midfield vulnerabilities began to creep through again, highlighting the need for a proper defensive midfielder.
Following his move from Real Madrid, Casemiro was officially announced as a new United signing ahead of the match and was unveiled in front of a packed Old Trafford. Just as with the unveiling of their last Galactico grab, Raphael Varane, it had the desired effect on the crowd.
There is no question that, when fit, the Brazilian starts for United, and there might no longer be too much debate about who he starts alongside either.
In days gone by, he would have been part of a deep-lying duo with either Fred or McTominay, but after the performance against Liverpool, there is certainly evidence to back him as a lone operator, with two others ahead of him.
The arrival of Casemiro will only further improve United’s midfield presence and, as such, give further licence for Ten Hag to indulge in his attacking talents, which are so crucial to anything good the side does.