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Manchester United steamroll Liverpool in preseason opener

We won a trophy already, and it comes with desktop fans…

Liverpool v Manchester United - Preseason Friendly Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

Jadon Sancho, Fred, Anthony Martial, and Facundo Pellestri all found the back of the net as Manchester United rolled to a 4-0 win over Liverpool in Erik Ten Hag’s first match in charge.

Beating Liverpool is always nice but as it’s the first preseason match the scoreline means absolutely nothing. What’s important in these matches is the opportunity for new manager Erik Ten Hag to see how the players are implementing his new system and allow the players to regain their fitness. After all, some United players haven’t played any football matches in the past month!

While there’s very little to take away from a preseason match, there were statements made by Erik Ten Hag with his actions over the past two days. On Monday, Ten Hag announced that Harry Maguire will be retaining the captaincy for the coming season. Given the language he used there were questions over how definitive a statement Ten Hag was making - though some of that could have been lost in translation.

Ten Hag’s stance was reinforced with his team selection Tuesday. He easily could have evaded the question Monday, said something along the lines of he’s not sure who the captain will be but Maguire is a candidate. Even if Maguire was fit he could have then mixed up his players into two 45 minute units with Maguire coming on at halftime and someone else wearing the armband to start the match.

Instead Ten Hag came out with a definitive claim about his captain, then selected a team that going back to the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era would be conceived as his strongest XI, deploying them in the familiar 4-2-3-1 that has gotten the best out of the players at hand.

It’s only one match, and it’s only the preseason, new signings are (hopefully) bound to come in and shake things up further (I mean, they have to right?) and Cristiano Ronaldo could still return to the fold, but Ten Hag made a statement regarding his pecking order Tuesday.

While the scoreline and performance may have come as a shock to many, perhaps it shouldn’t have. Sure new signings are expected and Harry Maguire missed the game with a knock but the team United put on the pitch could conceivably be the starting XI in United’s opening match of the season against Brighton. It’s inconceivable that the team Jurgen Klopp selected could be the starting XI when Liverpool begin their campaign against Fulham.

There were plenty of bright spots for United. The return of Anthony Martial allowed fans to see for the first time the dynamic front three - of Martial, Marcus Rashford, and Jadon Sancho - that they’d been dreaming about since 2020. With Martial at the helm United’s looked full of energy and organization for the first time since the first half of the 2019-20 season when they pressed with Martial, Rashford, and Dan James.

Fans got their wish of seeing Rashford start on the left wing with Sancho on the right, though it must be noted after 10 minutes the two swapped side and within two minutes Sancho had a goal. That’s the beauty of having a dynamic front unit, they can interchange freely making it very hard to defend.

Sancho’s goal - coincidentally - came from the exact same pattern that United were shown to be working on in a video that went viral taken from their training session on Monday.

United overloaded the left side before working it back across to an interior forward on the right who chips in a cross for the back post. This time rather than Sancho playing the cross to a breaking Rashford, it was Bruno Fernandes overhitting his cross to Anthony Martial. The play didn’t come off as intended, but the pattern was there, as was Sancho to clean up the rebound.

United’s front three looked lively as they took plenty of opportunities to run at Liverpool’s makeshift backline. The energetic press caused problems for Liverpool’s youngsters and at the half hour mark Fred doubled the score with a cheeky chip of Allison from the top of the box. It was the same shot he attempted in the late stages of United’s 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge last season but that time it didn’t come off.

Before you could blink Anthony Martial made it 3-0 after his defensive pressure caused a turnover. Several areas of Martial’s game stood out, specifically his defensive work and hold up play. These are things we know Martial is capable of but as always the question will he do these things consistently?

Both teams played like their starting XI’s suggested, United like there was something on the line tonight, Liverpool like this was a preseason match. Despite the scoreline it wasn’t all roses for United.

United were consistently picked apart in transitions with a makeshift Liverpool side finding it far too easy to slice right through United’s midfield. United’s clean sheet came from a combination of nice saves from David De Gea, and Liverpool squandering several oppotunities that they’d typically finish.

It’s no surprise to anyone that United have a weakness in midfield and this match looked like one where United didn’t have any. Scott McTominay played the match like someone who knew WhoScored wasn’t counting player’s touches. Like previous years under Solskjaer, United were most potent when bypassing the midfield. All of United’s attacks came from the thing we know Rashford and Sancho can do, counter attack and run at defenders. If you want to see United build up through midfield you’ll have to wait until another day.

The second half was merely a training exercise. Ten Hag introduced 10 new players for the second half, including Alex Telles as a makeshift center back as United needed to make up the numbers. Donny Van de Beek featured aa the number 10 with Amad Diallo playing as a makeshift striker. Youngsters Zidane Iqbal and Charlie Savage took over in midfield.

You would hardly expect such a makeshift and inexperienced side to do anything and they didn’t. They had one opportunity on a counter attack and they took it very well, with Facundo Pellestri and Amad combining nicely while Eric Bailly entertained with a daring run forward.

Zidane Iqbal also impressed in the second half with his ability to show for the ball and play through tight spaces. This is where the difficulty in finding a balance in preseason comes in. Ten Hag will obviously want to give as much time as possible to his top players so they could learn the system and gel, but you’re not going to learn much about a player like Iqbal unless you give him some minutes alongside first team midfielders and see if he can hang with the first team.

If you’ve made it this far, then even I must say you’re putting entirely too much stock into one preseason match. It was a fun game to watch - undoubtedly helped by the lack of midfield - and it was enjoyable. That’s really the most you can ask for from a preseason match, but don’t forget, we learned nothing from this.