In a match worthy of being in the Champions League, Manchester United came back from a goal down to knock Barcelona out of the Europa League.
A buoyant side will now head to Wembley on Sunday to try to end their six year wait for a trophy as they take on Newcastle United in the Carabao Cup final.
It will be a hugely difficult tie for a multitude of reasons. The Magpies will enter the contest after getting a full week of rest having last played on the weekend. Eddie Howe has drilled this unit into becoming the stingiest side in the Premier League and they also have a reputation of wasting time to gain an advantage.
United also have a strong defence, marshalled by Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez with adequate cover provided by Casemiro. Throw the red-hot Marcus Rashford into the mix and United have the players to change the complexion of the game in an instant.
Ten Hag’s magical touch
But can they recuperate after such a high-voltage encounter? The biggest ace up United’s sleeve is not the players but manager Erik ten Hag and his brain.
Current United assistant coach Steve McClaren knows a thing or two about game-changing substitutions, having been in the dugout when Sir Alex Ferguson decided to roll the dice by bringing on Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in a certain final in 1999.
The rest, as they say, is history! And he sees that streak in the current United manager as well.
“[Ten Hag] could see things in the game that nobody else could see, myself included,” McClaren told The Athletic. “I have to sit up in the stands to see the patterns of a game, but he could stand on the touchline (and see them).
First time I've seen Sir Alex celebrate a Man Utd goal with fist pumps since he retired 10 years ago.
Erik ten Hag has done miracles on him ❤️pic.twitter.com/AjRDCrEtfE
— UF (@UtdFaithfuls) February 24, 2023
“He always knew the answer to everything, how to change shape, change positions. His adjustments in the games — obviously I had worked with Sir Alex [Ferguson, at United], and I used to think that some of his subs and changes were strange, but they always worked. Erik is the same in that respect.”
And the statistics back up this amazing claim. According to Opta, United have had 19 goals scored by substitutes in all competitions this season, the most of any big five European league side in 2022-23.
And this rate of success is almost freakish but as McClaren pointed out, Ten Hag knows exactly what he wants and he ends up getting it.
Too many times in the recent past, United managers have been reactive instead of being proactive. But not the Dutchman. He makes changes as soon as he feels it is required, often at half-time and they have eventually paid dividends.
Ten Hag always gets it right
Against Barcelona, the ineffective Wout Weghorst was pulled off for Antony, who had just come back from injury, at half-time. And the Brazilian ended up scoring the winner.
Instances like this have been seen across all competitions. In the Manchester derby, it was Alejandro Garnacho who came on and put it on a plate for Rashford to score the winner while Jadon Sancho’s star turn turned a defeat into a draw against Leeds before coming on to win the game against Leicester City last week.
Even in the Europa League, Scott McTominay and Rashford both have come on and changed the game during the group stages.
“We need impact from the bench,” Ten Hag had said in the past. And he has got it time and time again this season. If Ten Hag does not get it right the first time around, you can bet your bottom dollar he will get it right in those 90 minutes.
Another characteristic that he shares with the great Scottish manager is his fiery half-time team talks, which have resulted in a completely different United team reappearing out on the touchline post the break.
Against Leicester, against Barcelona, even against Leeds, the former Ajax coach usually keeps getting a reaction from his players. As Dion Dublin pointed out on MUTV after the Barcelona game, the United players were first out on to the pitch and seemed like they were raring to go unlike the opposition.
And this ability means the Red Devils do not need to fear anybody or any occasion. The Carabao Cup final beckons and the chance to end six years of hurt is almost here.
For fans who are worried about the fixture scheduling, the gaffer has it all under control. “I’m not Harry Potter,” the manager resoundingly admitted recently. On current evidence, he is a terrible liar!
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