And so, as Cristiano Ronaldo had declared, the king was back. Indeed, Old Trafford witnessed a clinical display by a player who has proved prolific in Manchester United games. Not him, admittedly. Pascal Gross became the first footballer to score in United matches in the reigns of all of Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ralf Rangnick and now Erik ten Hag. If it suggests a switch in United’s transfer policy, from the current approach of bidding for anyone with an Ajax connection to going for Gross, may be a logical damage-limitation strategy, his double was delivered while Ronaldo glowered on from the bench.
While Ten Hag brought on the king who had contemplated abdication, to a telling mixture of cheers and jeers, it felt a cunning ploy to prevent him from leaving Old Trafford before the final whistle this week. Instead, Ronaldo first witnessed and then participated in a dispiriting start to a new era. Beaten 4-0 by Brighton in May, United only lost 2-1 to them in August but, in its own way, this was just as depressing. “A new season and a new story,” Ten Hag began his programme notes. It was only half true. If the tale was familiar, the indignities differed in the detail. This was Brighton’s maiden win at Old Trafford. United were almost behind after 15 seconds when Diogo Dalot blundered.
For Ronaldo, the slight came still earlier, when the teamsheets were submitted. There was a period last year when United had Edinson Cavani, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and him at their disposal. Now they began without a striker: a consequence of the Frenchman’s injury and the fact the Portuguese’s pre-season brought just 45 minutes of football but a symbolic sight nonetheless when a player with 815 career goals languished in reserve and a midfielder led the line.
If Christian Eriksen’s career has taken some improbable turns – few others will boast a CV that goes from Inter Milan to Brentford to United – there was another element of the unexpected as his time at Old Trafford began as a makeshift spearhead. It was a sight that showed how United’s plans have gone awry. Had things transpired rather differently, their debutant Scandinavian striker could have been Erling Haaland. United have a proud tradition of centre-forwards from Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The unlikely addition to Solskjaer, Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic was Eriksen.
If it was Ten Hag’s first statement selection, it did not offer immediate vindication. Three decades after United’s most iconic Eric was a transformative presence in their attack, Eriksen lasted 52 minutes in the forward line before taking up his more familiar duties when Ronaldo came on.
Until then, there had been some fluidity among the front four, some moments when United had no one in attack as he retreated into midfield. The Dane was persistent, digging out a shot from an ankle, and offered moments of invention – a backheel in the box, a menacing cross – but he was miscast, looking to his footballing intelligence to compensate to turn him into something he is not in a team who lack the cohesion to excel in a conventional formation, let alone an unorthodox one. Despite a glaring miss, Fernandes would have been a more logical false nine, Rashford a possible genuine striker rather than a left winger. After Ronaldo’s introduction, United were a better team with Eriksen in their midfield or, depending on how it is phrased, without Fred in it. Their goal stemmed indirectly from his driven shot, earning a corner.
It may be a one-off outing in attack, and not merely because he can add class to the midfield. Maybe Ten Hag was trying to recreate his past, to borrow from the blueprint that propelled his Ajax to the Champions League semi-finals. Maybe Eriksen was charged with impersonating Dusan Tadic, a revelation of a false nine, but Ten Hag’s Ajax team were configured more slickly. He donned the No. 14 shirt, Johan Cruyff style, and Ajax had a great false nine, even if the term had not been configured then, in the early 1970s.
Yet false nines tend to excel only for the really well coached teams, those ally high levels of individual ability with understanding. Rangnick used to devote some of his undiplomatic rhetoric to saying United should seek to ape Manchester City and Liverpool. Each has reached rare heights with a false nine. United have not: when Rangnick tried a pair, in Paul Pogba and Fernandes, in the Manchester derby, it was a conspicuous failure.
As Ten Hag emulated his immediate predecessor, in an unsuccessful experiment without a striker, he followed in the footsteps of United’s first Dutch manager: Louis van Gaal’s reign also began with a 2-1 home defeat. Meanwhile, the most effective United forward, past or present, on display here was the relentless Danny Welbeck, a player Van Gaal bombed out. Even as a new reign begins, United’s past is inescapable. Ten Hag is the latest to discover it can drag them down.