So impressed was Erik ten Hag with the performance of Bruno Fernandes in Saturday’s Manchester derby that he singled him out for special praise. Fernandes is captain when Harry Maguire doesn’t start and, unusually, he was used on the right.
“The idea is with Bruno on the right wing and especially in defending,” Ten Hag said of the shift in tactics. “We defended as usual, but in possession he had a role to come in between the lines to bring an extra player there and bring the opponent problems and create hesitation and confusion. I thought he played that role brilliantly.
“The rest of the team adapted well to the situation and we had really good breaks by finding the free man. Bruno was an important factor in that role and important in the pressing as well. He was my man of the match, definitely.”
Anthony Martial did not have as productive an afternoon as Fernandes and was brought off at half time.
“I hoped to avoid him getting injured but he was complaining,” said Ten Hag, who has now overseen nine consecutive United victories. “That’s why he also didn’t train in the week and was a question mark [for the derby].
“We decided – and he decided as well – to start. He begged to start. I knew the start would be so important in this game and he is really good at pressing and he is a really big element in our pressing.”
By not being fully fit, Martial did not press as well as he had done in previous Manchester derbies.
“I needed to re-evaluate at half-time as you saw he was not capable to go 100 per cent and this is what you need,” explained Ten Hag. “And also to avoid him getting injured so we took him off but it also had a negative impact on our game after half-time.”
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Martial might not be ready to play in United’s next game at Crystal Palace on Wednesday, but it could provide an opportunity to new loan signing Wout Weghorst.
“I have to think about that,” said Ten Hag of whether he will use the Dutch striker. “First to settle down after this game, make the right conclusions and then we will make a clear plan for Palace.
“Of course I know a lot about Palace – we faced them also in pre-season and know how their team is – but the total plan I don’t have now. So from this point on we can construct the plan and prepare the team in the right way.”
United’s fixture schedule is relentless, with ten games between January 3 and February 4 – and that after the intense round of festive fixtures. United have won every game so far, with Saturday’s derby win the most significant. Ten Hag is determined to enjoy it.
“I think every win you have to celebrate,” he said. “You work so hard for such momentum and every win is so great in top football. If can’t celebrate you kill the energy as well. So we have to celebrate, but after it we have to settle down after 24 hours and move on to the next game.
“You have to get in the right rhythm every third day and we have to deliver. The players have to get in the right rhythm from a physical point of view but also mentally – be ready for the next game.”
United’s players enjoyed their brief time off after the derby – though the support staff were straight into working on the Palace game. United’s last game at Selhurst Park was the final game of the 2021-22 season. United were dreadful and lost 1-0. Ten Hag was in the crowd to see it – and to see the size of the job ahead.
The team that day was David De Gea, Alex Telles, Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof, Diogo Dalot, Scott McTominay, Fred, Anthony Elanga, Hannibal Mejbri, Fernandes, and Edinson Cavani. Juan Mata, Alejandro Garnacho and Shola Shoretire came on as substitutes. United were in the middle of losing seven consecutive away league games – a run that lasted until they defeated Southampton in August this season.
Manchester United’s turnaround has been significant since. If Ten Hag’s team avenge that loss at Crystal Palace, they’ll move up to second in the Premier League behind Arsenal – ahead of Sunday’s game against the league leaders.