Football Features

“He’s here to light up the Premier League” – Five things you may have missed as Man Utd lose to Atlético Madrid

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 15:46, 30 July 2022

Atlético Madrid have stolen a 1-0 win against 10-man Manchester United in a pre-season friendly in Norway.

The Red Devils dominated the game from start to finish but got picked off by a late goal from Joao Felix.

Here are five things you may have missed:

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1. No Country For Old Kings

“Sunday, the King plays,” wrote Cristiano Ronaldo on Instagram, indicating that Manchester United’s no. 7 will make his pre-season bow against Rayo Vallecano at Old Trafford.

Cristiano bowed out of United’s pre-season tour citing personal reasons, and in that time Jorge Mendes has been desperately trying to find him a new club. Those attempts have been fruitless and, for now at least, Ronaldo will play.

But the question is… how well?

What we saw against Atleti was a Manchester United side utterly committed to a physically demanding pressing game. Whenever the Red Devils lost the ball, they flew back in to recover it as soon as possible. Erik ten Hag has clearly set his demands high, and his players look more than willing to meet them.

United played just as fast with the ball, flying forwards with direct runs into space and using the pace and physicality of their forwards. Even in the sweltering heat of the Olso afternoon, United ran as hard as you can imagine. They burst in behind with drive and fury and tried to exploit the spaces in behind.

At the age of 37, is Cristiano Ronaldo capable of playing this kind of football? The initial reaction would be: no. Further reactions would indicate: no. He could certainly surprise people, but it doesn’t seem likely at this point. He doesn’t have what it takes.

Sunday, the King plays… but maybe he should respectfully abdicate the throne.

2. Right Said Fred

“McFred” is the nickname Manchester United fans have given the double pivot of Scott McTominay and Fred, and the duo are oft-lamented for their lack of quality. However while McTominay is still blundering around like an angry, shaved bear – Fred is starting to strut his stuff.

The Brazilian was excellent against Atleti right up until his late red card for a second yellow. His pressing and harrying was as on point as ever but with the whole team engaged, Fred was no longer breaking shape to go and press but simply moving as part of the side.

Then with the ball Fred looked a different player altogether. Whereas last season there were flashes of quality, now he appeared consistently decisive and confident, pushing the ball forward much more often than he has previously, finding his team-mates in dangerous positions.

The late red was disappointing, but even that was slightly unfortunate and only came in service of his relentless pressing.

While the “Mc” part of “McFred” still needs a lot of work – there’s no doubt that United’s Brazilian is making huge strides under Erik ten Hag and could end up playing a massive role as a key midfielder this coming season.

3. Atleti’s super squad

Atlético Madrid started a very good XI against Manchester United. They were starting club legend Jan Oblak, defensive stalwarts José Gimenez and Setfan Savic, the electric Thomas Lemar, Marcos Llorente and Yannick Carrasco plus last season’s best player Angel Correa, Atleti began the game pressing superbly before retreating to defend in numbers and repel United attacks, doing so with ease.

Then with 59 minutes on the clock, Atleti made a whole host of changes… and got better!

On came nine men, including club captain Koke, Copa America winner Rodrigo de Paul, Title-winner extraordinaire Alvaro Morata, €120 wonderkid Joao Felix and World Cup winner Antoine Freakin’ Griezmann! While the defensive strength decreased, the offensive firepower was much greater.

And so it came to pass that Morata set-up Joao Felix to blast Atleti into a barely believeable lead with just five minutes left on the clock. The striker took the ball, feeding Joao Felix coming in off the left and the Portuguese peeled a perfect near-post effort in beyond a motionless David de Gea in the United goal.

Atleti’s squad depth is prepostrous.

4. United’s wrong flank

Jadon Sancho missed today’s game with illness and suddenly United looked about half as good of a side. It wasn’t just in attack where Sancho’s absence was felt, turning the right-flank into “the wrong-flank” as Anthony Elanga floundered whenever United put him into possession and Diogo Dalot suddenly didn’t have any snap in attack.

Defensively United also suffered. Sure, Elanga is a willing worker but without the fear of Jadon Sancho, Atleti didn’t have to overcommit anyone to the left side of their defence, meaning everyone was that much fresher to just attack United down the flanks.

There is obviously no way to sign a back-up who is as good as Jadon Sancho, but Elanga is such a stylistic departure (he’s more suited to being Marcus Rashford’s understudy) that it throws the entire United right-flank off when Sancho is absent. And Diogo Dalot is not good enough to pick up the slack.

With just one week to go before the season starts, United are still in need of reinforcements in attack. And probably right-back too because as well as Dalot has been playing, he has his limits (seen by his awful defending for Atleti’s goal today).

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5. Electric Eriksen

Christian Eriksen played his first minutes for Manchester United today, and they were full of promise. Rocking his new no. 14 shirt, the 30 year-old Dane strolled about the pitch in Oslo with tremendous ease and comfort.

Eriksen’s arrival switched United from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3, and one suspects that will be how United play a lot this season as Eriksen showed that he has absolutely got the quality to start for the Red Devils in competitive games.

Eriksen created United’s two best chances of the half, hell almost of the whole game really. The first was a stupendous cross for Anthony Elange. This thing was flat as a board and seemed to skim across the sky onto the head of the Swede.

The second hance was an unreal corner that looped over every Atleti defender at the near-post to find Harry Maguire, centre of the goal, absolutely unmarked. It looked a stick-on strike but Maguire someone screwed it wide with his head and Eriksen was denied a debut assist.

When asked about his team-mates creative quality, Anthony Elanga was impressed. “Yeah you can see even in training,” said the Swede after the match; “his little touches and the way he scans around the pitch.”

Everyone who assumed Eriksen was arriving to be a back-up will be in for a rude awakening, because Christian Eriksen looks every inch a Manchester United starting XI type of player. Eriksen is here to light up the Premier League again. Absolutely electric.