Reports – Erik ten Hag transformed Manchester United with three changes vs Aston Villa

There was a startling whiff of marijuana in the first-half, as though a supporter was convinced it was the only high they would experience all evening. The second was more stimulating.

Four goals in 22 madcap minutes transformed an unwatchable League Cup tie into a watchable one. That ball would not yet drop at the feet of the substitute Alejandro Garnacho and the Manchester United supporters were already on their feet.

Garnacho had more standing ovations in his half-an-hour than an actor during awards season. To add to his goal in San Sebastian were two assists, the first a winning one for Bruno Fernandes.

United’s season will resume not in the Premier League but the League Cup with a fourth round tie in the days between the World Cup final and the Boxing Day fixtures. For a club certain to stray close to six years sans silverware, they have to end that drought as soon as possible and the League Cup was a gateway for greater things for their last great side under Sir Alex Ferguson.

Instrumental to their name being in the draw was Fernandes. However much the Portuguese has underwhelmed for upwards of a year, it is counter-productive to reassign him the role of winger. He was relocated there against Chelsea and Sheriff last month and started on the right for the second game running.

As he did last week, Fernandes refused to be stuck as the square peg rammed into a round hole to accommodate the struggling Donny van de Beek and he teed up Anthony Martial for United’s first goal. Once he replaced Van de Beek, Fernandes was in his element, drawing the only dependable act of ‘keeping from Robin Olsen all night and settling an engrossing second-half.

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That Fernandes accommodated Van de Beek as the No.10 bordered on the satirical, Ten Hag reluctant to abandon his compatriot and pupil he developed into a £40million United signing. Van de Beek would struggle to command a quarter of that fee now. His first impact in the 13th minute was a clumsily mistimed foul and for the third game running he was hooked around the hour mark.

Ten Hag beckoned over Van de Beek in the 34th minute and that was the only other occasion he was noticeable in a humdrum first-half where the 14 changes across both teams were to the contest’s detriment. Van de Beek had a pitiful 11 touches in the first 45 minutes. Goalkeeping debutant Martin Dubravka had more.

When Fernandes moved infield, he earned an enticing free-kick for Rashford and was involved in a rare move of first-half fluidity. Still, the half ended with Fernandes shanking a free-kick like a golfer with the yips that typified its absence of quality.

As much as Fernandes may madden Ten Hag, he has the requisite mentality of a United player. Van de Beek doesn’t and this, an undeserved third successive start, confirmed what any objective observer already knew: he appears a write-off.

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United were dominant once the classy Christian Eriksen entered with Garnacho and Anthony Elanga with Villa 2-1 up (Eriksen and Elanga warmed up during the interval). Garnacho’s beautifully placed pass that Scott McTominay cushioned in for the clincher was so expert he could have been mistaken for Eriksen or Paul Scholes.

Placards spelling out ‘Glazers out’ were brandished above the Stretford End tunnel for the teams’ entrance in possibly Old Trafford’s penultimate home fixture of the year. The protests have not deterred the six siblings across the Atlantic, none of whom have visited Manchester since the opening weekend.

The more tribal scent of cordite had only started drifting into the night sky from the away end when United promptly equalised. Two goals inside the first four minutes of the second-half went some way to airbrushing the first-half from supporters’ memories and for Martial it was his fourth goal of the season in six appearances.

On an evening Ten Hag started without United’s four most important players, their midfield and centre halves were bypassed effortlessly by Jacob Ramsey’s pass and Ollie Watkins’ pace for the opening goal. Lisandro Martinez received the loudest reception of the United substitutes, replete with a new chant to 2 Unlimited’s There’s No Limit, and his covering is as underrated an asset as his distribution. Martinez emerged belatedly and renewed acquaintances with Leon Bailey.

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With no Premier League football at Old Trafford until after Christmas, a sizeable crowd was present. Villa sold out their allocation and their Little Englander contingent was in a reasonable voice, heckling Rashford with a perverse rendition of ‘you’re just a s–t Danny Welbeck’ when their own English forwards were not granted airport lounge access for the flight to Qatar. Rashford responded with a goal.

Prior to Eriksen’s entrance, the limited passing range of McTominay and Fred was patent, with the former failing to find Rashford in the 15th minute with a passing opportunity Eriksen would have passed. Fred passed up umpteen opportunities to find an onside Rashford and when the ball was eventually played he was off. Fernandes, darting inside, could not conceal his frustration at the limitations.

McTominay was not the only one improved by Eriksen. Ten Hag protected Martial on his first start in almost five weeks with his withdrawal 16 minutes into the second-half and whereas the changes a week ago against Real Sociedad were a hindrance, this time they were a help.

Rashford returned to the tip of the arrow and was this time sharp, seizing on a loose ball from Ashley Young’s challenge to nervelessly equalise for the second time after Diogo Dalot lucklessly deflected Bailey’s header into his own net. With Garnacho haring down the wing and Eriksen pulling the strings, United gained control and the crowd was stimulated.