Trip to Tottenham offers truer test of where Manchester United really stand | Manchester United

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Manchester United and Erik ten Hag started the season with a home victory in front of a packed Old Trafford but it was a performance that gave them plenty to ponder rather than a platform. The last campaign began with two defeats and much outcry about whether Ten Hag could turn things around and the atmosphere felt flat on Monday after beating Wolves. It was thoroughly undeserved and slightly more clinical opponents would have been out of sight. A trip to Spurs on Saturday evening should provide a fascinating barometer of where United stand.

The way Wolves’ Matheus Cunha glided through a nonexistent midfield is a cause for concern. Casemiro was brought in last summer to provide the steel needed to remove a soft underbelly but he was often left to put out fires alone on Monday, with the new pairing of Bruno Fernandes and Mason Mount ahead of him.

Forming on-pitch relationships is not straightforward, even for such an experienced midfield triumvirate. It will take time for them to find an understanding, especially when Mount often played in a more offensive position for Chelsea. He is learning about his teammates and will aim to leave behind a forgettable debut.

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Considering the quality Mount and Fernandes possess going forward, one or both may need to adapt to a new role to get the balance right for the team. They were eager to press high and win the ball back against Wolves because they can do damage in the final third. When opponents beat the high press, though, their defensive attributes – or lack thereof – are highlighted. It may require one of the two to push up, rather than both, to bring a more pragmatic approach. Mount would seem the more malleable of the two, who could be turned into a No 8, even if Fernandes wears the number on his back. Ten Hag has experience of asking players to take on unfamiliar roles.

“Christian Eriksen had the same [when he arrived] – the first time in his life he played in a deeper role,” Ten Hag said. “There was the ambition from Christian, and also from Mason because he wants to be more multifunctional and that’s how I see football. It will not come overnight – there is a process we have to go through. He has the game intelligence, he has the technical abilities, he also has good vision on the ball, he knows how to deal with the ball, he has the dynamics, he has the mentality, so all the ingredients are there to do it.”

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Bruno Fernandes and Mason Mount
Bruno Fernandes (left) and Mason Mount are still forming their on-pitch partnership. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

Last August’s defeats by Brighton and Brentford resulted in plenty of tinkering of personnel and formation as Ten Hag tried to find the right balance. This year is different – he is in a position of strength and has more time to get things right – and so the manager is more likely to back the midfield trio. Ten Hag made sure United bought Casemiro and Mount, and selected Fernandes as his captain. These are three people he sees as crucial to his plans and he will not back down because of a lacklustre performance against Wolves.

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“In possession, we were absolutely no good,” Ten Hag said. “The players made so many unforced errors, and it was very below our standards and what I am used to from my players and what my players are capable of. It can happen – it is the form of one day. I have already seen in pre-season they can do much better, I saw last season they can do much better, so I am sure they will improve quickly.”

There is work going on at United to bolster the squad, especially after they allowed Fred to leave for Fenerbahce. Scott McTominay and Eriksen, both of whom came on in an attempt to bring greater midfield control, were on the bench on Monday but are likely to remain substitutes at Tottenham.

One player Ten Hag had hoped would make an early season impact is the teenager Kobbie Mainoo. The central midfielder impressed during pre-season but sustained an injury on tour and is set to be out until October. Born in nearby Stockport, the 18-year-old played against Arsenal and Real Madrid in the US but will have to wait his turn.

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Casemiro had a fantastic first season with United, changing the dynamic of the side by providing intelligence and robustness to a previously weak collective. It was a tough season for the Brazilian, who will turn 32 in February, and he is likely to need more assistance to avoid being overburdened and in turn fatigued long before the campaign concludes. United need a fresh and active Casemiro.

Tottenham will pose a different threat to Wolves, with Dejan Kulusevski and Son Heung-min looking to cut inside into vacant areas while Casemiro keeps an eye on James Maddison. This will make it all the more important for Mount and Fernandes to abide by their defensive duties. United could otherwise suffer like they did against Wolves but cannot count on such profligate finishing.

The midfield could make or break United’s season but Ten Hag has credit in the bank. “I am sure we will get it right but it is not coming overnight,” he said. “If it was easier, everyone would do it.”

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