In conventional wisdom, taking off your best striker when you’re in desperate search of a goal in a game you have to win is seen as a rather peculiar decision.
But for Erik ten hag , taking off Rasmus Hojlund against Sheffield United might have been an admittance of where his priorities lie at present. About maintaining a promise.
manchester united managed to find that vital winning goal at Bramall Lane, from the unlikely source of Diogo Dalot . It was far from a convincing performance but it was progress as the side won back-to-back Premier League matches for the first time in the campaign.
It’s hardly worth screaming from the rooftops over but United are starting to build what could eventually become momentum at an opportune time. They return to Champions League action on Tuesday evening in need of an even more important win.
Like the season at large, the return to Europe’s top competition has not begun how anyone would have wanted. Two games and two defeats leave United in a perilous position in the group. Any more slip-ups could prove fatal to qualifying for the knock-out stages.
United welcome FC Copenhagen to Old Trafford on Tuesday with a lot of pressure to finally get points on the board. A draw or even defeat wouldn’t eliminate them but it would drastically reduce their chances of advancing, especially given they would have two away matches to come and their last home game is against Bayern Munich.
Ten Hag worked extremely hard last season to get the club back into a state fit enough to qualify for the competition and for all that work to be frittered away before the new year would be a travesty. It’s clear how much the competition means to the manager and he outlined returning to it as his biggest target last season.
“We want to win every game, we want to win every competition…but it’s clear we want to be in the Champions League,” the Dutchman said in May. “That is the competition we are now fighting for and I think that is in this moment the only thing we have to focus on because the FA Cup final is after the season. So the only thing we have to do now is get this done.”
Given how much Ten Hag wanted his team in the Champions League, he will be determined to make sure they stay there as long as possible. The best chance of that happening is if he can name as strong a side as possible and Hojlund will be crucial.
The Dane hasn’t brought the consistent goals United needs but his agility and physicality give the side a much stronger focal point. One that helps other forwards come into the game. Not to mention his pace, strength and skill do make him a serious concern for defences.
Hojlund will face his old club on Tuesday and will no doubt be eager to show just how far he has come since departing Copenhagen. With Ten Hag taking him off even when his side was looking for a goal in South Yorkshire, he’s partly looking to keep him rested for the important clash and keep his promise of making sure United stay in the top competition. Where he says they ‘belong.’
United are looking down the barrel of an embarrassing exit. The pressure is on. Ten Hag knows it and is working to ensure it doesn’t come to pass.