Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to Erik ten Hag as he continues his Manchester United revolution is that Wednesday’s superb come-from-behind victory against West Ham no longer qualifies as a surprise – it is the norm.
After all, this was the third time in the last seven games that United had conceded first and rescued something from the game.
True, in the home league game with Leeds, they had only escaped with a draw after spotting their opponents a two-goal lead in that instance.
But in all-or-nothing, sudden death cup ties with Barcelona and West Ham, Ten Hag’s men had conceded bad opening goals and responded with inspirational second half performances that saw them advance in both competitions.
Such displays have, inevitably, drawn comparisons with Sir Alex Ferguson-era United teams but with one key difference.
Those United sides introduced the term “Fergie time” into the English football lexicon thanks to their propensity for the last-minute winner. But Ten Hag’s side have adopted a different model, a less melodramatic but, surely, more effective way of achieving the same end results.
It is also one that the modern five substitutes rule also lends itself to, as Ten Hag’s tactical nous – perhaps it is still a little too early to callout “genius” – makes full use of the 16 players at his disposal.
The spectacular victory over West Ham featured a late goal from Fred and marked the 20th time this season that a substitute had scored a goal for United, in all competitions.
For perspective, 20 goals is more than four teams – Forest, Wolves, Everton and Southampton – have scored in the league all season.
And, of United’s major rivals, Manchester City have three such goals, Liverpool five.
While Fred’s goal had no direct bearing on the outcome of the fifth-round FA Cup tie, the victory was secured by the latest in a number of examples of Ten Hag making vital, and early, substitutions.
Having started the game by making six changes to his Carabao Cup-winning starting line-up, Ten Hag realised the other domestic cup competition was slipping away from him and brought on the ever-dependable Casemiro at half-time.
That was the 18th time this season that Ten Hag had made a substitution at the interval, a significant number, even in the era of five being available off the bench.
Before the hour mark was up, and with United still struggling for an equaliser, Ten Hag opted for two more, Lisandro Martinez and Marcus Rashford and, given the form this season of that particular duo, the outcome of the game should not have come as a surprise.
Why wait until the 95th minute of “Fergie time” to grab your winner, when you can start changing the game so effectively 45 minutes earlier?
But goals change games, as any self-respecting pundit will tell you, and getting 20 of them off the bench so far this season at an average of a shade under half a goal per match is clearly having a major impact on United’s season.
Being able to rely on the likes of Rashford, Anthony Martial and, unlikely as it sounds, Fred to find the net as substitutes has been a key component in Ten Hag’s success to date.
It may be a stretch at this stage to compare the Dutchman’s acumen with that of Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp given their consistent success over recent seasons, but Ten Hag certainly appears to be heading towards such lofty company.
Whether by necessity or invention, Ten Hag’s willingness to be creative with his load management of players has had one major ancillary benefit.
United’s squad is not as deep as many of their rivals, certainly not given the on-going injury problems of Martial, Christian Eriksen, even Donny van de Beek, and the prolonged absences of Jadon Sancho.
But, as he did against West Ham, ten Hag is able to “rotate” by “stealth,” by keeping over-worked figures out of his starting lineup but being prepared to throw them on when the situation demands. In this way, Rashford has been used to produce six of the 20 goals off the bench.
In the case of Wednesday’s match winner Alejandro Garnacho, the process has worked in reverse, with the young Argentinian having started the season as an impact sub off the bench – see the late win at Fulham – before now being considered a reliable starter.
“I see today as another step,” said ten Hag after Wednesday. “I said to him before the game, you have an impact when you come on, now you have to have an impact as a starter. I think he has the capability to do it. That’s the next step he has to make.”
Perhaps no United player has benefitted more from the Ten Hag approach than midfielder Fred, who came into the season with eight United goals to his name in four full seasons and well over 150 games. In 36 games this season, he has found the net six times – 50 per cent of those coming off the bench, including the last two in those thrilling cup wins over Barca and West Ham.
“We have a good season, a good season for myself, it’s important to score and to help my teammates,” said Fred. “Erik has brought energy to our dressing room, so it’s a good season and we need to keep it going. We bring in players with good mentality, now the players that were here before change mentality as well. Everyone is important, now we have one way to go.”