Manchester United fell to a narrow defeat to Atletico Madrid on Saturday afternoon, with the Spanish outfit adopting their usual rugged game plan to overcome the mediocre Red Devils.
How did United set up?
Due to the hectic schedule, this weekend – with Erik Ten Hag’s team playing twice in two days- the squad has been divided into predominantly a first and second team (for the games against Atletico Madrid and Rayo Vallecano respectively).
There was a chance for new signing Tyrell Malacia to impress just one week before the season starts, with the Dutchman picked from the get-go, but it was a familiar story for Donny van de Beek who started on the bench.
Jadon Sancho was ruled out prior to kick-off through illness, with Anthony Elanga starting in his place.
There were two fresh new faces on the bench, with new signings Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martinez part of the travelling squad.
Here were the starting lineup and substitutes…
Starting XI: David De Gea (GK), Diogo Dalot (RB), Harry Maguire (CB), Victor Lindelof (CB), Tyrell Malacia (LB), Scott McTominay (CM), Fred (CM), Bruno Fernandes (CAM), Anthony Elanga (RW), Marcus Rashford (LW), Anthony Martial (ST).
Subs: Tom Heaton, Matej Kovar, Ethan Laird, Lisandro Martinez, Alex Telles, James Garner, Donny van de Beek, Christian Eriksen, Facundo Pellistri.
How it went down
It was an intense start to the game from Atletico Madrid, with Diego Simeone’s men pressing high up the pitch from the moment the whistle was blown.
United managed to create an early opening, though, with Malacia playing a great lobbed pass down the left flank to release Rashford. He worked it around Stefan Savic and fired an effort towards the goal, but Jan Oblak was equal to it.
Martial had a golden opportunity moments later. After the defender completely misjudged the movement of the ball, Martial was released in behind, but the Frenchman lifted his effort narrowly wide over the crossbar when one-on-one with the keeper.
The half was a feisty one, with both sides susceptible to making petulant fouls. Elanga in particular was the victim of a few cynical challenges, with the Swede’s pace causing concern for the opposition. The flow of the game was often disrupted and chance creation throughout the half was minimal.
High tensions were epitomised when McTominay went flying into Oblak when trying to contest for a header in the six-yard box. The Slovenian stopper went down holding his face in the 41st minute and a brawl subsequently played out. Both players were booked following a feisty couple of minutes.
United definitely edged the half, but the score remained 0-0.
There were no changes at halftime from Ten Hag, who was looking to give the majority of his starting players a full ninety minutes with the Premier League opener against Brighton just over one week away.
The game took a similar tone to how it did in the first half it was scrappy and lacking quality. Madrid, who were only playing their second game of pre-season so far, changed nine players on the hour mark, with star names such as Antoine Griezmann and Joao Felix entering the fray.
Ten Hag then made the decision to bring on van de Beek and Christian Eriksen to spark some life into a drab United side, with the latter coming on to make his debut for his new club.
Eriksen showed immediately what he can bring to the team. The Danish midfielder pinged a delightful ball into the path of Rashford and Martial from the left-hand side not long after his introduction, but it was just too high for his forwards to reach. It was easily the best pass of the game. The crowd- dominated by United fans- made their love for Eriksen clear, with the 30-year-old cheered every time he touched the ball, not to mention the standing ovation he got when taking a corner at the Ullevaal Stadium in Oslo.
Malacia showed his attacking intent on the 74th minute when he rounded off a darting run with a shot, but the effort was narrowly high and wide.
Maguire then had one of the best opportunities he will ever have from a corner, but the skipper somehow missed the target from close range after Eriksen delivered an inch-perfect corner on his head.
Elanga was swapped for Pellistri with thirteen minutes remaining, and the Uruguayan was right in the thick of the action just minutes later when he picked up the remains of Rashford’s blocked shot that had fired off Savic. It was a poor effort from Pellistri, though, who maybe ought to have squared it to Fernandes inside the area.
Felix then dealt the hammer blow to snatch the win for Atletico in the 86th minute. After receiving the ball in space on the left of the pitch from Alvaro Morata, the Portuguese forward edged it out of his feet beyond Dalot and fired low and hard beyond a helpless De Gea, who was simply rooted to the spot.
The end of the game became even more sour when Fred received a second yellow card for a stupid kickout on Morata in stoppage time, with Garner coming on for Pellistri in the very last moments as United stared down the barrel of defeat for the first time under the new boss.
Final score: Manchester United 0-1 Atletico Madrid (Felix 86’)
Man of the match
In a game that lacked much fluidity, Tyrell Malacia put in a solid showing at left-back against Los Colchoneros. The new signing looked calm and composed under pressure throughout the first half when Atletico Madrid tried to press from the front and looked solid all-around in relation to his defending.
The 22-year-old showed his eye for a pass beyond the opposition defence when he unleashed Rashford and Martial in behind in the first half, and the former Feyenoord man completed a darting run and shot in a drab second half.
It was nothing exquisite from Malacia on Saturday, but it is good to see a new signing looking comfortable in the manager’s playing style. Hopefully, the competition for the starting left-back spot will continue.
The bigger picture
As is the case with every pre-season game, the result is nothing to get carried away over. A win is a win and a loss is a loss- fans ought to look at the bigger picture.
The defeat was another reality bite for fans, pundits, and probably Ten Hag himself ahead of the new season. It was made abundantly clear that new signings are still needed; whilst Malacia and Eriksen looked good and Martinez will likely follow suit, more additions are needed for the team to build consistency.
The sequences of play were very similar to how Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had United playing, with Maguire hitting aimless long balls, the right-hand side being rather neglected, Fernandes having a lack of positional sense, Rashford being unpredictable in his decision making and Martial operating in what can only be described as a graveyard shift.
Things have to change in relation to players coming in. Nobody would be overly surprised if the Reds went unbeaten in the first few league games, as the quality is definitely there when the players are on form, but the thin squad depth will start to hit home when the winter months come around and we are competing on four fronts on a Thursday-Sunday schedule.
For yet another year, Manchester United Football Club are heading into the Premier League season with Fred and McTominay as the starting midfielders. It is baffling when you think about it. It is important to stress that it is not their fault, though, and the blame lies with the incompetent people behind the scenes who continue to preach about backing a manager with the ‘new United’ philosophy. Time will tell of course whether Ten Hag is truly being backed.
Next up for Ten Hag and Man United is Rayo Vallecano at Old Trafford on Sunday 31st July, with the game kicking off at 16:00 (BST).