A stress-free night with no injuries for Manchester United is just what Erik ten Hag needed. He can thank the football lords for the Carabao Cup.
“I’m sure [people] will criticise the fact that the team that plays on Tuesday night might be different. Is the Premier League more important to a club like Crystal Palace than the Carabao Cup? Unfortunately it is.”
This was what Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson had to say in the build-up to Tuesday night’s Carabao Cup tie at Old Trafford.
This must have been music to the ears of Erik ten Hag, who we know takes the Carabao Cup very seriously. Last season the Dutchman fielded strong teams in the competition from the early rounds; his decision to play important players from the first kick against Aston Villa was justified as the Red Devils won the competition. That credit in the bank could become very valuable further down the line.
Hodgson used the trip to Old Trafford to hand starts to Dean Henderson, Rob Holding, Nathaniel Clyne, Chris Richards, Jesurun Rak-Sakyi and Jairo Riedewald, while Ten Hag was able to give Sofyan Amrabat a full debut, although his starting position raised a few questions.
On paper, Amrabat was lined up at left-back next to Harry Maguire, with Mason Mount and Alejandro Garnacho ahead of him. Was Ten Hag trying out the trendy inverted left-back? Was he desperate to find a role for Amrabat? Or is he actually a left-back?
Any which way, he got some important minutes in the bank, which was big for Ten Hag, whose team approached the game strongly and dominated from the very start, as they should have done. It wasn’t just the performance that will make the United boss happy on a night full of positives, which is not something we have said in a long, long time.
Amrabat and Raphael Varane got an hour after both came on late at Burnley on Saturday, Anthony Martial got a chance to lead the line and scored, Facundo Pellistri showed that he is a more than viable option on the right, Harry Maguire had a solid game, Donny van de Beek got some minutes at the end, and massively, Mason Mount made his return from injury, playing the first half.
Amrabat cruised it on the ball and looked in good shape physically, even if he wasn’t fully tested on a very comfortable evening for the Red Devils. Perhaps his existence gave Casemiro a kick up the backside as well, because that performance was comfortably his best of the season.
It has been a difficult start to the campaign for the Brazilian and his wonderful header and even better assist in a terrific all-around performance is a very good sign. Hopefully for Ten Hag’s sake, he can kick on and return to the form he showed last season.
Casemiro’s performance was one of several positives for a club riddled with negatives. Injuries have greatly hindered United’s chances of starting the season well, with Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia’s absences seeing Ten Hag sign Tottenham outcast Sergio Reguilon on an emergency loan.
Getting through the game against Palace with no new injury concerns was almost as important as a good performance on the pitch. Ten Hag got both, with those who have been struggling to stay fit impressing in the minutes they were given.
Of course, Hodgson’s team selection presented the opportunity for a productive evening, but given the Red Devils’ luck in recent months, it would not have been a surprise to see a scrappy penalty shootout win with an Amrabat and Mount injury to boot. It is time to use this momentum to get their season up and running.
As for Crystal Palace, their priority is clearly the Premier League; Hodgson has literally admitted that. This defeat will not define the Eagles’ season, although the fans would have loved a nice cup run, even if they knew a trip to Old Trafford was far from a dream draw.
If only Manchester United could play in the Carabao Cup against a club with their priorities elsewhere every week, eh?