Christian Eriksen’s deep-lying creative spark gives Manchester United something they were missing

On a low-key evening at Old Trafford, amid a disjointed Manchester United performance and after a defeat by Real Sociedad to start Erik ten Hag’s first European campaign in charge, there was one positive: the same positive there has been for several weeks, now. Just as he did in the win over Arsenal on Sunday and the victory at Leicester City last week, Christian Eriksen impressed in the midfield role that he has fulfilled since aborted experiments as a false nine and number six.

Eriksen’s vision, composure and ability to break lines with his passing from midfield is the sort of thing that United have missed for several years in that area of the pitch, something that they can now call upon. At points during a flat first half, as a line-up with a smattering of second-string players struggled for fluency, he was the one of the few players who looked likely to make something happen.

There was the delicately weighted cross, played from the inside-right channel, that hovered invitingly for Cristiano Ronaldo to nod home, but he missed his header. Another through ball split la Real’s defensive line and played Ronaldo in one-on-one but a heavy touch put paid to the move. If United’s second-choice centre-forward failed to take this chance to impress, he could not complain that he was not getting any service.

Not during the first half, at least. As despite the scoreline still being level at half time, Eriksen was substituted at the interval. Based on his performance, he did not deserve to be hooked. But given the number of minutes he has already accumulated under Ten Hag this season, given the strain that it would put on any player’s body, perhaps Ten Hag’s decision should come as no surprise.

This was the seventh consecutive game that Eriksen has started, being trusted in every one of United’s outings since his arrival on free transfer. Three of those appearances have lasted the full complement of 90 minutes. The shortest still lasted 85. The 30-year-old has proved that he is still capable of meeting the physical demands of elite football after his recovery from cardiac arrest but he has played a lot of football by even the fittest of players’ standards.

And though the sample size is small, the early evidence suggests that United will struggle without Eriksen on the pitch. Shorn of his influence, United floundered in the second half, managing just one shot on target – a late, speculative effort from Casemiro that was comfortably dealt with. His replacement, Bruno Fernandes, was typically ambitious with his own range of passing, but from a more advanced position. United missed Eriksen’s impact from deep.

Christian Eriksen did not enjoy his return to Brentford but has improved dramatically

(AP/Ian Walton)

The loss of the Dane’s creativity was compounded by the simultaneous substitution of Diogo Dalot, who enjoyed yet another impressive outing at right-back, also finding Ronaldo with a through ball in behind after a quarter of an hour that the five-time Ballon d’Or winner not only miscontrolled, but collected in an offside position. It was then Dalot’s cross that Ronaldo headed in off the underside of the crossbar, briefly leading him to believe he had given United the lead, only to see the flag go up once more.

When the right-back departed, that threat from wide was largely lost. Again, his substitution should not come as a surprise. Like Eriksen, Dalot has started all seven of United’s games this season. In the 23-year-old’s case, he has only been substituted once and even then, on 85 minutes. Ten Hag has to rest both players as and when he can, and the fact that Eriksen and Dalot’s absences were felt pointed to a deeper problem in United’s squad, one that even the record spend of £229m in the summer transfer market could not correct.

There is not currently another player in this squad capable of the deep-lying playmaking that Eriksen has provided to United in these opening weeks of the campaign. There is also not the right-back with the expansive, front-foot abilities of Dalot. In other words, neither player has adequate cover, or at least not cover that Ten Hag is currently willing to trust, based on his selections.

Aaron Wan-Bisska was named among the substitutes on Thursday night but is still waiting to make his first start under United’s new manager. Fred is perhaps the immediate replacement for Eriksen but does not have the same line-breaking, game-changing abilities on the ball and a first-half experiment deploying him as a No 10 largely failed. The rebirth of Donny van de Beek’s United career under a manager who knows and trusts his abilities is still waiting to begin.

United’s window addressed some of the holes in Ten Hag’s squad but not all and this defeat to open the Europa League campaign was the first tangible sign that they are still a little short, having to depend on players with unique skillsets in the squad, on a night when they should really be resting. How Ten Hag manages this over the course of the season will likely dictate how successful his first year at Old Trafford is, and whether United find themselves playing Europa League football again this time next year.

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