By dropping Rashford and winning, Ten Hag has sent a message

Published on: 07 December 2023

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MANCHESTER -- Erik ten Hag has taken back control at Manchester United by proving that no player is bigger than the team. By dropping Marcus Rashford and then seeing his side seal a 2-1 win against Chelsea on Wednesday, Ten Hag has delivered a clear message to the dissenters in the dressing-room.

After days of negative headlines relating to Ten Hag's management style, his hold on the squad and ability to turn the tide and quell unrest among his players, the former Ajax Amsterdam coach put his neck on the block by dropping Rashford and backing United to win without him.

Had it gone the other way, Rashford and those players doubting Ten Hag's credentials would have had grounds to question the manager's methods, but two goals from Scott McTominay -- ironically a player Ten Hag was prepared to offload to West Ham United in the summer -- claimed the points before Rashford was given seven minutes as a late substitute in place of the exhausted Rasmus Hojlund.

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The point had been made: Rashford is a big player at United, but they can win without him and if he wants to regain his place, he will need to earn it.

"When we stick together, have right attitude, we have the performances to collect points," Ten Hag said in his post-match press conference. "You see how we won points -- we dominated our opponent with possession and that's how we want to play.

"Crisis? Not for us. We keep calm, believe in the process. We know what we have to build, and we don't get distracted by criticism around us."

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Every top manager faces make-or-break decisions at some point or other, and Ten Hag has had more than a few since taking charge at Old Trafford in the summer of 2022.

He dropped Cristiano Ronaldo and publicly criticised the forward's conduct before sanctioning his exit from the club midway through last season -- a big call he got right -- and has also consigned Harry Maguire, Jadon Sancho and Raphaël Varane to lengthy spells on the sidelines due to loss of form or indiscipline.

But naming a starting XI without a fit Rashford was arguably Ten Hag's biggest call since arriving at United because the England forward is supposed to be the future -- the exciting forward with the goals and lofty reputation to lead the team back to challenging for major trophies.

Since becoming United's highest-paid player by signing a new five-year contract in the summer, however, Rashford has been anything but the star the club expects him to be, scoring just two Premier League goals all season.

And his woeful, disinterested performance in Saturday's 1-0 defeat at Newcastle United was undoubtedly the nadir of his season so far. His surprised reaction to being substituted by Ten Hag at St James' Park seemed a direct challenge to the manager's authority, as if suggesting that Ten Hag was taking a big gamble by calling him to the bench with almost half an hour to play.

Had he named Rashford in his team against Chelsea, Ten Hag would have given the clear signal that, despite his lack of form, the 26-year-old was undroppable. When the teams were announced and Rashford was named as a substitute, Ten Hag told MUTV, United's in-house channel, that it was merely a case of "rotation," but it was more than that.

Ten Hag challenged his front three of Antony, Hojlund and Alejandro Garnacho to justify his decision to omit Rashford and each of them, in their own way, displayed qualities that Rashford has failed to show this season.

Omitting Marcus Rashford from the starting XI was a bold call from Erik ten Hag but, after beating Chelsea, it's one that define Manchester United's season. Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

Antony was a constant threat, despite his heavy reliance on his left foot, while Hojlund's work-rate was incessant all night. Garnacho showed energy up and down the left flank and his cross led to McTominay's opening goal on 19 minutes.

None of the front three looked as threatening and graceful as Rashford does when in his best form, but United and Ten Hag need commitment and effort to get them out of their malaise and all three of them produced it.

McTominay has those qualities in abundance. Again, he lacks the composure of a top-class player, but Ten Hag can always rely on the Scotland midfielder's effort and tenacity.

If United are ever to return to the summit of the English and European game, they will need more than McTominay's honest attributes to beat the best, but Ten Hag's team is still a work in progress and until the likes of Rashford return to top form, simply doing well at the basics will be a minimum requirement.

And McTominay emerging as the match-winner with his second-half header following Cole Palmer's 44th minute equaliser was perhaps apt on a day when Rashford spent the majority of the game on the bench.

McTominay gets everything out of his skillset with sheer effort and determination, but he is nowhere near as naturally gifted as Rashford.

Yet that is the message to Rashford and others in the squad who are failing to live up to their potential -- effort and commitment can make up for all kinds of deficiencies.

But Ten Hag now knows he can move on with them or without them. His team proved that by beating Chelsea.