Erik ten Hag stated that “the campaign really begins in April and May” then watched as Manchester United’s second Premier League outing of this two-month mini-season ended in them avenging their 4-0 hammering at Brentford in August.
The 2-0 defeat for Ten Hag’s men on Sunday at Newcastle was written up as Eddie Howe’s side having rebounded admirably from Carabao Cup final defeat to United racking up a third consecutive three points. Now, the wisdom went, it was the turn of the Reds to wobble, that reverse making it zero goals and only one point since the Wembley triumph.
There was an attractive zip about United all night under the Old Trafford lights. Two corners, each taken by Luke Shaw, pinned Brentford back. Poorer, though, was how Diogo Dalot kicked the ball straight out when hoping to find Shaw as the Bees’ frontline of Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo pressured United’s intent to play out from near David de Gea’s goal.
Dalot did far better when making a dash into the opposite area: he would have connected with Bruno Fernandes’s diagonal pass if not for a diving Ben Mee clearance, the Portuguese taking up a classic position for a No 9, where Ten Hag had fielded Marcus Rashford as Wout Weghorst was dropped for the first time since his mid-January arrival.
Toney has the tools to enhance any of the traditional top-six sides. Muscularity is one as he showed by shoving Raphaël Varane aside and flicking a downfield pass into Mbeumo but the latter, misreading his strike partner, ran down the wrong channel.
This was a pity for the visitors as United’s dominance meant half-openings were rare and had to be taken, something pressed home when a Marcel Sabitzer free-kick and Scott McTominay’s shot threatened to break the deadlock, then the familiar sight of Antony turning inside and hooking a left-foot effort at goal did the same.
“A great finish,” said Ten Hag. “Once again he is on top and in very good form so hopefully he can keep doing it until the end of the season.”
Brentford were, at this juncture, on the end of a schooling. Even when Toney looked to smash through United’s rearguard Dalot could pinch the ball off his toes with minimum concern. As the break approached Shaw was forced off so the fresh-faced Tyrell Malacia entered – “I can’t say until the morning the diagnosis,” Ten Hag said – but this did little to disrupt the flow of United whose exhibition of tight control, pinpoint passing, and goal threat continued, Rashford and Antony each letting fly after the ball was manoeuvred expertly into the danger zone.
With Newcastle winning at halftime too at West Ham, Ten Hag’s men had extra incentive to seek the security of at least one more goal. Mikkel Damsgaard’s arrowing cross that begged to be finished and Toney’s charge-down of a De Gea clearance that could have gone in underlined this.
A Sancho attempt in a crowded Brentford area, Rashford forcing Pontus Jansson into a last-gasp tackle, and Antony’s slicing cross were rosier signs for United, as they reasserted themselves against a foe who had lost only once in their last 10 outings.
They had rediscovered their pace and rhythm and were strong-arming those in blue, the ball being bounced about with aplomb. But then, Mads Roerslev’s delivery had to be scrambled away, as Brentford indicated they remained in the fight, and Shandon Baptiste’s shot had to be blocked by McTominay.
When another substitute, Kevin Schade, ran in on De Gea the Spaniard stood firm and received a blow in a painful area but he recovered. The bunching up in the race for a top-four finish meant this was not a night for a late capitulation. It did not come. A pensive Ten Hag watched on as a Rashford burst teed up Fred: the replacement blasted over and though the Bees pressed, in the final analysis it did not matter.