Thirty minutes had passed at Old Trafford last Wednesday and Manchester United had already taken 17 shots, albeit with no goals to show their dominance.
The dewclaws were on the back foot. Hugo Lloris’s goal was being riddled. This from a United side that had managed just two shots on goal against Newcastle three days earlier.
Casemiro, finally a United player who can control and manage a game, threw himself into a challenge. His compatriot Antonio ran towards the opponents. Together they were intense, a word that Ten Hag always uses. Urgent.
This was the opposite of the snoring ball played under Louis van Gaal, when East Stand season ticket holders didn’t see a goal at the end for half a season, or the end of Jose Mourinho’s time. The old stadium roared. Fans from all four sides rose from their seats, clenched their fists and shouted: ‘Go ahead!’
United hadn’t played that well for years, and it was also against a very good team. Before the match, the athletic he spoke to four Spurs fans outside the visiting end. They laughed at his historic bad form, but neither thought his team would lose. You could hardly blame them.
The game then started and United dominated for 80 minutes and had 28 shots in the match, the most of any Premier League team this season.
Ball of ten witches.
? 28 shots is the most of any team this season
✨ Fernandes made nine chances, the most by a player in a #PL party from sep 2021
? 1.53 expected goals vs. 0.48 for Spurs
? 222 final third passes vs. 114#MUNTOT | @Man Utd pic.twitter.com/ElzuOCydli
— Premier League (@premierleague) October 19, 2022
And how did the fans respond? It was not an orchestrated reaction. It was more visceral; primal screams of fans waking up from a dream. The team responded. Chicken and egg? Regardless, it was the most complete performance in years, perhaps of the entire post-Ferguson era, and another victory after also beating Liverpool and Arsenal at home.
At Old Trafford, the Red Army section has done well, filling the Stretford End with noise and initiating chants of ‘Get up if you hate the Glazers’. Those chants prompt many around the stadium to stand up, though they eventually have to sit down again, unlike those in the opposite corner where rail seats have been installed.
“We have a secure position, great managers, youth season tickets (16-25 year old fans pay £15 per game) and the atmosphere is growing,” says Ian Stirling, who is at J. “It is building organically, there is a community too, a lot of young people. Soccer will help. When you see the players respond, the crowd responds.”
The declining atmosphere at Old Trafford and other major Premier League grounds has been a problem since all-seater stadiums emerged in the 1990s. A number of clubs have worked with supporters, allocating sections for the more vocal fans. They hardly mimic the lopsided, lively atmosphere of a game in Argentina, but they are an improvement. Away supporters help, particularly organized groups like the 4,500 Omonia fans from Cyprus. Why are so many of Europe’s top fans at Old Trafford wearing green? Saint-Etienne were the best.
However, it wasn’t about organization against Spurs, it was about knee-jerk reaction, which is what players love.
“People have criticized the atmosphere at Old Trafford, but that rush when the team attacks is the most beautiful and natural sound,” said Patrice Evra, who was at the Spurs game. “It’s not staged, it’s not staged, it’s not accompanied by a drum beat. It’s a roar from the fans who are happy that their team is attacking.”
the athletic spoke to Erik ten Hag and Fred about the noise after the Spurs game. Fred required an explanation of the Joy Division adaptation “Fred will tear you apart”, which was sung by the Stretford End, but he loved it.
Ten Hag, in one of the few press conference questions not about Cristiano Ronaldo on Friday (sixteen of 18 questions were about the striker’s early departure) said: “It’s great to play at Old Trafford. With our fans behind us, it’s a great experience. Opponents don’t like coming to Old Trafford, but at the same time I also like away games because the Premier League stadiums are fantastic. I’m really looking forward to Stamford Bridge.”
He was right to expect it, to be able to take a team into a game against a superior opponent and tell them to attack. United attacked their high-profile opponents again, dominating the first half. But as Ten Hag warns, this is a work in progress and won’t run smoothly.
Chelsea came close to winning, although the reaction after Casemiro’s great late header brought more unity. One of the reasons Casemiro and Raphael Varane wanted to play in the Premier League was to play against a tight end. It rarely happened to them in La Liga, because Spain is so much bigger than England and there isn’t the same culture of following a team home and away as there is in the UK.
Sunday’s West Ham will be United’s fifth home game in 18 days (there hadn’t been one for the previous 34 days and the World Cup means there will be a long break between home games in November and December) and Old Trafford has It’s been packed for every game this season, including the Europa League games.
This was not normal in past Europa League campaigns: only one of United’s seven Europa League home games were sold out before they won the tournament in 2017, the semi-final against Celta Vigo. It’s another reason Old Trafford needs to expand, as the club could and should have the highest average home attendance in the world. United have had good support for a long time, but fans have had to reset in more ways than one.
Dare I say it, watching United win week after week at home became predictable in the 1990s and 2000s and was one of the reasons the atmosphere waned. Now United’s hegemony is gone, but there is a belief that Ten Hag, his team and his signings are taking the right steps. In Lisandro Martínez and Casemiro there are emerging cult heroes. Just watch when United score a goal.
Watching United remains unpredictable, but that equates to excitement and tension, which is released when the team performs as it did against Spurs. And how wonderful it sounded.
(Top photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)