Erik ten Hag admitted that Manchester United played better after Cristiano Ronaldo came off the bench against Brighton on an opening day.
Ten Hag’s tenure as manager began with a 2-1 loss to the Seagulls at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon. Many of the issues that plagued the reigns of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick were on display, with Pascal Gross scoring twice in nine first-half minutes to put Brighton in command.
Marcus Rashford missed a few good chances in the second half, and Lisandro Martinez was denied by a last-ditch Lewis Dunk block. They got on the board after Robert Sanchez botched a corner and Alexis Mac Allister scored an odd own goal from close range.
Ten Hag opted to leave Ronaldo on the bench and play Christian Eriksen as a withdrawn forward in United’s starting line-up, with the new signing supported by Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, and Jadon Sancho. The decision did not pay off and Ronaldo was introduced off the bench in the 53rd minute for Fred.
Although he didn’t score, Ronaldo made an immediate impact, with his run in behind setting up Rashford’s effort, which was saved by Sanchez. The 37-year-old striker has endured a rollercoaster off-season in which he missed the pre-season tours for personal reasons and then declared he wanted a transfer.
Ten Hag said before kick-off that he left Ronaldo on the bench because 45 minutes of match action – against Rayo Vallecano last weekend – was not sufficient practice. But in his post-match press conference, he admitted the impact his wantaway forward made.
“It is clear to see [that in] the second half we were better in midfield with Eriksen down and Ronaldo up,” Ten Hag said. “We created and Rashford had two good chances, it is a shame we did not score.”United came into the match with no fully fit central striker after Anthony Martial picked up a hamstring injury in pre-season. With Rashford better on the left-hand side and Mason Greenwood unavailable, Ronaldo was the only out-and-out center-forward in the squad.
While he recognized Ronaldo’s impact, Ten Hag reasserted his decision to leave the star on the bench. “If he was available, the striker [Martial], I would have played him,” he said. “Cristiano Ronaldo is now 10 days in team training, too short for 90 minutes. That is the reason we didn’t start him.”
Ronaldo cut a frustrated figure on the substitutes’ bench during the first half and was shown throwing his hands up in the air following Gross’ opening goal. United went in at the break 2-0 down, but Ten Hag waited another eight minutes to turn to Ronaldo.
With Fred going off, Eriksen was moved further back into midfield, allowing Ronaldo to move up front in a more traditional front three, with Rashford and Sancho. United improved, dominating possession, but could not make their five shots on target count.