When Erik ten Hag revealed Marcus Rashford had been dropped to Manchester United’s bench for “internal disciplinary” reasons during his pre-match interview with BT Sport, those in the studio had to ask him to repeat himself. Perhaps there was a bad line, certainly there was incredulity.
Calmly, Ten Hag said the same two words again. It felt like the starting gun to another story of United unrest. The last player punished by Ten Hag for such issues left the club soon after and is now in Saudi Arabia.
This situation is entirely different, however. By the end of the afternoon, Rashford was explaining why he had been left out of the line-up at Molineux and agreed with the decision. “I was a little bit late for a meeting, I overslept,” he told BT Sport. “It’s the team rules. I think it’s a mistake that can happen but I understand the decision. I’m happy we managed to win the game anyway, and I think we can draw a line under it.”
To the BBC he called punctuality under Ten Hag a “non-negotiable”. His alarm had gone off but, reassuringly for us mere mortals, even elite athletes can hit the snooze button.
It was good to hear straight from Rashford even if, as he admitted, talking is easier after a victory. The fact that he came on to score the winner in another performance of real presence made for a satisfactory episode all round. Ten Hag’s authority has been underlined, Rashford reacted the right way to continue his great form, and United moved into the Champions League places for the first time since March.
Ten Hag has been very clear on his principles since walking in at Carrington. As revealed by The Athletic, a player was dropped on the pre-season tour for twice being late to team meetings. Bruno Fernandes and David de Gea spoke about the importance of respecting the rules.
Alejandro Garnacho had to earn his opportunity after initially failing to apply himself properly. Cristiano Ronaldo was made to train alone for leaving a match early. The message has been consistent.
Time-keeping may seem like a small thing, and unrelated to winning matches, but Ten Hag draws a crucial connection. “Everyone has to meet the standards and the rules, so then we have to have consequences, that is also what I expect on the pitch,” he said. “There have to be consequences otherwise you can’t be successful.”
Ten Hag feels that if he lets his demands slide off the pitch, then that invites players to be loose with his demands on it. He wants players to trust each other when he asks for brave positions, to take risks and cover where necessary. That faith was absent in the 6-3 defeat at Manchester City, for example, and United were picked apart.
Since that game United have won six, drawn two, lost one in the Premier League, keeping five clean sheets and conceding more than one only once, at Aston Villa.
Rashford has been responsible for much of that attacking edge, and a manager less assured than Ten Hag may have been tempted to keep him in the team with vital points at stake. But Ten Hag, who has the complete backing of executives, took the longer-term view. He knew the message punishing Rashford would have on the rest of the group.
Ten Hag said: “That’s how it has to be. We are a team that is hard to beat. But that is because we are attacking with 11, defending with 11, everyone is matching the rules in the defending way. That’s why it is so difficult to score against us. So if you don’t do that anymore we will get punished. When you are off the pitch missing the standards and the rules, it will also flow into the pitch.”
This is a dressing room, don’t forget, that has experienced problems with discipline and unity before. Luke Shaw, who was excellent at centre-back for a second running game, said: “At a top club like this, it has to be like that. People can’t do whatever they want. Maybe that’s been part of the problem in the past — people getting away with silly little things. The manager takes all of that into consideration. If you’re not keeping the standards high then you won’t play.”
Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand know what it is like to be in a hard dressing room. Sir Alex Ferguson hated lateness and told people it was better to be 20 minutes early than two minutes late. Both Scholes and Ferdinand backed Ten Hag.
Ferdinand said of Rashford: “He is in form and one of the first names on the team sheet — the first name — at this moment in time, but on the same note you’re pleased the manager is keeping to form.”
Rashford proved his importance when he came on. Garnacho, who started in his place on the left, had some good moments, notably crossing for Anthony Martial, who should have scored, and teeing up Tyrell Malacia for a cutback that Antony headed at Jose Sa, but he missed his big chance.
Christian Eriksen underhit his through ball only for Nelson Semedo to offer assistance, teeing up Garnacho with a grossly inadequate backpass. Garnacho hit his finish well enough but telegraphed his placement, with Sa making a good save.
Ten Hag, unhappy with several players’ first-half displays for a lack of front-footedness, wasted no time making the change. Early into the break Rashford was out, stripped to his kit and warming up.
When the game resumed, Rashford’s determination was palpable. Every time he picked up the ball he drove with dangerous intentions, although there was something missing to unlock the Wolves defense.
Ten Hag called over Casemiro as Matheus Nunes was down receiving treatment to impart instructions. Casemiro’s first port of call was Rashford, passing on guidance for movement. He went to Martial next.
Six minutes later, Rashford put United ahead. He had been threatening the move he scored from shortly before hand. He powered off the wing for a one-two with Fred, but the pass back went high and behind his run. Bruno Fernandes understood better, hitting his pass low and into Rashford’s feet. Rashford was at his bullying best, forcing his way through three Wolves players, muscling Jonny Otto to the floor and deceiving Sa with his finish.
In the celebrations, Casemiro gave Rashford a knowing pat on the head.
Rashford was unlucky not to get another when he showed strength once more, the ball hit his arm on the way in and VAR chalked the goal off. It was the second goal Rashford has been denied by the computer officials this season, after one at Everton.
In the celebrations for that, Eric Ramsay had tapped Ten Hag on the shoulder as if to acknowledge a management move that had elicited a brace from the disciplined player.
Smarter passing from Donny van de Beek on two occasions late on, as Wolves became stretched, would have presented Rashford with further chances, but at the final whistle, only the three points mattered.
He clapped the away fans and left the pitch to be greeted with a hug from Ten Hag. Point made, everyone can move on.
(Top photo: Naomi Baker/Getty Images)