Johan Cruyff did not believe in using a Plan B, only perfecting Plan A when things were going wrong. Therefore Pep Guardiola adheres to such principles.
“I’m not going to buy a player to have on the bench for 11 months to play for 10 minutes when the game is not going well,” Guardiola once protested.
There is no blueprint to be the perfect football coach, as close as Guardiola may appear to be, given his incredible record. The madcap Catalan can frustrate Manchester City fans with his reluctance to make substitutions and devotion to Plan A – he did not make one change as City laboured to a 1-1 draw in Leipzig on Wednesday night.
Erik ten Hag, despite declaring Guardiola as his inspiration from his time at Bayern Munich, is from a very different school. He has made 16 substitutions at half-time alone this season and is far from afraid to rip up the game plan and start again. The results have been devastating.
Manchester United have had 19 goals scored by substitutes in all competitions this season, the most of any side in the big five European leagues in 2022-23. No matter the occasion, Ten Hag the reactor changes games with his decisions.
At half-time of the Liverpool game in August, even with United leading, Ten Hag replaced Anthony Elanga with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford scored eight minutes later to put a reinvigorated United in command.
Against City last month, United had more than competed with the champions in the first half. But that was not enough to satisfy trigger-happy Ten Hag, with Martial hauled off, Antony brought on at the break, Alejandro Garnacho later, and then United turned the match on its head in the blink of an eye.
Another thrilling comeback that truly announced the United of old are back only came about because of their problem-solving coach on Thursday night.
The overriding feeling at half-time as Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets and Frenkie De Jong nullified everything United had to offer at Old Trafford was that perhaps a team as wily as Barça, eight points clear at the top of La Liga, were a step too far over two legs.
There was no shame in that for Ten Hag. Had United lost, they still would have made remarkable strides in a short space of time under the new boss. The very best, however, do no settle for progress that is deemed acceptable by others. Wout Weghorst was hauled off at the break, on came Antony and the entire forward line was switched around.
Moved out wide left, Jadon Sancho played the ball into Bruno Fernandes, now back in a central role, he laid it off for Fred and United were level less than two minutes into the second half. Antony then arrowed home the winner and Ten Hag’s Midas touch had struck gold again.
Weghorst has started every game, something nobody saw coming for a striker who failed to make an impact at relegated Burnley last season. The giant Dutchman has even been deployed as a No 10.
There is method in the perceived madness. A game lasts 90 minutes and quality off the bench, game-changers, are having a remarkable influence on United’s instant renaissance.
Weghorst presses like few others in his position. Against Leicester on Sunday he made four tackles, double what Cristiano Ronaldo mustered all season from 10 league appearances. Knowing when that job is done and it is time for other more capable attackers to shine is his manager’s forte.
With opponents worn down, United have scored eight goals from 151 minutes without Weghorst on the pitch, one every 19 minutes, while averaging one every 58 with him on it.
Newcastle are a physical side with a penchant for timewasting – only Leeds have had the ball in play less in the Premier League this season.
But should a resolute Newcastle – the top flight’s best defence – frustrate United for large swathes in tomorrow’s showpiece at Wembley, they cannot rest and think, at any point, they have got United’s number.
Ten Hag’s Plan B is often better than Plan A. Sometimes the mentor is not always right.