Ten Hag has changed Manchester United ahead of the second derby of the season.
Erik ten Hag may be the one to ultimately transform Sir Alex Ferguson’s golden era into sepia, based on Manchester United’s turnaround between the October derby with Manchester City and the rematch on Saturday.
Erling Haaland and Phil Foden each scored hat-tricks as the champions thrashed United 6-3 at the Etihad Stadium on a gloomy afternoon for the club. United fell behind 4-0 at the interval and 6-1 after 64 minutes. The Dutchman’s assessment of Ten Hag’s team was succinct: “We were not on the front foot and we were not brave in possession.” Ten Hag’s team was fortunate to avoid a double-digit loss. A lack of belief existed.
At halftime, large groups of United supporters left the stadium in protest. By the time the game was over, United had a goal difference of -3 and was in sixth place, eight points behind City. The closing of the deficit to Pep Guardiola’s team is the crowning achievement of Ten Hag’s illustrious resurgence over the course of the subsequent 10 league games.
Only one loss occurred, and that was at Aston Villa. 23 of the 30 possible points have already been secured. United has moved up to the fourth place and is tied with Newcastle on 35 goals scored, with a goal differential of +7. If they win at Old Trafford, they will be one point behind City.
Ten Hag is demonstrating his ability to put out fires while building a strong team structure and a continuously diverse, winning approach. Now when they have possession, United can counterattack and penetrate, two traits of top managers. An ex-Real Madrid player named Casemiro claims, “Few coaches in my experience have the same fixation with winning.”
Take a look at the examples below for a small sampling of Ten Hag’s work. Casemiro, who came on as Scott McTominay’s replacement in the 59th minute at the Etihad, has displaced the Scot and is vying to become the first midfield general for United since Paul Scholes in his prime 20 years ago. Another summer signing, Lisandro Martnez, is a “fighter” center-back whose desire for conflict highlights Raphael Varane’s more refined qualities; Varane is the Rio Ferdinand to Martnez’s Nemanja Vidic.
Ten Hag has also found a solution to the Harry Maguire conundrum of how to get rid of a captain whose slowness and clumsiness are recurring issues. Ten Hag made the poor decision to dismiss him after watching him lose the first two games to Brighton (2-1 at home) and Brentford (4-0 away).
Along with Jadon Sancho’s lack of focus and form, Anthony Martial’s injury problems, and Cristiano Ronaldo’s polarizing discontent, these issues have all given Ten Hag difficulties. The manager cited “respect” for his career as a reason why he was not used as a substitute at the Etihad. After his half-time flounce from Old Trafford in the friendly against Rayo Vallecano in July, Ronaldo raised two fingers to Ten Hag and the supporters by refusing – twice – to enter as a substitute as United defeated Tottenham 2-0, the Portuguese exiting down the tunnel.
Here, Ten Hag’s cunning decision to repeatedly tout Ronaldo as a strength while denying him an automatic berth paid off. It should come as no surprise to find that he strategically maneuvered the forward to do what he desired but was forbidden by Ronaldo’s hero status: compel the Portuguese to force himself out. Ronaldo achieved this by telling Piers Morgan in an interview that the manager was being treated with “no respect,” which foreshadowed his departure from the job by “mutual consent” during the World Cup.
Following the Glazers’ announcement that United was up for sale, Ten Hag has also put aside any concerns about his future and is instead concentrating on building an alluring, ferocious team. For the first time since Ferguson departed England ten years ago, the 20-time winners are predicted to triumph when performing below expectations, as they did in Tuesday’s 3-0 Carabao Cup victory over Charlton. Ten Hag’s ability to develop many of his charges and his versatility—exemplified by Luke Shaw’s outstanding transfer from left to center back and Aaron’s Wan-successful Bissaka comeback following Diogo Dalot’s injury—are major contributing factors to this.
The benefits keep on increasing. Rashford has scored 15 goals in 25 games and is the face of expert coach Ten Hag. Ten Hag continually nags the striker to maintain focus throughout the entire game so that his speed, strength, and talent can make him United’s matchwinner and a current lock for all footballer of the year shortlists. The budding skill of Tyrell Malacia, Christian Eriksen’s free-agent scoop, and Antony’s energetic performance can be added to the successful raids for Casemiro and Martnez. While Antony is pricey at £85 million (and somewhat left-footed), he is scoring once more as City approaches.
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One theory is that Ten Hag, after evaluating United’s previous haphazard hiring, decided to become the de facto director of football by hiring four players (Antony, Eriksen, Malacia, and Martnez) who he trusted from their previous work in the Eredivisie, his native league, and was willing to bear the blame if this decision went wrong.
United and Ten Hag are prospering. There have been 11 victories out of the last 12 games. With Nottingham Forest as their opponent in the Carabao Cup semifinal, City is now the slight favorite to end their six-year trophy drought. Despite being mocked as a 6′ 6″ route-one “lump,” the new loanee Wout Weghorst will be the third option after Martial and Rashford, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if Ten Hag uses the big Dutchman effectively.
The unrelenting imagination of Bruno Fernandes and the emergence of Alejandro Garnacho, a pocket-dynamo impact-sub who is only 18 years old, provide more encouragement.
Additionally, Ten Hag responds to all questions on his terms and, like managers like Ferguson, Guardiola, and Jürgen Klopp, keeps the media pleased with creative phrases like the one he used following the victory over Bournemouth: “We got into a tennis match and we want to play football.”
After the initial two games were lost, there were four straight wins, including ones over Liverpool and Arsenal, before City stiff-armed this mini-revival. United blew the opportunity, to paraphrase Ten Hag, for whom “play with courage” could be a better motto than the one he frequently proclaims, “good is not good enough.”
The city is undoubtedly the best team in the division; they have won the title four out of the last five seasons, and they are coached by the brilliant Guardiola and led by the shining talents of Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland. They will still be reeling from Wednesday’s loss to Southampton, and the fact that Saturday’s match will include a heated local brawl provides further motivation.
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However, the United that leaves Old Trafford on Saturday at noon is a different animal than the one that was so easily destroyed in the fall.