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It is extremely rare in the circus that is Manchester United for things to be quiet. For the social media feeds not to be whirring with the latest exacerbated problem, or a former player airing out his grievances getting things off his chest, ushering fans to react by furiously running to the keyboard slating how the club is being run.
But, that’s exactly what is occurring. There hasn’t been a league game in three weeks with two postponed out of respect for the Queen’s funeral taking place, and United head into a Manchester Derby strangely with a sense of cautious optimism.
Things looked extremely bleak in the wake of that harrowing, horrific 4-0 loss at Brentford. It felt like a seismic moment, the pitchforks were out for Erik ten Hag and United incredibly early. The New York Times screamed ‘An English soccer giant is on its knees’ it was hard to disagree.
Manchester United were meant to change, rebuild, they were meant to move past the deeply disappointing 2021-22 season that broke a dressing room and manager alike, and yet there they were seemingly picking up where they left off.
Erik ten Hag had to wrestle the decline and fast. It is completely maddening to think that going into the game against Liverpool at home United fans would’ve probably bitten your hand off for a 0-0 draw after two straight losses, but the think pieces and deep dives are now instead being published on Liverpool’s bad start to the season.
The spiriting win against arch-rivals Liverpool gave United a much-needed jolt in the arm. One they needed since the back end of last season when interim manager Ralf Rangnick was happily airing the club’s dirty laundry, peeving off the players in the process, increasing the toxicity.
United then went on to win three more on the bounce, the first time that occurred since December 2021. A key factor in the upturn of form was their new manager’s ability to troubleshoot problems that were clearly detrimental to the squad, quickly realising what had gone wrong in the first two games but setting about making immediate, brave decisions to fix them.
There is sometimes a habit in football to keep meandering things along the way they are before the problem stares you square in the face like an asteroid headed for Earth and then figureheads take action. But with Ten Hag’s back to the wall he gambled, and the results have paid off.
These weren’t exactly tiny modifications either. Taking a decision to remove your captain whom there’s been a barrage of media scrutiny around, whilst simultaneously not starting Cristiano Ronaldo took, well balls. As a United manager though that’s what you need, to stick to your gutsy convictions despite the constant noise.
It took United in a new direction in both defense and attack. Opting for more solidity in bringing Raphael Varane and Scott McTominay into the spine of the team shunning the rather more erratic and error-prone Fred and Harry Maguire. Akin to the old Solskjaer reign, Ten Hag has realised United in transition can hurt teams with their pace with fast attackers released by the playmaking Christian Eriksen-Bruno Fernandes duo, the Dane providing calm and composed ying to the yang of Fernandes’ urgent approach.
Managers have a habit of stubbornly sticking to their principles, but Ten Hag correctly scrunched up the paper and threw it in the bin so early in a league where you barely get time to think on your feet as the opponents are as relentless as the fixture list.
The most startling improvement United have quintessentially made is their shape out of possession and conceding fewer goals. A different back four has come together and made United more of a secure outfit in a team that, managers relished attacking. What we’re currently seeing is a combination of a team learning ‘Ten Hag-ball’ but performing other functions we may not see under his reign later on that United utilize at the moment in order to be competitive.
This is why we get to see, the inverted full-back of Diogo Dalot or Tyrell Malacia coming into midfield to create space out wide (Ten Hag)., United building up in a back three shape (Ten Hag). But it’s also why we’re witnessing not much passing out from the back (Not so Ten Hag). Or periods of United in possession looking a little unsure in attack (Not so Ten Hag). Like that period vs Arsenal after the first 25 minutes where United seemingly kept giving the ball away needlessly by looking long all the time.
Or messy game states where United have to dig in and hold on for a result with the pressure piled on (last 30 minutes vs Southampton, Liverpool, last 5 minutes vs Leicester). You wouldn’t imagine that would be the plan going forward but it is the adaption Ten Hag has relied on. Intense defending and bringing Casemiro on to get a grip of the game with 30 minutes to go probably wasn’t what Ten Hag envisaged.
Those wins though would’ve been galvanizing, character-building for a squad that went through the torrid 21-22 season. The negative mental scarring would’ve shocked the players back to last year with the poor first two results. But collecting gritty, scrappy wins where United had to defend for their lives brought back a sense of unity and togetherness that looked so painfully bereft for so long.
I’m not one for the old typical cliches of ‘they look like they aren’t trying’ or ‘did they really want it today?’ But those were the levels of exasperation this team reached at its nadir under Rangnick. Confidence is everything in football. It was a massive component in the 2019/20 campaign that saw them finish second and reach the Europa League Final under Solskjaer, where an attacker would pull out a rabbit of the hat time after time, confidence gives you the belief that you can produce that on a regular basis.
For some of these players in the last four wins, it felt like they were regaining confidence. Learning how to play without fear again, to try things. It’s an extremely thin line to tow as a Man United player. To feel 10 ft tall, in the knowledge you can beat anyone regardless of skill and it’s supposed to be just another day at the office. Or be petrified and wilt under the scrutiny that you’re incapable of doing so.
Despite being humiliated in the Manchester Derby, their recent victories against Arsenal and Liverpool will have desperately lifted the spirits of players who suffered mentally in some embarrassing performances. Ten Hag isn’t just figuring out a way to play with these players, but he’s also figuring out a way to replenish their belief in their own ability that diminished last season.
To be thrown straight into the deep end where Cristiano Ronaldo made it very public before the season began that he wanted out, for Manchester United then to open the season with two bad losses, both on and off the pitch Erik ten Hag has remained calm and produced the goods when it has mattered.
By: Dharnish Iqbal / @dharnishiqbal
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Soccrates Images – Getty Images