Manchester United Reborn: Ten Hag’s Surgery Gives Red Devils New Life

Manchester United Reborn: Ten Hag’s Surgery Gives Red Devils New Life

When Sir Alex Ferguson during the pomp of Manchester United’s glory years of the early part of the 21st century, was once asked if his beloved club would ever go into a game against cross-town rivals Manchester City as second favourites, he replied, “not in my lifetime”. But as commentator Guy Mowbray scathingly said on live broadcast during United’s humbling 6-3 loss earlier this season against the blue half of Manchester, “now it’s every time”.

Fast forward to 2023 – after a torrid start to the season and all the talk involving Ronaldo’s time at the club and an unprecedented World Cup break later, Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United came from behind to beat Champions City at home in the dying embers, perhaps signifying a turning of the tide in many ways.

After easing past Reading in the 4th round of the FA Cup on Sunday, the Red Devils have now won 10 of their last 11 games in all competitions since the restart. Their only loss in this run came at the Emirates against league leaders Arsenal, in a display where they performed admirably which saw them only lose 3-2 at the death. But despite the defeat, the progress was obvious to see.

Their performance against the Gunners was so impressive that Arsenal legend Thierry Henry had this to say about them, “I will be honest, I am a big fan of Ten Hag and I like him very much. He is the coach I recommended to [club president, Joan] Laporta after Koeman got sacked at Barca. He is a genius.”

This is pretty high praise coming from someone of the stature of Henry, who despite Arsenal’s exhilarating last-minute victory that saw them maintain their 5 point gap with a game in hand, could not stop gushing about the impact Ten Hag has had at United in such a short time period.

The Frenchman added, “Today we saw a team with three years of development against a team with six months of development, also a team with one week of rest against a team with two days of rest yet still Man United went toe-to-toe which for me was surprising.”

From the nadir of last season which saw club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjær sacked after the unfulfilled promise of a title challenge, a drab and uninspired tenure post that with Rangnick in charge, and the whole Ronaldo situation, Manchester United have fought their way back into reckoning.

Old Trafford is finally filled with a renewed sense of optimism on matchdays, which kick-started with the astute appointment of the Dutchman at the helm. The former Ajax manager, renowned for his high pressing and possession-based tactics has completely changed the dynamics of the team on the pitch.

“We press. We press all day. If we can, we do it high up the pitch. If we can’t, we have to do it in a lower block. We have to press, but we also have to do it together, as a team”, said Ten Hag earlier in the season when asked about how he would like his team to play.

This instantly came as a breath of fresh air for the United faithful, who for the past few seasons have witnessed their team play a style of football without an organised pressing structure, that was still heavily dependent on individual brilliance. A side that since the era of Mourinho struggled to control games and dominate their opposition now seems to be inculcating Ten Hag’s vision of progressive football.

But all this has been possible not just because of Ten Hag’s tactical nous and coaching ability, but also because of his laudable handling of the dressing room and some smart recruitment, very much unlike United’s recent track record in those departments.

In his very first window, the Dutchman addressed United’s immediate concern, which was their midfield, and smartly recruited multiple Champions League winner Casemiro to bolster his squad in the middle of the park. His form for the club has given United solidity and bite in the engine room, which has seen them keep 7 clean sheets in 11 games since the restart, conceding just 9 goals in the process.

More importantly, the decorated Brazilian has brought with him immense quality on the ball, which has seen him create a formidable partnership with fellow summer signing and Premier League veteran Christian Eriksen, helping United control games with quality in midfield. “We know he’s a great player. In that midfield in Madrid, with Kroos and Modric, it was great”, said Ten Hag, responding to questions that some in England might have had about his ability to cope without them.

The likes of Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford have benefited from this midfield stability, enabling them to showcase their talents up front and produce more end-product. Casemiro hasn’t been too shy in front of goal himself either, scoring a few screamers in his time so far.

In defense, the curious conundrum of Harry Maguire seems to have been put to bed as well with World Cup winner Martinez forming a solid partnership with Varane at the back and Shaw finding form again.

However, despite all the optimism mid-season, Ronaldo’s shadow loomed large over the club, especially in his final few weeks before his explosive interview with Piers Morgan where he openly criticized his manager and the club, which subsequently saw him terminate his contract with his once beloved United.

The 5 time Balon d’Or winner, who made a sensational return to Old Trafford in the 2021/22 season under Solskjær, wanted to leave just 12 months later, citing a lack of Champions League football. But an inability to get a summer move saw him spend the next few months constantly sulking and whinging at his predicament thereby making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Despite Ten Hag’s slow start to his United managerial career, there was a turnaround in performances and results. Yet, for all the good work on the pitch, the United boss’ decision to not play Ronaldo and toy with his game time made all the noise.

In the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, player power has often seen the downfall of many a manager at Manchester United. But in what is a pleasant change to that narrative, Ten Hag seems to have taken control of the dressing room. To oust a strong and dissenting personality like Ronaldo from the dressing room and still deliver results on the pitch deserves plaudits.

“If someone doesn’t perform his tasks, he will be made aware of that. No matter whom it may be”, said Ten Hag, perhaps taking a subtle dig at the Portuguese legend. Maybe United needed a personality like this at the helm. A modern-day manager with progressive footballing ideas, but at the same time a strong personality who knows how to control a dressing room and establish his philosophy.

In the absence of Ronaldo, Ten Hag has managed to get a tune out of his forwards, especially Marcus Rashford. The rejuvenated Englishman has proved to be the match-winner for the Red Devils on multiple occasions this season, notching up 29 goals in 18 games this season for club and country.

However, he still has the unenviable task of making expensive signings Sancho and Antony click in a United shirt. For a club that’s always on the front page of newspapers because of their stature & history and the constant protests against the Glazer ownership, there is still a lot left for Ten Hag to fix and build upon.

But the signs have been encouraging. United’s stellar form has seen the club leapfrog their immediate top four rivals in Spurs, Liverpool, and Chelsea to sit in 4th place with a 3-point lead over 5th placed Tottenham and with a game in hand. The club have also now won each of their last 11 games across all competitions at Old Trafford in this impressive run.

Domestically, United have one foot in the EFL Cup final, and are still alive in the FA Cup. Possible Europa League success against Barcelona would only strengthen their bid to once again become European powerhouses, and would also give them another chance to win silverware for the first time since 2017.

The Theatre of Dreams has witnessed some of the greatest nights in footballing history. The stadium has borne witness to many era-defining teams that spanned multiple decades. But the recent past has seen them sink into the abyss.

In another attempt to awaken the sleeping giant, Ten Hag seems to be making positive strides toward that goal. And this time, it’s more than just a quick flash in the pan. His ultimate goal will be to put United back on the pedestal they once made their perennial home.

But as the poet John Boyle O’Reilly wrote in his ancient poem ‘The Flying Dutchman’, “they who see the flying Dutchman, never, never reach the shore”. In their initial tryst with a mercurial Dutchman in Van Gaal, United never quite did see the shore, let alone reach it.

However, the red half of Manchester will hope that this time around, they can finally look over the horizon and restore the glory years. With Arsenal now the latest club showing the blueprint on how to build from scratch, and the success in backing a manager with a long-term project in mind, United will look to emulate the same if not go one step further in the coming season or two.

The Old Trafford faithful can often be quite demanding, and if there is a block on the road to success, the pressure can get to the best in the business. But at this moment, with a staggering run since the restart, Manchester United is loving their renaissance and is all aboard the Ten Hag train as the Dutchman leads the club to the golden shores of potential success & silverware.

Also read: Manchester United v Manchester City (2-1): Tactical Analysis – Premier League 2022/23

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