Commentary: Can new manager Erik ten Hag bring back Manchester United’s glory days?
In just three weeks, Manchester United went from perhaps their lowest point to four consecutive English Premier League wins. But this does not mean all is rosy now at Old Trafford, says football writer John Duerden.
SEOUL: On Aug 13, Manchester United lost 4-0 at Brentford and reached perhaps the lowest point of what had been a depressing nine years. There was despair on the face of newly appointed manager Erik ten Hag in what was his second game in charge.
Just three weeks later, the mood was completely changed as jubilant fans celebrated United winning 3-1 over English Premier League leaders Arsenal. It was their fourth victory in succession.
While this does not mean all is rosy now at Old Trafford – they fell short against Real Sociedad in the Europa League on Friday - there is a feeling that a corner has been turned after a long period of decline.
A NEW FERGUSON
From 1993 to 2013, United fans feasted on success under Alex Ferguson, with 13 English Premier League titles, two UEFA Champions League, one Club World Cup and numerous domestic trophies. The Scot stepped down after the club’s last league championship in 2013.
Since then, United has had a revolving door of managers. David Moyes came first but the job seemed too big for him. Then there were elite names such as Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho who had success in the past, but were old-fashioned compared to modern counterparts such as Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola and Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp.
In December 2018, the club changed tack, appointing former playing legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a Norwegian with little experience but a huge emotional connection with the fans. That didn’t work either.
All managers had different ideas of how to play, signing – and leaving behind – a mish-mash of players, few of which improved at the club. Indeed, hugely expensive stars such as Paul Pogba, Jadon Sancho and Harry Maguire seemed to regress. All struggled last season and the team finished sixth.
Consequently, the club went, for the first time since appointing Ferguson in 1986, for a young, hungry coach who had already impressed in a smaller league. However, after Ten Hag lost his opening game of the season at home to Brighton & Hove Albion, then to Brentford, the prognosis was bleak.
BENCHING THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS FOOTBALL STAR
But Brentford could have been a blessing in disguise. It showed the Dutch manager that something had to change.
First, that was the last time Cristiano Ronaldo started a league game, despite being United’s top scorer last season with 18 goals. The football legend – and also the most-followed celebrity on Instagram – returned to the club a year earlier.
But many felt that at 37, he wasn’t the man United needed. At Ajax, Ten Hag built his playing style around a high press, with forward players working hard to win the ball back near the opponent’s goal.
The problem is that Ronaldo does not, or cannot, do this. Indeed, in January, it was reported that among Europe’s top strikers, he pressed the least.
After Brentford, Ten Hag benched Ronaldo as well as underperforming captain Maguire. It was a gamble as the next match against arch-rivals Liverpool looked ominous. Memories of a 5-0 and 4-0 defeat from last season are still fresh in Old Trafford.
Yet it was the perfect fixture and seemed to galvanise United who were aggressive and clinical. Sancho, who had struggled at the club since his £75 million arrival a year earlier, opened the scoring. Then striker Marcus Rashford, a once-prolific striker who had seen goals and confidence dry up, made it 2-0. It ended 2-1.
Ronaldo and Maguire continued to be absent as United picked up successive away victories at Southampton and Leicester City respectively. Ten Hag seemed to realise he has to be pragmatic and slowly build his way of playing – usually from the back – over a period of time. This culminated in the win over Arsenal.
STILL A LONG WAY TO GO
Four wins do not mean that the trophy is coming to Old Trafford. United finished 35 points behind City last season and 34 behind Liverpool.
These are massive gaps to make up for especially as most of the top teams have strengthened. City’s new striker Erling Haaland, for instance, scored an amazing 12 goals from his first seven games.
United have had high points since Ferguson left, winning the FA Cup in 2016 and the Europa League the following year before fading once more.
This time is different, as there now appears to be genuine fight, work and team spirit among the players. They seem to be playing for the manager, each other and their fans, who in turn are reinvigorated. There are, at last, smiles around Old Trafford.
However, the drive to return to the top of English and European football is not helped by issues off the pitch. The Glazer family, American owners who bought the club in 2005, are unpopular. Fans continue to protest against them taking an estimated £1.1 billion out of the club in the past 17 years.
Questions remain as to the long-term strategy of the playing side with little sign of joined-up thinking in terms of signing players and managers. The recent additions of Brazilians Antony and Casemiro may add talent to the team but came late in the transfer window. At a combined total of around £160 million, they were hugely expensive and might have been panic buys.
But a club with the pulling power and finances of Manchester United should not be down for long. Sooner or later, the right manager was always going to be hired.
To reach the top four and qualify for the UEFA Champions League will be a massive success this season. To do so, United will have to finish above two of Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal.
It will not be easy but Ten Hag said it best: “I’m not thinking we’re there but we’re on our way in a good direction. We have to keep this process going.”
John Duerden has lived in Asia for more than 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).