Stand By Ten Hag

Two wins, three losses, negative goal difference, and 13th in the league. That was the state of Erik Ten Hag’s work as of 16th September 2023. A worsening of Lisandro Martínez adding to the already crowded injury list was no consolation, and the Dutchman even risked following his predecessors Ole Gunnar Solskjær and José Mourinho out the Old Trafford exit door. Things looked dire.

Fast forward two and a half months, and things are looking different. Despite more or less all of the first-choice defenders have been missing more often than not this autumn, Casemiro has looked ponderous and inefficient, and Rashford’s goals have dried up, United are currently top of the six-game form table. The loss against City put the huge gap between the clubs at display, but that’s the only recent loss for Manchester United in the league.

Some people obviously deserve credit here. Firstly, Harry Maguire has resurrected in a fashion nobody thought possible. Becoming the social media laughing stock number one for a long time, the Englishman really has stepped up his game and looked as his true and former self in recent weeks.

Mind you, Harry Maguire is not the awful centre-back many like to think. In the 20/21 campaign, he played 34 league games in a season where United finished second and conceded 44 goals, slightly more than one goal a game. Not an excellent number, but neither a calamitous one. Furthermore, four of the goals shipped came against Liverpool when Maguire was sidelined through injury picked up the week beforehand.

Actually United didn’t keep a clean sheet after the England international dropped out of the season after the 3-1 win at Villa in gameweek 35, but he took part in all of the other 13 clean sheets that season.

This season Maguire has stepped up, along with Victor Lindelöf (who as well deserves huge credit) climbed above Raphaël Varane in the pecking order, and it’s easy to see why he was Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s preferred skipper before the arrival of some certain Portuguese.

Another fella who deserves credit for taking responsibility is a Scotsman leading the line for his international side to the Euros next summer. Where Jadon Sancho went to cry on Instagram, Scott McTominay delivered crucial goals at decisive stages, and has become some sort of a very false nine – he’s not a striker (although he was in his younger days), but pops up and acts like one when you need it the most.

McTominay doesn’t come across as the typical Erik Ten Hag player at all, and José Mourinho making up the award “Manager’s Player of the Year” on the spot just for McTominay’s sake, speaks a story of both his qualities and style. He’s nothing fancy and will never be a regista dealing quality passes left and right – but he will get stuck in, work harder than anyone else, keep the standards up – and turn up when the manager asks him to. He’s the kind of character any side will need when things are going wrong – and he has.

Obviously, the season for Manchester United has been a rollercoaster by many means. If heavily questionable officiating calls had gone the other way against Tottenham and Arsenal, both games could’ve been won, but on the other hand Wolverhampton should’ve had a penalty kick in the final minute caused by André Onana. Performances, generally speaking have been sub-par or worse.

United’s only convincing performance this season was against Crystal Palace in the Carabao Cup, but despite spells of hope and quality (like against København), the road to chaos has remained short.

However, Erik Ten Hag stood his ground, kept the players together and grinded out result after result. Considering United at the moment don’t really have a reliable asset for goals or even chances, he had to start from the back – with his entire defence out.

The pressure of being a Premier League manager is always massive, but there is nowhere the pressure is mounting as much and as quickly as in the Manchester United dugout when things go wrong – which they have done frequently this season.

Erik Ten Hag, however, has not crumbled under pressure. He hasn’t let bad results get to him, and he remains picking the players who perform, rather than the ones with the fanciest CV or the highest transfer fee. He offloaded Ronaldo, he’s not picking the underperforming Varane, and he doesn’t have any of Jadon Sancho. Maybe he’s a bit too gentle on Marcus Rashford, and it will be interesting to see whether the number ten will be seen regularly as a number seven – right winger – in the coming weeks.

However, despite the football at times has been poor this season, Erik Ten Hag possesses the never-say-die attitude which has been seen so many times during United’s long and extraordinary history. We know the former Ajax manager has tactical knowledge, we know he has the ability to cope with pressure and turn bad things to good things, and there is absolutely zero reason to show him the exit door.

The Glazer reign makes it hard for any manager, but hopefully he will face easier surroundings when/if Jim Ratcliffe takes charge of the football part of the club. I firmly believe if Erik Ten Hag can’t succeed at Manchester United, no manager can.

By Nicolas Berg.

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