As a Manchester United fan, for the first time in many years, I feel hopeful. We finally have a manager who seems hell-bent on giving not just the football team an ‘identity’, but the club as a whole, which seems to be starting to fall under the influence of Erik ten Hag. Manchester United have had numerous managers since the great Sir Alex Ferguson took his well-earned retirement in May 2013, but despite winning an FA Cup (2015 under Louis van Gaal), an EFL Cup and Europa League (2017 under José Mourinho, appearing in numerous semi-finals and a single Europa League Final (2021 under Ole Gunnar Solskjær), I personally find it hard to call any of those managers a ‘success’.
In the Premier League under Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United never finished in a position lower than 3rd (which they achieved 3 times, in the 2001/02, 2003/04 & 2004/05 seasons) – yet in the years following arguably the greatest manager of all time, Manchester United have finished in the top 4 on only 4 separate occasions, falling as low as 7th in this near 10-year period.
So what’s changed? Why do I, as a lifelong Manchester United fan, suddenly feel bright times ahead? Let’s circle back to our new manager, Erik ten Hag. Erik’s appointment was announced in April 2022, in the closing stages of an unsuccessful reign by interim manager Ralf Rangnick. To give credit to Rangnick and to speak a little about his spell with the club, he had inherited a totally disjointed squad (as had previous managers) with a club atmosphere so toxic it was becoming almost an internet meme at that point.
Rangnick attempted to implement a more modernized and intense playing style but unfortunately, fell short – due to several issues with the players and club overall, which he presented to the board unsuccessfully, ending his affiliation with the club despite the premise of a consultancy position with the club, instead opting to become the Austria men’s national football team manager. In comes Erik ten Hag, who officially started his role as Manchester United’s manager on the 16th of May 2022 – leaving his role as Ajax head coach early to begin work on his biggest project yet. The task ahead was not an easy one, there was a lot of work to be done, but the Dutchman’s appointment was met with hope and excitement. Had we found our new messiah? Had we found the man who can bring us back to glory?
The former Ajax manager began his reign with Manchester United by signing three players in the space of 22 days in July 2022. He identified that Luke Shaw required competition at left-back and initiated the signing of Tyrell Malacia from Feyenoord at a cost of approximately £13 million, excluding add-ons – with the move completed on the 5th of July. He then approached Christian Eriksen to improve the depth and creativity of the Manchester United midfield (something the fans had been calling for, for an extremely long time, due to Pogba’s injuries, inconsistent form and constant flirtation with other clubs) who accepted, joining on the 15th of July on a free transfer.
Erik then cast his attention back to Ajax, to coax a ball-playing defender with vision and pace to partner Raphael Varane and provide competition for existing centre-backs Victor Lindelof and club captain, Harry Maguire. Lisandro Martinez was the man identified to bring in and the Argentinian signed for the club on the 27th July for a reported fee of £49 million, excluding add-ons. The fan-base was excited, and this was shaping up to be a good transfer window – little did we know, it was about to get even better. The pre-season friendlies had shown the fans a new style of football, the beginning of “Ten Hag Ball” – and finally things were looking up.
Fast forward to the first two Premier League games of ten Hag’s reign: a 2-1 loss against Brighton, followed by a 4-0 drubbing by Brentford. Disjointed, lacking cohesion and spirit were just some of the phrases mentioned by pundits around the sport, and there were some fans expressing concerns already. Were United in trouble? Were our new signings right for the team? Was Martinez too small for the Premier League? However, after the 4-0 loss to Brentford, reports came out that ten Hag had forced the players to run the distance lacked in the match in the following training session training. A key detail was that not only did the manager force the players to run the massive 13.8km deficit, he also ran it himself – cementing himself as a part of the team in a fantastic display of leadership. The players clearly reacted to this in a positive manner by performing excellently in a hard-fought 2-1 victory over close rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford. They pressed, they ran, they pushed, they won. It was a massive moral win along with three crucial points on the board, and the race was on. Fans around the world rejoiced and took great pleasure in witnessing such a strong, hard-working performance – a performance which we unfortunately had not seen in such a long time.
Another massive boost was the signing of five-time Champions League winner, Casemiro, at a cost of £60million excluding add-ons. Manchester United had finally signed a world-class defensive midfielder -a signing that the fan base had been craving for months. United chalked up another three hard-fought Premier League wins in a row, including a fantastic performance against current league leaders (and fellow resurgent) Arsenal, winning that encounter 3-1 at Old Trafford. On the European front, the Red Devils suffered a controversial 1-0 loss to Real Sociedad before beating Sheriff Tiraspol 2-0. These matches brought us to a showdown with our cross-city neighbours, Manchester City. Could Ten Hag’s Reds pull off another gutsy win with a unified performance against the Premier League Champions? The answer, unfortunately, was no, losing 6-3 at the Etihad – a tough dose of reality dished out by our rivals in sky blue.
However, following on from the City defeat, we embarked on a tremendous run of form, losing only twice in our next 22 games – winning 17 and drawing 3. In the midst of this, the club dealt with the first ever Winter World Cup, the rather ungracious exit of club icon Cristiano Ronaldo, injuries to first team players and a densely packed fixture-list. The season became hectic, but hopes remained high – with Rashford in particular rising to the occasion and playing absolutely brilliant football, despite rumours of interest from a certain team in the French capital.
As of the 29th January, Manchester United are in the semi-final of the EFL Cup, beating Nottingham Forest 3-0 in the first leg at City Ground. The Red Devils sit 4th in the Premier League, 3 points ahead of Tottenham with a game in hand, and face a mouth-watering round-of-32 clash in the Europa League against a resurgent Barcelona side. Ten Hag’s side are also through to the fourth round of the FA Cup. If someone had asked me at the start of the season whether I’d be happy with the top four, I’d have bitten their hand off, but now?
Now, things are different. We’re in contention for top four, along with potential for a cup win with the earliest opportunity being a showdown with Southampton or Newcastle in the final of the Carabao Cup – if we can make it past Nottingham Forest. Off the pitch, it looks as if the Glazers are potentially leaving the club sooner rather than later, announcing a search for potential buyers.
To summarize, I believe the appointment of Erik Ten Hag has been the right choice. So far, Erik has shown that he wants to restore the club to it’s former glory and rejuvenate the footballing identity of Manchester United. He has a fantastic return of 22 wins in his 31 games as Manchester United manager thusfar, with some of those wins being against superior teams – demonstrating his tactical acumen and guile. He has demonstrated his authority throughout the Ronaldo situation, along with benching an in-form Marcus Rashford over an alleged timekeeping incident. It takes tremendous guts to get rid of an icon and bench a star performer in such a short amount of time, but it has paid off. The fans can finally believe in their manager, their players and crucially, the club.
Is it too early to say it feels good to be a Manchester United fan right now? Maybe – but that won’t stop me, and many other fans, from enjoying the moment.