Steering Manchester United back into the golden success they enjoyed in decades past has proven difficult for multiple managers and the latest to try his hand is Erik ten Hag. But can he give the club the trophies the fans yearn for, and what will he bring to Manchester United?
Betting on the Red Devils
It’s fair to say that Ten Hag’s start as boss of Manchester United has been a bit of a rollercoaster. Every single match in which they’ve played has seen an outcome that was long odds at the sportsbooks (around 6/1 for Brighton to beat them, nearly 4/1 for Brentford to do likewise, and then Manchester United defied the odds and stunned the pundits by beating Liverpool, another 4/1 result). At the time of writing, they stand at 40/1 to take the title this season and 50/1 to be relegated.
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Multiple losses on the bounce and a failure to score in the opening two fixtures (their only ‘goal’ against Brighton was an own goal) was a depressing start for Ten Hag’s team in the 2022-23 season and suggested the malaise of recent years was hanging around. Just looking at the players on the pitch, Brighton and Brentford should not have proven such stiff opposition (yes, they faced Brentford at home, but a 4-0 thrashing was pretty demoralising for Manchester United fans). When the talent’s there but the performance is not, morale and discipline are often the missing ingredients.
Ten Hag proved he had nerve for the third match, facing Liverpool (also making a rough start to the season) at home. The Dutch manager dropped both Harry Maguire (the captain) and star player Cristiano Ronaldo (who has made no secret of his desire to leave the side for pastures new). The result was the best performance by a mile and a surprise 2-1 victory over Liverpool. Jadon Sancho put the Red Devils ahead before the pace of Marcus Rashford helped deliver a 2-0 lead. While Salah could draw one back for the opposition, it was not enough to deny Manchester United their first win of the season. In the end, Ten Hag’s nerve was matched by judgement as he made a big call and got it right. Despite leaving out two very big players the performance, the morale and the discipline was on another level.
There is still room to improve and Ten Hag will be looking to cut down on the number of fouls (11 to Liverpool’s 7) and increase possession from 29%. But the fact his side got 5 shots on target (the same as Liverpool) and won the match with such a low possession percentage is cause for optimism going forward. Discipline does include cutting down on fouls but is also present in mental commitment, staying switched on from the first kick to the final whistle, and the recent victory will hopefully prove a turning point in this regard.
There’s been much discussion of the potential departure of Ronaldo, but perhaps more important is who Ten Hag will sign up. He’s already spent an eyebrow-raising £60-70m on Brazilian midfielder Casemiro (many feel the price tag is too high for a player who has turned 30).
On the speculated shopping list is 22-year-old Ajax winger Antony, with his current club reportedly holding out for £84m. Reportedly, Ten Hag also wanted Ajax striker Brian Brobbey (who was a player during Ten Hag’s time in charge of the Dutch side) but the player has rejected the advance. Another potential target is Newcastle goalkeeper Martin Dubravka.
Moulding the Squad
As the improved performance without Ronaldo/Maguire showed, even more important than getting talented players is fusing them into a cohesive, motivated team. Happily, this seems to have started and will make slotting in new players easier.
Although the EPL is a cut above the Eredivisie, Erik Ten Hag did achieve substantial success at Ajax which does indicate his potential for improving a side. Replacing the seemingly destined-to-leave Ronaldo with a player (or players) capable of scoring is a top priority. Even though Rashford and Sancho combined impressively in the win over Liverpool, the hectic calendar (especially if the club returns to the Champions League) means more scoring potential up front is important.
Erik Ten Hag’s style of play at Ajax was one of high intensity, with pressing play and rapid passing. The loss of numerous talented midfielders (not least Paul Pogba) means this is also an area that needs bolstering if this is to be replicated with the Red Devils. Casemiro’s price tag has attracted some criticism but does at least show the potential weakness is understood and steps are being taken to address it. Another midfielder would not go amiss. A high-intensity style coupled with a lot of fixtures means that resting players (and having strength in depth in case of injuries) will be essential when moulding the squad for success.
Can the Red Devils make the Top 4 in 2022-23?
At the time of writing there are seven teams with single-digit odds of being in the top four (and thus qualifying for entry to the Champions League). Shorter than evens are Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, and Chelsea. Manchester United are 4/1 and Newcastle stand at 6/1. Only three matches have been played so far, with the Red Devils suffering two shock defeats before achieving an unexpected win against Liverpool. So, can they break into the top 4?
The short answer is yes. But this will depend on whether Ten Hag can build upon the great victory over Liverpool or if that win proves to be a mere flash in the pan. The strong performance and clearly superior morale enabled the triumph to happen, and if Ronaldo leaves, as widely expected, ensuring new signings fit in and help cement a renewed team spirit will be critical. But Manchester United’s finishing position depends to a large extent on how well their competition performs as well.
Chelsea came up short against Leeds, receiving a thrashing, and don’t look to have the cutting edge that the likes of Manchester City or Arsenal enjoy. Liverpool are very short odds to be in the top 4 but they’ve actually had a worse start than United, with two lacklustre draws and then a defeat to the Red Devils, so this is another club who might do worse than expected (although most believe they’ll bounce back). Manchester City and Arsenal have had the best starts and it would be very surprising if the incumbent champions did not stay in the top 4. The Gunners were the only side to win all three of their opening matches and have the best goal difference in the league, so there’s every chance they’ll finish well. Spurs have also had a solid start (as have Leeds and Brighton) but whether they can maintain that standard remains to be seen.
Four to one may be a touch on the generous side for Manchester United to be top 4, given that only Manchester City seems guaranteed a spot there. A lot depends on whether the third match win against Liverpool is a turning point for the Red Devils or a blip, a brief high point amid ongoing mediocrity. Time will tell.
Nobody can accuse Erik ten Hag of making a boring start to his time at Old Trafford, with Manchester United achieving surprise results (good and bad) at each of its first three matches. The gloom of the opening losses has now been replaced by some justified optimism, and fans will be hoping the club can kick on from here.
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