Man Utd are having an excellent season under Erik ten Hag and they could yet get their best points return in a decade.
Erik ten Hag doesn’t usually give much away from his technical area, but when Marcus Rashford’s shot hit the back of the net 14 minutes from the end at Molineux, the Manchester United manager couldn’t keep his emotions in check.
The Dutchman leapt into the air in the spacious technical areas at Wolves before punching the air and sharing the moment with his coaching staff. It might have been delight at what was just about the perfect outcome for Ten Hag after initially dropping Rashford, but it felt like more than that. This was a hard, gritty victory in a season that is gathering impressive momentum.
A third successive Premier League win moved United to within four points of Manchester City. Ten Hag and his players would have settled for that outcome at the start of the season, but Arsenal’s unexpected explosion into life under Mikel Arteta has probably already taken title talk out of the equation.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, for United are clearly ahead of schedule under Ten Hag. If top spot is unattainable then it’s still a campaign that is offering promise. By the end of next week they should be into a Carabao Cup semi-final, the FA Cup fourth round as well as awaiting that Barcelona tie in the Europa League.
The win at Molineux was certainly a triumph for Ten Hag. His decision to drop Rashford for oversleeping and being late for a meeting sent another strong message to his squad about the standards he expects. He then introduced the forward to score the winning goal in a match that didn’t look like it was going to produce one.
Fixtures between these two teams have tended to be low-scoring and dull. This wasn’t much different. United had a couple of pretty good chances, especially Alejandro Garnacho in the first half, but with 20 minutes to go, it felt like a goalless draw was the most likely outcome.
But United arguably won because they have a player in brilliant form and full of confidence and because they have developed the winning habit. Winning breeds winning and that happened in the Midlands. This felt like a game that the United teams under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick wouldn’t have won.
Under Ten Hag United are beginning to find a way, built on the bedrock of an improving defensive record. The addition of Casemiro has been vital to the advances at the back and Ten Hag’s coaching of Rashford has rejuvenated the 25-year-old.
It all feels a long way from August 13 and the 4-0 defeat to Brentford. The goalscoring was done within 35 minutes that afternoon and on the hottest weekend of the year United melted. They looked a million miles from being a decent side.
But since then they have taken 32 points from 14 games, a return that would translate to 86 or 87 points over the course of a season. United’s highest tally since Sir Alex Ferguson retired is 81 and after the slow start, they need 49 points from their final 22 league games to match it. At this moment in time, that feels achievable.
That would be an astonishing achievement given the chaotic mess than Ten Hag inherited. The transfer window was over budget at £225million but it’s been money very well spent.
They have a strong spine, which is vital. Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez are a world-class defensive partnership and Casemiro, Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes are an outstanding midfield trio. Rashford is in electric form, although the biggest area for improvement at the moment is adding more of a threat in the final third.
It’s still early days under Ten Hag, but this feels like the best position United have been in since 2013. Yes, they finished second under Jose Mourinho in 2017/18, but they were 19 points behind a record-breaking Manchester City side and Mourinho has never been a manager to build a long-term project. It was the end, rather than the beginning.
Arsenal are having a fantastic season, but aren’t at the standard City were then. At the moment, Pep Guardiola’s side look a little unsure of themselves. They’ve dropped points to Newcastle, Aston Villa, Brentford and Everton already this season. At this stage, United are within touching distance of second, but they need to make sure of a top-four finish, at least and the one real uncertainty is in attack, where they are short of numbers.
But bring in a forward or get lucky with injuries and this is a season that is offering plenty of optimism. Finish in the top four and land a trophy and it will have been beyond anyone’s expectations back in August.
There have been false dawns before at Old Trafford and this is still the infancy of Ten Hag’s tenure, but everything that is happening at the moment suggests United have landed the right man. The age of player power is quite clearly over and the most important figure at the club is the 52-year-old on the touchline.
Whisper it quietly, but United might just have their best manager for a decade, who is building their best team for a decade.