Erik ten Hag has overseen progress at Man United and restored authority to the manager’s role but the next five months are pivotal in the club’s quest to become a credible force again.
Erik ten Hag was in a chipper mood on the day of the Netherlands’ World Cup quarter-final with Argentina, indulging British journalists for the best part of two hours at a luncheon ahead of the evening’s pulsating tie at the Lusail Stadium.
Ten Hag had wryly texted Lisandro Martinez he would “see him on Monday”. Martinez’s return to Carrington has been delayed by another two weeks and the World Cup winner can expect plenty of back-slapping back at base.
Had the Netherlands held their nerve from 12 yards then Martinez might have been occupied with the mental comedown of a League Cup fourth round tie against Burnley on Wednesday night. United’sseason resumes at Old Trafford 38 days after Alejandro Garnacho prodded the ball into the corner of the net at Craven Cottage.
Fifth in the Premier League with a game in hand, 90 minutes away from the League Cup quarter-finals, an FA Cup third round tie at home to Everton and a tantalising tie against Barcelona in the Europa League in February signal progress at a club that shipped at least four goals in eight defeats within a year.
Leicester. Liverpool. Watford. City. Liverpool. Brighton. Brentford. Seven crime scenes almost as horrifying as those in Se7en. Brentford, the grisliest, warranted a forensic investigation by Ten Hag in August.
Ten Hag ordered the players in for training less than 24 hours later on a scheduled day off in 30-degree heat. The players watched the first-half together in the tiered briefing room at Carrington that could double for a cinema. The certification would not have been suitable for children.
A source close to Ten Hag says he was so incandescent with rage he “wanted to kill” the United players over the Brentford debacle. The screening at Carrington was not pleasant but necessary and United channeled that negativity into the uplifting defeat of Liverpool nine days later.
Ten Hag was grateful for the extended gap between fixtures and the performances were like night and day. In reflecting on the Brentford and Liverpool results, Ten Hag muttered, “f—–g hell”. Those two words encapsulated two drastically different performances.
United endured a sobering afternoon at Manchester City in early October; the fifth time they had conceded six goals in a game in the last 54 years. United were more disjointed than under Ralf Rangnick in the 4-1 reverse at the Etihad in March. The upside is they have only lost one of their 12 games since.
We are in a good direction,” Ten Hag said in Jerez two weeks ago. “But still there is a lot of room for improvement. I am happy with the way the players perform and the fact they play as a team with the right spirit and the right mentality. But there is always a battle with that process to keep it going. So it means keeping the standards high.
Satisfaction makes you lazy. So don’t get too satisfied with yourself as a team. Give every day the best. Only when you set those high standards and keep the high standards – it’s up to me to control that – and give that example, clear. But the players and staff at Manchester United have to live the high standards and then it’s possible to compete with the best clubs in the Premier League and achieve our goals.
“Where we were at the start of the season, we were just not good enough. I knew it when I stepped in that we would have days like that, that we would have defeats.
“And we were a little bit unlucky because Lindelof and Martial fell out with injuries in our last pre-season game. All pre-season they were in the line-up, then you have to change. It can happen that you lose games. I wasn’t happy, don’t get me wrong. But these things were going to happen.
“I knew it would be a difficult project. Manchester United was not in the circumstances that you would expect of them and I think now we’re in the right direction but we’re far away from where we need to be. I see the progress from observation and also from the data that confirms the progression.
What data? A lot about our way of play. I see us progressing and now the first objective is to get back on track because when they come back from the World Cup they have been in different styles and systems.
“We have seen against Man City, that was our big problem in that game, we played in a different way and because we want to be dominant and proactive and you see also in this World Cup many nations are playing passive and waiting and playing on the reaction.
“Players come back and they have been playing six weeks in a different environment and different style of play and then they have to get back to our style and system and our rules and principles and it’s a team sport. So all XI have to be on the same page.”
Victor Lindelof, absent in August through injury, has been closely involved in United’s improvement as one-quarter of their defensive square, with summer recruits Martinez, Casemiro and Christian Eriksen occupying the other corners in a Scandi-Latino alliance.
“At the beginning of the season we had a few games where we didn’t play well,” a sweat-drenched Lindelof said after United’s penultimate session in Spain. “But after that we’ve been performing, playing some really nice football and I think everyone is working towards the same goal and that’s exactly what we need.”
A United servant of over five years, Lindelof has gained the trust of five diverse managers at permanent, caretaker and interim level. The 27-year-old captain of Sweden has now assumed a senior role at club level, particularly in Spain, where 13 teenagers were in the training squad.
“A lot of young guys here as well bringing a lot of energy,” Lindelof explained. “When younger players are coming up you want to help them a little bit more, talk to them, and obviously the way we want to play here as well, of course I’m here trying to help them.”
Provided he is fit, Lindelof is a certain starter against Burnley and Nottingham Forest when United’s Premier League campaign resumes on December 27. “We knew the World Cup was going to come and we’ve been prepared for that,” he added. “It was nice to get some days off, recharge a little bit and ready to go again.