The appointment of a proper manager represents the biggest upgrade at Man Utd, but Erik ten Hag has overseen many more improvements. Here are five…
SOFT CENTER TO ONE OF PREM’S BEST MIDFIELDS
Ten Hag has installed a range of upgrades throughout the units of his team. The biggest, beyond himself, is surely in midfield.
Where once roaded McFred, with few obvious strengths, United now have a double pivot that can do it all. Ten Hag might have wished for Frenkie De Jong, but it is hard to imagine the Netherlands midfielder having a greater impact than Casemiro.
The Brazilian has brought what United fans have been crying out for years: steel. The Red Devils have been a soft touch in midfield for far too long, especially in recent years when they haven’t been able to use possession as their most effective form of defence. When Brentford were scoring at will against United in the second game of the season, The Telegraph says the Red Devils were worried it was so bad it might put Casemiro off joining the club. His reaction: “Tell them I’ll fix this,” he texted his agent.
That he has. But to pin him as a defensive midfielder would do the 30-year-old an injustice. In the modern game where midfielders must specialise, Casemiro is a multi-faceted throw-back. If he was tied to his post in front of his centre-backs, Christian Eriksen would not be able to find the space to pull United’s strings.
Similarly, Eriksen has shown he can do it all. The Denmark star’s creative qualities are well known but his graft and we out of possession have also played a major role in firming up United’s core.
None of that is to say Fred and Scott McTominay don’t have a role. They do, and both have looked lighter and breezier in their appearances without the burden of trying to hold together a failing side. Fred especially, when he has been allowed the freedom to get forward because he doesn’t have to worry about babysitting his centre-backs. Speaking of which…
FROM THE AXIS OF TERROR TO NEW RIO-VIDIC
United appear to have found the modern-day Vidic-Ferdinand. Which is quite the upgrade from last season’s Barry-Paul central defensive partnership.
Ten Hag inherited Raphael Varane but pairing the France star with another signing-of-the-season contender Lisandro Martinez has allowed the former to rediscover some of the form that made him one of the game’s best defenders. Last season, when he was fit, he looked anything but.
That is the conundrum now for Ten Hag: how to keep Varane fit. Between injuries and mid-season World Cups, we’ve not seen nearly enough of the Martinez-Varane axis. But United have still retained a solid foundation.
Luke Shaw has played his part in that, with the left-back preferred at centre-back over actual centre-back Harry Maguire in recent weeks. Against City on Saturday, we ought to see Varane and Martinez get back to work together for the first time since October 22.
We’re not sure how he’s done it, but Ten Hag has managed to put a smile back on Marcus Rashford’s face and the magic back in his boots.
No doubt Ten Hag has had plenty of help in that regard. There are plenty of reasons why Rashford is happy and flying, presumably some off the pitch, and his fitness is obviously a major factor. Prior to Ten Hag’s arrival, Rashford apparently hadn’t played without pain in over two years. A full summer of rest and recuperation doubtless helped, but even when Rashford has felt a twang this term, it was timed around United’s inactivity after the death of the queen.
That has allowed Rashford to start 15 of United’s 17 Premier League games so far, winning back his England place in the process. Not even the burden of carrying United’s goal threat has weighed him down. If anything, Rashford is flourishing with the responsibility, though he’d doubtless be grateful if Wout Weghorst could help him with the load.
Regardless, Ten Hag’s presence and the fact Rashford is in the goalscoring form of his life is certainly no coincidence. With 15 goals so far, the 25-year-old is well on course to beat his best season total of 22 in 2019/20. Playing in his preferred position helps and it shouldn’t have taken Ten Hag’s arrival for United to suss that Rashford was being hampered by his versatility. Last season, one to forget for player and club, he was shunted across the front line, playing as many games off the right as left, and eight more through the middle.
🔥 Marcus Rashford’s last eight home games for Man Utd:
🆚 Charlton ⚽️⚽️
🆚 Everton ⚽️🅰️
🆚 Bournemouth ⚽️
🆚 Nottingham Forest ⚽️🅰️
🆚 Burnley ⚽️
🆚 West Ham ⚽️
🆚 FC Sheriff ⚽️
🤝 Equaling Rooney’s 2010 record of scoring in eight successive home games pic.twitter.com/8xiE3uIplu
—WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) January 13, 2023
PLAYERS NO LONGER TAKING THE P*SS
Despite Rashford’s form, Ten Hag saw fit to drop his best goalscorer for the trip to Wolves after he hit the snooze button at least once too often. The punishment raised eyebrows, which says so much more about United have been run in the past than it does about their current manager.
Of course, by the time Rashford slept in, Ten Hag had already removed the biggest obstacle to implementing the kind of culture and accountability absent for too long. Cristiano Ronaldo was a constant, nagging headache for the manager, from leaving a pre-season friendly before the final whistle, repeating the trick against Spurs because he was on the bench, to getting into bed with Piers Morgan.
Ten Hag handled Ronaldo brilliantly. Many managers, in the face of such antagonism, would have picked a fight but Ronaldo is a formidable opponent. Ten Hag attempted some pacification and dealt with the problems as they arose with the quiet, stern authority many of these players haven’t been accused to.
Luke Shaw acknowledged that: “People can’t do whatever they want and maybe that’s been part of the problem in the past with people getting away with silly little things. The manager takes all of that into consideration. Like you’ve seen today, if you’re not keeping the standards high then you won’t play.”
For most clubs, that’s a given. But not at United until Ten Hag turned up.
PROVING MOURINHO RIGHT OVER DALOT
Across the pitch from Shaw, United have had a problem at right-back dating back to Jose Mourinho’s reign. Mourinho thought he had solved it by signing ‘Europe’s best full-back in his age bracket’. Only now, four years later are we starting to see what Mourinho meant.
Prior to Ten Hag’s arrival, Diogo Dalot was drifting. In 2020/21, he drifted as far as Milan in a loan spell as United struggled to find ways to eke the potential out of the Portugal defender. When Ten Hag was appointed, one of the first signings he was tipped to make was a right-back, which is what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did in 2019 when United spent £50million on Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Perhaps Ten Hag might have recruited a right-sided defender had the funds been available but, instead, Ten Hag has given Dalot a consistent run in his team which perhaps is what he needed all along. That and some proper coaching.
Dalot’s weakness was always in the defensive aspect of his game. For Wan-Bissaka, it was his attacking. Dalot, though, has been very solid this season and seems to be relishing the one-on-one battles in which previously he was exposed.
Like Shaw, Dalot is also getting high, sometimes higher than anyone else. Which is what his game has always been about. In his absence lately, even Wan-Bissaka has looked more comfortable in the opponents’ half. If Ten Hag can turn the £50million flop into a functioning modern full-back, that would be one of his biggest achievements to date.