How Erik ten Hag has revived Manchester United

Unbeatable in defence, classy Casemiro running midfield, Rashford banging in the goals and a no-nonsense boss who’s made Ronaldo a distant memory! Erik ten Hag has revived Man United in impressive fashion… so can they win a trophy?

  • Manchester United are in excellent form, taking 23 points from last 30 on offer
  • Tuesday night’s 3-0 win over Bournemouth consolidated their grip on top four
  • Erik ten Hag has restored high standards not seen in the post-Fergie decade
  • Cristiano Ronaldo’s acrimonious exit hasn’t knocked the team off their stride
  • Watertight at the back and finding goals, they could pick up some silverware

Manchester United are very much starting to look like their old selves. After a decade of drift and decline, Erik ten Hag increasingly looks the perfect man to restore former strength.

While Premier League title talk is premature, United are certainly going about their business in a manner that speaks to renewal and revival. A top four finish is within their grasp.

Tuesday night’s 3-0 win over Bournemouth made it nine wins from their last 10 matches in all competitions and 23 points have now been taken from the last 30 available in the Premier League.

Manchester United beat Bournemouth 3-0 on Tuesday night to continue their strong form

Erik ten Hag’s side have won all four games since the resumption, keeping four clean sheets

A defence that looked ragged at the beginning of the season has now kept four consecutive clean sheets. The forward line still looks a player or two light but is firing nonetheless.

Ten Hag’s side are into the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup, where they play League One side Charlton next week, while this Friday sees them begin their FA Cup campaign against a beleaguered Everton.

A mouth-watering Europa League play-off with Barcelona stands on the horizon. The chances of Ten Hag delivering silverware in his first season increase with every passing game.

The acrimonious departure of Cristiano Ronaldo hasn’t thrown United off their stride

United strengthened their grip on fourth spot with their wins and rivals dropping points

A January schedule that includes a derby with Manchester City – who thrashed them 6-3 in October – and a trip to leaders Arsenal suddenly doesn’t appear daunting at all.

If United were to somehow extract maximum points from those two games, then who knows what might happen next.


Major credit must go to Ten Hag for the way he has stated to turn around United’s fortunes in his first six months in charge.

He always acknowledged it would be a process of baby steps to rebuild the club following a dismal 10 years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.

In his no-nonsense way, Ten Hag has restored standards at Old Trafford that had badly slipped under his predecessors, making clear that nobody, however famous, is above the law.

His handling of the Cristiano Ronaldo situation was exemplary and United are clearly all the stronger for the Portuguese star’s departure.

Ten Hag had the courage to drop Ronaldo and his United rebuild is better off without the star

Ronaldo stormed off down the tunnel having refused to come off the bench against Tottenham

Having dropped Ronaldo early in the season, Ten Hag had the courage of his convictions to keep him on the bench despite all the histrionics.

Clear the air talks were necessary after Ronaldo refused to come on as a substitute and then stormed down the tunnel in the Tottenham game.

But when he gave his now infamous interview with Piers Morgan, United acted swiftly and decisively to mutually terminate his contract.

Ferguson was always unflinching in his belief that no single player is ever bigger than the club, even if they are one of the world’s best. Ten Hag would concur.

Ronaldo’s bombshell unauthorised interview with Piers Morgan crossed a line for United

Now the 37-year-old will be playing in Saudi Arabia for Al-Nassr on a £175m-a-year contract 

It was evident early on that Ronaldo did not fit into Ten Hag’s plans and, though the circumstances of his exit were unforeseen, it has solved a major issue that was holding United back long-term.

Indeed, the Ronaldo drama seems to have had a galvanising effect on the rest of the United squad and they have returned from the World Cup break firing on all cylinders.

On a much smaller scale, last weekend’s decision to drop Marcus Rashford after the striker overslept and was late for a team meeting was another example of Ten Hag exerting his authority.

Marcus Rashford was dropped to the bench at Wolves after he overslept and missed a meeting

But the striker atoned by coming off the bench to score United’s winning goal at Molineux

It would not have been a good look if Rashford, who is in fine form, had kept his place after an infraction of the internal rules laid down.

Determined to make amends, Rashford came off the bench at half-time against Wolves and scored the winning goal to keep United’s momentum going before giving a set of bashful interviews afterwards.

It’s also clear that Ten Hag has drawn a line under the matter and all parties have moved on. Even matters of discipline seem to be going the manager’s way right now.


On several occasions this season, United have prevailed in games where in recent times they would have drawn or even lost.

This is especially true on their travels, with the 1-0 win at Molineux added to slender successes away to Southampton, Leicester, Everton and Fulham, plus a last-gasp equaliser at Chelsea.

United’s attack were often stumped when confronted with a packed defence but now they’re finding ways through.

United are finding ways to break teams down and win games – which wasn’t always the case

Rashford’s brilliant solo goal in the Carabao Cup against Burnley showed his confidence

United top scorers 

All competitions

12 – Marcus Rashford

5 – Anthony Martial

3 – Bruno Fernandes, Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho, Antony

2 – Christian Eriksen, Alejandro Garnacho, Casemiro, Scott McTominay, Fred

1 – Luke Shaw, Diogo Dalot

They’re still not super-prolific but 3-0 home wins over Nottingham Forest and Bournemouth since the resumption have boosted the goal difference.

Rashford now has 12 for the season and is on track to score 25, as Ten Hag would expect of him.

The England forward is reaping the rewards of an intense physical training programme during pre-season and a surge in confidence resulting from an impressive World Cup.

This has manifested itself not only in four goals in four games since the season restarted but a renewed willingness to take on defenders. His solo goal against Burnley in the Carabao Cup was the best example.

While Rashford will carry the burden of goalscoring responsibility through until May, others are at least contributing.

Anthony Martial has been an unexpected bonus under Ten Hag, though injuries have limited him to just five goals so far.

There are increasingly contributions from other areas of the pitch as well, with midfielders and even defenders empowered to get into shooting positions.

Casemiro and Luke Shaw were on target against Bournemouth, Fred netted against Forest and Christian Eriksen in the Burnley cup tie.

Luke Shaw celebrates his goal against Bournemouth – a move he both started and finished 

United still have Jadon Sancho to come back, hopefully refreshed after a spell of individual training in Holland during the World Cup after Ten Hag said he wasn’t ‘physically or mentally’ ready to play.

There should hopefully be more to come from Brazilian forward Antony, who has so far contributed just three goals in 14 games for United’s £83m outlay.

But with youngsters Alejandro Garnacho and Anthony Elanga the only other attacking options, you sense United are still just one injury or crisis of confidence away from being quite toothless.

United manager Erik ten Hag (centre) confirmed that Sancho is back in Manchester after a spell in Holland during which the England winger worked on his physical fitness and mindset

Having lost out on Cody Gakpo to Liverpool, United are looking for reinforcements up front in this month’s window, but Ten Hag has made clear they won’t ‘burn money’.

If they are to continue competing on four fronts until the end of the season, it’s clear United will need an additional source of goals.


United’s current defensive performances – that’s four clean sheets since the restart now – could not be further removed from their shambles of an early season.

When they crashed to that 4-0 defeat at Brentford in the second game of Ten Hag’s tenure, the back line looked amateurish.

While things aren’t perfect – United remain indebted to David de Gea saves in most games – there is definite improvement and they look solid the bulk of the time.

Lisandro Martinez has looked right at home since United signed him from Ajax in the summer and is now a World Cup winner.

United’s defence has certainly come a long way since the 4-0 humbling at Brentford in August

Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane have forced a rock solid central defensive partnership

The Argentine operates well with Raphael Varane, just as Ten Hag intended, though the Frenchman’s injury issues have prevented this partnership being as regular as the manager might have liked.

Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof have lost their places but stepped in when called upon in the win over Bournemouth and didn’t put a foot wrong.

When Luke Shaw was favoured to Maguire at the back for the Forest and Wolves games – in spite of Maguire’s successful World Cup with England – the likes of Rio Ferdinand suggested he should leave the club.

But given the volume of games between now and the end of the season, Maguire will get plenty of opportunities and Ten Hag will be reassured he can step in and perform.

Harry Maguire stepped back into United’s defence during Tuesday’s win over Bournemouth

Shaw has been a real revelation since coming back from the World Cup, not only playing at centre-half as if it was his natural position, but contributing in an attacking sense too.

Against Bournemouth, he started and finished a lovely flowing move for the second goal before pinging the perfect diagonal pass to Bruno Fernandes to tee up Rashford for No 3.

It’s inconceivable Shaw would have possessed such confidence under most of Ten Hag’s predecessors – certainly not Jose Mourinho – and the left-back is clearly enjoying his football again.

Luke Shaw has shown confidence whether playing at left-back or slotting in as a centre-half

Ten Hag has also got a tune out of Aaron Wan-Bissaka who, rather like Martial, had been written off by most observers.

It just shows how fortunes can change in football and proves everyone will have a role to play.

Another notable feature of United’s defence this season has been the pleasure they all take in making crucial tackles, blocks and interceptions.

Martinez and Diogo Dalot especially enjoy a chest bump and hefty back slap when an opposition attack is foiled.

Martinez, Dalot and Varane enjoy their defensive work during a match earlier this season


Several individuals have impressed but Casemiro is undoubtedly United’s player of the season so far.

The Brazilian’s record at Real Madrid showed he is a true champion but only now are United fans fully appreciating just how good he is.

It’s the quiet and unfussy manner in which Casemiro goes about his job of shielding the back four, snuffing out danger before it becomes danger, and moving the ball forwards, often with a simple pass.

In the 16 games Casemiro has started this season, they have kept 10 clean sheets.

Casemiro has proved to be an outstanding signing and has elevated United in midfield 

When Casemiro and Varane have played together in league action – 487 minutes – United haven’t conceded a goal with the pair’s understanding from their Real Madrid days still strong.

That isn’t the only working partnership in the United side, however. Casemiro and Christian Eriksen have dovetailed well in midfield, combining from a set-piece for the opener against Bournemouth and United have won 10 of the last 12 games they’ve started together.

With all due respect to Fred and Scott McTominay, this is a far superior midfield combination for United, certainly when it comes to progressing the ball forward.

Defensive midfield was a long-festering sore for United but Casemiro has finally solved the issue.

Christian Eriksen and Casemiro appear to be precisely what United needed in midfield


Since that dark afternoon at the Etihad on October 2 when Ten Hag’s side shipped six goals to City, they’ve won 13 matches, drawn two and lost just one.

That 3-1 loss at Aston Villa on November 6, when they conceded twice in the opening 11 minutes, increasingly looks like a blip.

United aren’t always convincing but they keep winning and that’s all that matters to keep momentum building across all competitions.

While the World Cup hiatus seems to have exposed weaknesses in some of their top four rivals, or has depleted them with injury issues, United have strode on.

David de Gea still bails United out on occasion but they’re less reliant on the keeper nowadays

Man United fixtures 

Premier League unless stated

Friday Everton (H)

FA Cup third round

January 10 Charlton Athletic (H)

Carabao Cup quarter-final

January 14 Manchester City (H)

January 22 Arsenal (A)

February 4 Crystal Palace (H)

February 12 Leeds United (A)

Can they challenge for the title? It’s a tall order given they trail leaders Arsenal by nine points. It would require them to beat the Gunners and City this month, while still relying on slip-ups.

But that was always a pipedream for Ten Hag’s first season. Finishing in the top four and getting back into the Champions League was far more realistic and with a two-point cushion to Tottenham in fifth – and with a game in hand – it’s looking more and more likely.

United have a favourable draw against Everton in the third round of the FA Cup on Friday and against third-tier Charlton in the Carabao Cup last eight next week.

City are their main obstacle to winning the EFL Cup, which would be their first silverware since 2017, but there would be far more optimism of beating them than even in October when they last met.

Barcelona was the toughest possible draw United could have got in the Europa League play-off round next month after they finished behind Real Sociedad in their group.

But while the Catalans may currently top LaLiga, United have the capability to beat them over two legs.

If they do, they would be favourites to lift the trophy, with their main challengers being Arsenal (who’ll be distracted by their Premier League bid), Juventus and Sevilla.

Maybe Ten Hag could mimic Mourinho in winning the EFL Cup and the Europa League in his first season.

United last lifted a trophy in 2017, when Jose Mourinho’s side won the UEFA Europa League

But that will require some clever squad rotation and a frank assessment of priorities. In 2016-17, Mourinho went all in for the Europa League with United only coming sixth in the league.

Will Ten Hag want to sacrifice a top-four finish for first-season silverware in the final weeks? It’d be a nice dilemma to have.

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