…Or is it yet another false dawn?
“It is the most romantic football club in the history of world football,” said Sir Alex Ferguson after a 26-year-long career at the Theatre Of Dreams, winning 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups, and two UEFA Champions League medals. It’s been a decade since the gaffer retired, handing United its last Premier League title. In those ten years, though, the romance has taken a turn for tragedy, and even worse, comedy.
If David Moyes’ era could be described as a long-lingering hangover after a quarter-century of celebration, Louis van Gaal’s two-year tenure could be termed a boring nap that tends to follow. Then came Mourinho, giving United its first false dawn, often overshadowed by the toxicity of the dressing room. Following him was Ole Gunnar Solskjær, making promises to bring back the romance to Stretford End, but with a playstyle that could be crudely described as “just vibes.”
After a string of failed permanent and interim managerial appointments, it is only now that United looks like the United of old under Dutch international Erik Ten Hag. But how do we know if it’s not another false dawn?
The CR7 Problem
Ten Hag’s initial days came with the challenge of pushing a heavy Ronaldo-sized barrel up a hill. The then 37-year-old prima donna, arguably United’s best player during the Rangnick reign, seemed to be eroding his legacy at the club, one hissy fit at a time. The drama reached its crescendo with THAT Piers Morgan interview, solidifying his departure to the green sands of Saudi Arabia. Despite his complimentary remarks about the five-time Ballon d’Or winner in public, Ten Hag’s ruthlessness in benching Ronaldo was revered by the fan base. A sign of good things to come, surely?
A £200m Rebuild
With the 6’2 feet ego out of the dressing room, Ten Hag’s next challenge was to rebuild a new spine for the team, both literally and metaphorically. The solution was to sign Lisandro Martinez from Ajax for £56.7 million and Casemiro for £60 million from Real Madrid, effectively benching United’s captain and £80 million signing, Harry Maguire. United ended up with seven new first-team players, including the high-profile signing of Antony from Ajax for £82.2 million. Overall, United spent £220 million in total.
The Devil’s In The Details
While the season has been marred with the lowest of the lows and highest of the highs since Mourinho left, with a 7-0 thumping at Anfield and a Carling Cup win respectively, there was a visible improvement in the team, hidden behind the clickbaity headlines. Before the Dutchman’s takeover, United had largely been a counter-attacking team under Mourinho and Ole, often relying too much on the brilliance of its forwards, namely Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes.
But Ten Hag ball doesn’t work that way. Unlike LVG’s boring sideways passing possession football, the gaffer prefers building his attack from the defence. And the numbers back it up too. Last year, Manchester United launched 102 direct attacks from its own half, more than “Gegenpressing” Liverpool’s 85. But there were still cracks that needed to be addressed.
A Smart And Shrewd Transfer Window
It is an overstatement to say there’s something interesting at work this season at Old Trafford, without the first ball being kicked yet. But hear me out. United has been surprisingly effective in its transfers this season, both incoming and outgoing. No longer is the club acting like an anxious caffeine addict panic-buying the first few popular names on Twitter. The focus seems to be building a team, reflected by the signing of Mason Mount from Chelsea.
The English international may not be as effective as Bruno on the ball, but off it, he’s something else. Mount will likely be played in the gap between Rashford and Casemiro, with the main purpose of recovering possession in a matter of five seconds. A role that is proving to be too intense for the ageing Christian Eriksen. The next signing comes in the form of André Onana, who may not be as good as a shot-stopper as De Gea but can effectively start attacks from his own half, complementing Ten Hag ball as we mentioned above.
But perhaps the signing that best embodies the change of philosophy is the acquisition of Rasmus Højlund for £64 million – a price that many considered a bit too high for a youngster who is yet to prove himself at an elite level. It’s not that Ten Hag isn’t aware of the rough edges of the 20-year-old, but he sees this as an opportunity to mould him in his own philosophy: a striker who presses relentlessly to create pressure in the build-up. Scrolling down the list of strikers Man Utd has acquired in their post-Fergie era, you’ll find an overwhelming majority of them had already spent their best days at other clubs (except for Lukaku and the never-ending drama that surrounds him). They were identified as quick fixes to end United’s woes. But Højlund is one for the future.
The Task Ahead
There are reports of Maguire, McTominay, Fred, and Van de Beek departing, with young players like Garnacho, Mainoo, and Diallo taking on more prominent roles this season, benefiting only from the rumoured arrivals of Sofyan Amrabat and Benjamin Pavard in a rotational capacity.
After a decade, Manchester United’s starting 11 resembles a team more than a group of individuals, and that’s a good thing. While stopping City’s well-oiled machinery seems like an impossible task, what Ten Hag is cooking does have the potential to ruin the blue’s party in the years to come. Until then, we’re keeping our fingers crossed.
Image Credits – Manchester United, Getty, Reuters and Twitter
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