EPL TALK: Whisper it, but Manchester United may be title contenders now
Of the challengers, only the Red Devils are clear-headed in thought and deed, thanks to Erik ten Hag's no-nonsense management
THE English Premier League signing of the season is Erik ten Hag. There can be no disputing that now. The Dutchman might even be Manchester United’s most astute addition since Sir Alex Ferguson.
Finally, the Red Devils have a manager built in the image of the statue that stands outside a dilapidated Old Trafford: uncompromising and unapologetically dour.
Ten Hag rolled back the years in his post-match interview on Sunday, dismissing the first-half against Leicester City as “rubbish”. It was not so much a critique of United as it was an attack of the Fergie clone, a grumpy leader reasserting his authority and ambition.
His predecessor, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, would’ve amplified the early positives against the Foxes. Not ten Hag. He’s the auntie at every reunion dinner. He finds fault in everything.
But it’s not a siege mentality. Jose Mourinho’s “us against them” spiel worked at his early clubs, but by the time he turned up at Old Trafford, he’d lapsed into caricature, like a fading comedian in search of fresh material.
Ten Hag’s routine isn’t an act. Like Ferguson, he really believes this stuff. After Marcus Rashford’s superb opener against Leicester, ten Hag was caught on camera pulling Diogo Dalot aside and remonstrating with him for poor positioning. For the United manager, the goal was decent. His side’s defending was not. The Dutchman sees such things in black-and-white terms. Organised teams win trophies. Chaotic teams occasionally get lucky - as the Red Devils did in the first-half - but they don’t win trophies.
Astonishingly, ten Hag has a shot at three. A 2-2 draw at the Nou Camp leaves United with a decent chance of knocking Barcelona out of the Europa League. There’s Sunday’s Carabao Cup final against Newcastle. Then there’s the English Premier League title.
And with that, we’re spinning round the helter-skelter of media hyperbole once more. How fickle we are in the eternal search for lazy clickbait. A few wins and a bit of form from Rashford and the Red Devils are lifting the title, are they?
Probably not, but they could be in with a real shout. Of all the teams in the top five, only United are currently clear-headed in thought and deed. Manchester City are staggering across the stage as pantomime villains with varying degrees of success. Mostly winning, sometimes not, but obviously distracted.
Arsenal continue to display the composure of a hormonal teenager on a first date with a prom queen ...We might go all the way! We might go all the way!... The pressure and fear of anti-climax is overwhelming. Things still threaten to explode.
Newcastle United are a work in progress and Tottenham are forever doomed to be Tottenham; in the chase for silverware whilst gripped with the nihilistic sense that it’s all going to be for nothing, as usual.
That just leaves the Red Devils in the incongruous position of being beacons of tranquillity in these strange times. The clowns have calmed down. There’s nothing to see here, except a regular formation, a familiar pattern of play and professionals performing at the peak of their respective powers, with a handful going one step beyond.
Solutions found for every snag
Nothing seems to faze them or confound ten Hag.
Leicester’s counter-pressing keeps breaking through a Casemiro-less midfield? No worries. There’s David de Gea, confidence restored and ready to re-enact Gordon Banks' save of the century against Pele, with a strong right hand and the reflexes of a dropped cat.
Youth and inexperience got the better of Alejandro Garnacho against the Foxes, who often bypassed him on the break? No worries. There’s Jadon Sancho, mental health restored and ready to play a major role in setting up his own goal, his second in three league appearances.
The Glazers’ efforts to sell the club took precedence over ten Hag’s transfer market demands, leaving the manager to sign journeyman Wout Weghorst as a second-tier striker? No worries. Rashford has been recalibrated, mentally and physically. He has usurped Cristiano Ronaldo, a bold move that has obviously had a profound impact on the younger man’s psyche. Rashford is a striker reborn.
His 23rd and 24th goals of the season were reminiscent of great United forwards delivering on the job description. When Robin van Persie, Ruud van Nisltelrooy and the Treble-winning quartet of 1999 went through, the Theatre of Dreams instinctively rose to its feet. The goal was a given.
Rashford has brought that expectation back to Old Trafford. He goes through. He generally scores. It’s a reassuring quality to discover at such a pivotal juncture, knowing that a patchy start to any fixture can be remedied with a single Rashford opportunity.
He did it against Leicester.
Eric Cantona did it several times during that memorable run of 1-0 victories that guided the Class of ’92 to a league and cup double in 1996. It’s a lovely habit to develop and an even harder one for opponents to break. More importantly, perhaps, the Gunners don’t have a forward quite like Rashford, the one playing above the law of averages, the one who just can’t miss.
Rashford is now the first Red Devil to score in seven straight Premier League home games since Wayne Rooney in 2010. De Gea’s clean sheet equalled Peter Schmeichel’s record of 180 for the club. United collected seven of the nine points available during Casemiro’s three-match suspension. These statistics are not a coincidence, but a consequence of being led by a calm, focused and perpetually dissatisfied manager.
These records also feel like a culmination, a vague sense of ten Hag chomping on a cigar and loving it when a plan comes together. United are not the A-Team just yet, but the parts are gliding rather than grinding. De Gea, Rashford, Sancho, Luke Shaw, Dalot, Fred and Bruno Fernandes, among others, are all on an upswing. They are not going to fall away.
Of course, the club’s place in the shop window provides the biggest obstacle. American and Qatari billionaires are circling Old Trafford like hyenas smelling a wounded hippo, which is causing disquiet among supporters groups. It may get ugly. The manager is wise to focus only on football matters.
Ten Hag doesn’t need to concern himself with the grand plans of potential owners. He’s already building something special, despite his curmudgeonly claims to the contrary. Even if United’s latest performance was a bit “rubbish”, it would be foolish to trash their title credentials.
Ten Hag doesn’t need to concern himself with the grand plans of potential owners. He’s already building something special, despite his curmudgeonly claims to the contrary.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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