Man United were a SHAMBLES when they lost at Crystal Palace in May as the Ralf Rangnick era died a miserable death in front of Erik ten Hag… so how HAS he revitalised the club in just 28 matches?
- Man United’s 1-0 defeat at Crystal Palace back in May was a modern-day nadir
- Lacklustre showing summed up Ralf Rangnick’s directionless interim tenure
- Erik ten Hag watched from Selhurst Park stands and contemplated scale of task
- But United return eight months on potentially on the cusp of a title challenge
- Their win over Man City laid down a marker with leaders Arsenal coming up
- Ten Hag has overhauled the team and improved attitude – and is getting results
It could easily have been enough to make Erik ten Hag pack his bags and take the first plane back to Amsterdam.
The Dutch coach sat in the stands at Selhurst Park and watched the Manchester United team he’d agreed to take over stink the place out in a modern-day nadir.
They lost 1-0 to Crystal Palace on the final day of last season and were fortunate not to lose out on their Europa League place. It was their sixth consecutive away defeat and ensured United’s lowest points return in a season since 1990.
Manchester United’s miserable 2021-22 season ended with a lacklustre loss at Crystal Palace
It was a sixth consecutive away defeat as the Ralf Rangnick interim era fizzled out badly
Incoming manager Erik ten Hag watched on from the stands and couldn’t have been impressed
Interim manager Ralf Rangnick, soon to scurry off to take charge of Austria, had warned a few weeks earlier that United needed ‘open heart surgery’ and it was hard to disagree.
Just a glance at United’s line-up in south London that day showed how much ground they had to make up.
Edinson Cavani played up front having decided he fancied a run-out, youngsters Anthony Elanga and Hannibal Mejbri started out wide.
There was the defensive combination of Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire, plus the Fred-Scott McTominay partnership in midfield. It was a team crying out for inspiration.
United are flying now, with Marcus Rashford scoring their winning goal against Man City
In just a few months, Erik ten Hag has transformed United into contenders to win silverware
Most of United’s players had been reluctant to give their best for Rangnick and with the stop-gap manager finally on his way, they certainly weren’t going to elevate themselves above the lacklustre here.
To compound matters, Wilfried Zaha, their former player, scored the decisive goal for Palace.
It seemed a hell of a long way back from that low point yet just eight months on, Ten Hag’s United sit could move second in the Premier League table if they win at Palace on Wednesday night.
Having beaten Manchester City last weekend, wins over Palace and then leaders Arsenal on Sunday will put them in the title race. They’re also still competing in three cup competitions.
Ten Hag’s United are some way ahead of schedule – it’s more revolution than evolution so far. In so many ways, he has improved the team from that abysmal performance back in May.
United could move second if they beat Crystal Palace on Wednesday with Arsenal to come
Although a genuine title challenge may prove beyond them, United could win some silverware
Overhauling the team
The United team that walks out at Selhurst on Wednesday will be pretty much unrecognisable from that last visit.
Bruno Fernandes, Fred, Diogo Dalot and David de Gea are the only likely starters, while Raphael Varane and Alejandro Garnacho were on the bench last time.
Yes, United did max out the credit card back in the summer, spending over £200million, but so many areas of the pitch have been strengthened.
Casemiro didn’t come cheap but he is the reliable defensive midfielder United have been crying out for and he’s formed an understanding with Christian Eriksen that is an upgrade on ‘McFred’.
Casemiro is proving to be the defensive midfielder United have needed for several years
Two summer signings – Casemiro (right) and Christian Eriksen (left) have combined well
United line-up vs Crystal Palace in May
De Gea; Dalot, Lindelof, Maguire, Telles; McTominay, Fred; Elanga, Fernandes, Mejbri; Cavani
Probable United XI for Wednesday night
De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Varane, Martinez, Shaw; Fred, Casemiro; Antony, Eriksen, Fernandes; Rashford
Argentine World Cup winner Lisandro Martinez has raised standards in defence – even if he can’t get in the side at the moment – and looks solid with Varane alongside and Casemiro in front.
It certainly represents an improvement on the Lindelof-Maguire combination that was liable to commit a blunder at any moment.
Tyrell Malacia has also done well, offering competition to Luke Shaw at left-back, so much so the England man has been switched into central defence at times.
Lisandro Martinez has been a world class addition to United’s defence this season
Among Ten Hag’s first acts in the summer was to oversee a clearing out of deadwood, many of whom were out of contract.
Cavani and Paul Pogba were among big name departures, but the likes of Jesse Lingard, Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata, Andreas Pereira and Eric Bailly (on loan) were also cut loose.
United didn’t recoup a great deal of money for them but it cleared the decks for Ten Hag to rebuild. The team Palace encounter this week will be unrecognisable in quality and attitude from that last meeting.
Edinson Cavani was one of several players whose last United outing came at Palace in May
Improving the existing players
While the new arrivals have boosted United, it was also necessary to get the maximum out of those already in the squad.
That simply didn’t happen under Rangnick, who quickly lost the dressing room, and to a large extent under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Ten Hag and his coaching staff must be praised for putting fire back in the belly of Marcus Rashford, who has become United’s most important player again and finds himself on a hot streak of eight goals in seven matches since the World Cup.
Marcus Rashford is in the form of his life, with eight goals in his last seven matches
But we’ve seen uplift in others, too. Anthony Martial looked to be heading for the Old Trafford exit door in the summer but is enjoying a decent season, even if he needs to score more.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka was another likely to leave but all of a sudden he is playing regularly again at right-back and has his confidence restored.
Fred has been much-maligned but his tenacity in shadowing Kevin De Bruyne and others was a big factor in the win over Manchester City.
It is as if Ten Hag has found an extra 10 per cent in several individuals, to the benefit of the collective.
Fred did a good job of shadowing Kevin De Bruyne during Saturday’s Manchester derby win
Sticking with a system and style
While United still lined up in a 4-2-3-1 shape at Palace back in May, Ten Hag certainly extracts a lot more from this balanced set-up.
He’d have been forgiven for tinkering tactically at a new club, but actually it’s been a largely unchanged formation since day one.
Ten Hag has kept things simple and resisted the temptation to tinker with tactics and plans
Man United fixtures
Premier League unless stated
Wednesday Crystal Palace (A)
Sunday Arsenal (A)
January 25 Nottingham Forest (A)
Carabao Cup semi-final, first leg
January 28 Reading (H)
FA Cup fourth round
February 1 Nottingham Forest (H)
Carabao Cup semi-final, second leg
February 4 Crystal Palace (H)
It means United’s players are familiar and comfortable with their roles and what Ten Hag demands of them.
He has certainly been more successful in getting the forwards to press opposition defences hard.
Rangnick’s entire game plan was based around pressing but when Cristiano Ronaldo and Co simply refused to put in the hard yards, it disintegrated.
Ten Hag has the presence and permanence in his job to ensure this instruction gets through to his players and they carry it out.
In Saturday’s Manchester derby, it was noticeable how United’s forwards did constantly put City’s defence under pressure, meaning they couldn’t play out from the back.
Ten Hag has achieved buy-in to his methods, hasn’t complicated things tactically as someone like Pep Guardiola or Graham Potter might, and is reaping the rewards.
Restoring standards and discipline
Ten Hag came with a reputation as a strict coach but that was precisely what United needed. Solskjaer was too much of a light touch and Rangnick never gained any authority.
Right from the pre-season tour to Australia and the Far East, where a planned trip involving some of the players to the set of Neighbours organised by MUTV was kiboshed by the manager, he has restored long-lost standards.
Whether it be wearing suits on club business to banning phone so everyone talks over dinner, it’s small but meaningful improvements that accumulate to pay off on the pitch.
Marcus Rashford was punished for arriving late to a team meeting but atoned for the mistake
It may have been a jolt for some players but many have spoken positively of the changes.
Rashford was certainly very bashful as he admitted to oversleeping and missing a team meeting ahead of the trip to Wolves just after Christmas.
Ten Hag relegated him to the bench but he was introduced at half-time, scored United’s winner and a line was quickly drawn under the incident.
After the debacle at Brentford two games into the season, Ten Hag hauled his players into training on one of the hottest days of the year and made them run 13.8km as a punishment for the 4-0 loss.
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
But, crucially, he gained their respect by joining in. The next week they beat Liverpool.
The battle of wills with such a big player as Cristiano Ronaldo would have daunted many a manager but not Ten Hag.
Having dropped the Portuguese star – who, let’s remember, was easily United’s top scorer last season – because he didn’t suit the way he wanted to play, Ronaldo made life very difficult.
Such a big presence and influence in the dressing room could easily have derailed Ten Hag’s project before it had even begun, especially with antics such as refusing to come off the bench and storming down the tunnel.
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
Ten Hag could have indulged him, offering just enough playing time but at the sacrifice of how he wanted United to play.
But Ronaldo put himself in an invidious position by giving his interview to Piers Morgan and Ten Hag was fully supportive of the decision to get rid.
Now, Ronaldo is playing in the Saudi Arabian league while United are potentially going to challenge for the Premier League title.
Ronaldo’s exit has detoxified the dressing room, unshackled certain players to properly express themselves and United have emerged stronger for it.
Blend of youth and experience finding ways to win
United head to south London off the back of nine consecutive wins in all competitions either side of the World Cup – their best run since 2016-17 under Jose Mourinho.
Going further back, they have lost just once in their last 19 outings. Ten Hag’s team are finding ways to win – they aren’t steamrollering opponents (their goal difference is just +8) but with a solid defensive foundation, their attackers are delivering.
Alejandro Garnacho’s emergence has proved the Old Trafford production line is still working
Experienced and successful figures such as Casemiro, Eriksen, Varane and Martinez have raised the levels, while Ten Hag is drip-feeding in young talents.
Garnacho, 18, is performing well in a breakthrough campaign (he only won the FA Youth Cup in May), while summer signing Antony is only 22 and Jadon Sancho, who Ten Hag will want back in contention soon, is the same age.
While the January signing of Wout Weghorst, 30, will drive up the average age a little, it’s no bad thing as United desperately try to get themselves back to the glory days of old.
The past eight months have already seen remarkable progress.
Jadon Sancho is understood to have returned to Man United ‘s first-team training on Tuesday
He was sent to Holland by Erik ten Hag amid concerns over his physical and mental wellbeing
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