February 26, 2023. Wembley. The inaugural piece of silverware for the season, the Carabao Cup, was up for grabs. Eddie Howe’s Newcastle United locked horns with Manchester United who were under the stewardship of Erik ten Hag. Newcastle United of late have become a formidable force under new management and owners. And yet, they conceded twice in the first half of the final. Goals from Marcus Rashford and Casemiro were enough to see it through and secure the cup. Manchester United finally got their hands on a trophy after a long time. They had to wait patiently, and sail through rough seas, while their major rivals all enjoyed relatively successful periods during that time.
The manager’s magic
“A coach cannot perform magic,” ten Hag said during an interview after being appointed as United’s head coach.
“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t.” This very much resembles how Sir Alex Ferguson turned the tie around. The legendary manager joined United in 1986 after his much successful stint with Aberdeen. He trained them so well that Aberdeen managed to knock out Bayern Munich and Real Madrid to win the European Cup Winner’s cup. United were 21st in the league when he joined them as their manager and didn’t win his first medal until the FA cup win in 1989-90. The stocks were on the rise, and an army was being forged in those fiery chasms.
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“The second act is “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.” Ferguson managed to get the best out of his players every time they stepped onto the pitch. United’s sheer dominance after 1992 speaks volumes.
“Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.” Clinching the league once wasn’t enough. Media and pundits alike would’ve buried the success as a fluke if the success wasn’t maintained. The hardest part was sustaining the winning mentality, and replacing ageing players with young guns who’d play their heart out.
After Fergie’s regime
In 2013, Sir Alex finally called it a day. Replacing someone like Sir Alex was never going to be easy. United struggled under David Moyes, another Scott. Then came the legendary Dutch manager Louis van Gaal, who failed as well. Mourinho gave United some hope, delivering United silverware in the form of UEL. Club legend Ole Gunnar Solksjaer was next. Ralf Rangnick was appointed as the next manager post-Ole era.
In the summer of 2022, United finally managed to bring in Erik ten Hag from Ajax Amsterdam. At the time of writing, United sit third, behind Arsenal and Manchester City. Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored 18 Premier League (PL) goals in the previous campaign, had his contract terminated by the club in November 2022.
Ten Hag turn and some revelations
The fix had to start from the very foundation. United, under Ole, played a counter attacking football wherein the team invited pressure, soaked it, and hit the opposition in quick transitions. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood and Daniel James, along with Bruno Fernandes, who played those killer passes to perfection, made sure that United came home with all three points. The underlying issue was clear. The side lacked players who could progress the ball and play a possession-based football.
Lisandro Martinez was signed from ten Hag’s previous club. Martinez, who is shorter than the average PL centre back, has fit in real smooth at United. He resembles Nemanja Vidic in his prime, placing his head where other players are afraid of putting their boots. Arguably, he’s the best technically gifted player in the squad and made a good pair with Rafael Varane. The club captain Harry Maguire, who had his fair share of lapses got dropped to the bench, and the armband was passed on to Bruno Fernandes.
Casemiro’s entry and redefined midfield
Casemiro was signed to provide better protection. Finally, after ages, United have signed a proper “6”. Eriksen was the other player who joined United in the summer of 2022 for free. He’s a progressive passer and a set-piece technician. The infamous McFred duo (Scott McTominay and Fred, who were deployed as pivots during Ole’s tenure) were now replaced by world-class midfielders.
Another Brazilian made it to Manchester United as well. Antony was signed from Ajax and had worked with Erik and Lisandro Martinez. A proper right winger with decent pace and enough trickery to beat his man; Tyrell Malacia was signed to cover the left-back slot.
United were expected to struggle after Ronaldo’s departure, but it paved way for the rise of Marcus Rashford. The Wythenshawe Warrier transformed into a hungry predator under Erik and is one of the most in-form players in Europe’s big five leagues at the time of writing.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Jadon Sancho were sanctioned time away from the club where the players trained to improve their mental state and personal issues. Both of them were then gradually reintroduced into the first team setup after their return.
Garnacho, the super sub
United’s revived youth system has given Erik ten Hag a future star in the making in the form of Alejandro Garnacho. The Argentine is often deployed as an impact substitute who isn’t afraid of taking on his opposition right back. Kobbie Mainoo, another youth prospect, is also training with United’s first team.
The resurgence of Dalot and Varane helped ten Hag to form a solid foundation that is again protected by David de Gea. Wout Weghorst’s arrival on loan from Burnley helped them to press aggressively from the front and Sabitzer has added much required squad depth, as the team was still in all four competitions.
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Erik’s ultimate goal
United are still a work in progress and there are multiple profiles that ten Hag would want. Defeats at Anfield and to City were a wakeup call for those who thought the team had over-achieved. United are due for takeover, as per various sources, and is expected to complete it in the summer of 2023. Erik ten Hag’s goal would be to reach the latter stages of UEL, finish top four in the PL, and maybe another cup final at Wembley. Emulating the successful stint of Sir Alex would prove tough, but who knows? Maybe United have another magician at their helm. And he’s got a few tricks up his sleeves.
(Harikrishnan B is a Mumbai-based football writer and Manchester United fan)