Erik ten Hag is beginning to suggest he has several clues for reviving Manchester United after their remarkable resurgence from two opening defeats to four wins on the bounce, culminating with Sunday’s emphatic 3-1 victory over Arsenal.
To be inside Old Trafford was to experience the stadium in a rare jubilant mood as United enthusiasts witnessed their team put away the league leaders and end the contest at a canter. The prevailing sense was of surprise at a memory: that this is how it felt during the golden years of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign and that feeling may be starting to become present again.
There is no rush to declare Ten Hag’s new team as even close to the finished article – a point the Dutchman was shrewd enough to make emphatically afterwards. What is happening is a manager showing he possesses a keen football brain that marries tactical nous, insight into players and opponents, a strong will and, most of all, decisiveness.
Behind United’s rise from the dog days of losing 2-1 at home to Brighton and the 4-0 trouncing at Brentford is Ten Hag making the right calls on the big decisions and enjoying the luck that comes with being brave. And his man-management is markedly improving the squad.
A headline case-study that encapsulates all of this is Marcus Rashford. The forward is up to three goals and two league assists in six appearances compared to his paltry four and two from 25 games last season. All players require confidence but Ten Hag has surmised instantly that Rashford is fuelled by the stuff and figured out how to transfuse it into a footballer whose height, pace, strength and menace are the raw characteristics of the modern forward.
Rashford can still appear insipid and lacking the relentless will to press Ten Hag demands but this may be because the manager has ordered the 24-year-old to conserve his energy for the lightning bursts that tore Arsenal apart for his two goals that ended their 100% record.
The first pointed to this as it came moments after a similar sprint on to a delightful Christian Eriksen pass that sliced open the defence. This chance ended with the familiar sight from last season of Rashford faltering precisely when it mattered instead of backing himself to smash home. But, after a breather, Rashford next ran through for a Bruno Fernandes ball and if his touch was clumsy and his feet required rearranging, this time the trigger was pulled and, via a ricochet off Ben White, Aaron Ramsdale was beaten.
Ten Hag is also playing a winning hand regarding Cristiano Ronaldo. The summer started with news emerging of his wish to leave United, creating a headache for the new manager. The Dutchman’s response: to talk up the 37-year-old as an asset and have the club brief he was not for sale. The headache may become a migraine after Ronaldo did not depart in the window – Ten Hag might privately believe building spirit and cohesion is easier without a discontented megastar around the place – but as the former Ajax manager had overseen three victories by the transfer deadline, his use of Ronaldo as an impact substitute was a fillip for his authority and the team’s potency late on in games.
Another revelation is Eriksen, who even Fernandes may have seen as a rival to play the No 10 role, even if he insisted in pre-season they could most definitely operate alongside each other. They can and do – except Eriksen is positioned behind Fernandes, a sleek and purring midfield presence who always has his private film of the action, who can deliver a Hollywood pass, nip the ball off an attacker, ghost forward into the area, test the goalkeeper from long range and, most significantly, elevate those around him.
For £12.9m, Tyrell Malacia appears as close to a bargain as Eriksen’s free acquisition, the young left-back dislodging Luke Shaw, though the sight of Bukayo Saka wheeling past him as if on skates on Sunday is a concern. This did not lead to a goal unlike the later Raphaël Varane gift to Martin Ødegaard that set up Saka’s equaliser. But this was a first material error from a Champions League and World Cup-winning centre-back who is another player rejuvenated under Ten Hag.
The Frenchman is partnered by Lisandro Martínez – one more Ten Hag success-story signing. The Argentinian loves to defend, can initiate moves from the back and has an element missing from United recently: personality. So, too, does Antony, a €100m winger who decorated his debut with a coolly taken opener against Arsenal and whose subsequent celebrations (this observer counted four) suggested the Brazilian is the type of showman who has not arrived at United since Ronaldo in 2003.
If Antony proves half as good, Ten Hag will be pleased. And United fans can be heartened further that Casemiro is yet to start as the side’s midfield “cement” (his manager’s characterisation) and how the dropping of the captain, Harry Maguire, coincides with the four-match winning streak.
At the moment Ten Hag is the manager with the Midas touch. He and the team are sure to stumble but standing three points from the top after six games is a convincing return and, as the 52-year-old likes to repeat, there is vast room for improvement in his fledgling tenure.