Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired from coaching and left Manchester United in the summer of 2013 after 27 years, no manager has succeeded at Old Trafford. David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ralf Rangnick as well as Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick, who took over temporarily, have failed to take this luxury club back to its great days. They didn't give the fans too many moments of grace. Even if there were, they were momentary, small, the kind that leave no memory. Disappear from the average fan's head a few months later.
Last summer, United appointed Erik ten Hag to the all-challenging job after years of success at Ajax, and his start wasn't easy either. He lost the opening two rounds to Brighton at home (2-1) and Brentford away (4-0) and it looked like all the hope they had put on his shoulders was going to fall apart faster than they thought, even faster than all those who had failed before him. Today, with United having one last game left this season – an FA Cup final against Manchester City, you could say Ten Hag lived up to his expectations.
After these two games, in which the Red Devils were very confused, Casemiro and Anthony arrived, giving Manchester United quality. With them came the first victory of the season over Liverpool and since that home victory against arch-rivals, Manchester United have gone on to win 23 games at Old Trafford this season, drawing 4 and losing once to Real Sociedad in the Europa League. Ten Hag has turned Old Trafford back into the fortress it once was. "Until recently, opposing teams came to Old Trafford and didn't even have to roll up their sleeves to win," former player Rio Ferdinand said on his podcast, "This season Ten Hag equalled United's all-time club record for home wins in a season – 27. There is consistency, it starts to really feel like home. As in the past," he added.
If you were to ask United fans 'what would be a successful season for you', most would answer that finishing in the top four would be a phenomenal success. Ten Hag has managed to carry his apprentices to that goal and will play in the Champions League next season. He improved the precarious situation of Luke Shaw, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Diogo Dalot, Victor Lindelof, Fred and others, who seemed to be on the crossroads. Under him, Marcus Rashford, who endured two difficult years on a personal level, had the best season of his career. He led his apprentices to win the League Cup with a victory in the final over the magnificent Newcastle who also finished in the top 4.
Another huge challenge that Ten Hag had to deal with and came out of with the upper hand was the confrontation with Cristiano Ronaldo. Ten Hag wanted to integrate the aging Portuguese on his own terms, the star didn't like it, until he attacked the club and his coach in a pre-World Cup interview and arrived at the World Cup as a free agent. The controversy surrounding Ronaldo in Qatar and his feud with Seleção coach Fernando Santos only made people appreciate Ten Hag more and realize that Ronaldo was no longer ready to play for the club, certainly one that was in the process of recovery.
Ten Hag thanks the crowd. A successful first year, photo: AP
And there is also something to improve
The places where Ten Hag fell require more work by him and the professional staff and probably also a significant reinforcement of two or three top players in world football, as rumours surrounding Harry Kane gain momentum. United have failed to beat any of the top nine Premier League teams away this season. Also, the Europa League elimination against Sevilla, a team that on paper United is better than also hurt morale, with the negative climax coming in the big breakdown at Anfield, in the historic 7-0 defeat to Liverpool.
To improve things that need improvement, United need money and is expected to change ownership in the coming weeks as an investment fund led by Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani and billionaire Jim Ratcliffe battle to buy the club from the Glazer brothers. The club's financial strength, coupled with Ten Hag's influence, could attract top-tier talent to Old Trafford. The new signings can integrate seamlessly into the team and improve quality and competitiveness on the 11. As it stands, the club and its fans have reason to be optimistic.
Ten Hag with his players. More spot reinforcement is needed to make another leap forward, Photo: Reuters
The goal: to ruin City's treble
To turn Ten Hag's first season from successful to phenomenal, his players need to beat Manchester City in Saturday's FA Cup final at Wembley. United are the only team in England to have won the treble (1998/9) and if they can ruin Pep Guardiola's and his players' dream of achieving this great feat, the celebrations on the red side will be great.
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If they lose, City will have one game in next Saturday night's Champions League final against Inter Milan to register alongside the Devils. As of now, United are nowhere near City in terms of ability to control the game, nor in the quality of their players, but they have shown this season that they can do damage to any opponent. Plus, regardless of tomorrow's outcome, her coach showed the steering wheel is in good hands.
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