First, the good news: Manchester United have started on a high. A run of 11 wins in 12 games has lifted Erik ten Hag’s men to fourth in the Premier League table, set up a Carabao Cup semi-final meeting with Nottingham Forest and put Reading through to the fourth round of the FA Cup.
That run has included favorable opposition, but this run of wins has seen the team play closer to fans’ favorite “perfect” United. There is more pace in attack as well as a sense of solidity in defence. Academy graduate Alejandro Garnacho’s last-minute winner with a clever sideline clinched the victory over Fulham. They are on their longest winning streak since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took charge in January 2019 and are the only English club still in four competitions.
Ten Hag seem confident in the job and have built a capable football team out of a dysfunctional and frustrated squad. Marcus Rashford is one of the best strikers in the country and critics have started writing about Lisandro Martinez’s height and marveling at his defensive timing.
Almost every interview with a United player has a section where they talk about the improved discipline and collective team spirit their manager has brought, with Ten Haag himself talking about the high standards and rules that must be met if progress is to be sustained. Many observers saw United as contenders for a top-four finish before the start of the season. However, at the start of January, analytics website FiveThirtyEight give United a 59% chance of qualifying for the Champions League, the third best chance behind Arsenal and Manchester City.
That’s the good news. Manchester United things on the surface and the environment is positive so far.
Now for the not-so-good bubbling under the surface.
It begins with the club’s precarious financial position, with a string of debtors to be paid so that future projects can match Ten Hag’s ambitions. The manager wants a new striker in his squad, but owes more than £300 million ($365 million) in transfer fees to other clubs, and the Glazer’s ownership appears unwilling to green light another big payment to get the player he wants. . The proposed redevelopment of Old Trafford is believed to be on hold as United’s owner announced in November 2022 that he was “considering all strategic alternatives, including new investment in the club, sale or other transactions relating to the business”.
There is a gap between Ten Hag’s wants and his needs, which means the wave that United fans are currently riding could come crashing down. By the manager’s own admission, Anthony Martial is currently unable to cope with the physical demands of playing three 90-minute games in one week, when his club have 12 games between now and the end (including the Manchester derby). February. Despite Martial’s (relative) lack of goals and limited minutes this season, he remains close to being irreplaceable in United’s system, with a style of play that is difficult to replicate without buying into the transfer market. Vout Weghorst joins on a short-term loan, but the team still lacks the 20-goal-a-season mark of their rivals.
The midfield pivot of Christian Eriksen and Casemiro is a significant upgrade from the ‘McFred’ (Scott McTominay and Fred) partnership of the past, but both men will be subject to more aggressive pressing systems against Arsenal, Manchester City and Barcelona. next week.
United are still a work in progress as they slowly adapt to the style of play. Their manager has a number of plates to spin both on and off the pitch and questions are being raised as to whether his side are ready to run so soon after stepping forward again.
This brings us to a thought-provoking question: Is it worth losing one of their competitive goals so they can channel their energy into something else?
The last time United were “tanked” was in 2016-2017. a season in which Jose Mourinho prioritized winning the Europa League (and subsequent Champions League qualification) over chasing a top-four finish. United went on a five-match unbeaten run in the Premier League from the end of April until the final game of the season, but reached the Europa League final, eventually beating Ajax to win the club’s final piece of silverware.
There were nervous moments, such as John Guidetti’s last-minute chance that would have won Celta Vigo in a fine semi-final, but history sees Mourinho’s game as more successful than 2019-20. a season in which United finished third. in the league and suffered defeat in three cup semi-finals. Tanking can work for Manchester United as long as you get the trophy you choose to prioritize; The 2016-17 sixth place Premier League position has faded into memory.
Ten Haag himself has given little indication that he is the kind of manager who would pass up the cup to focus on league performance. The 52-year-old gave a matter-of-fact response of “we want to win every game” when asked about his Europa League goals during the group stages, and has spent much of his time in the FA and League Cups complimenting the format of each competition. A win equals a bigger win and this promising run of form has allowed Ten Hag to earn goodwill and buy-in from the players and fan base.
By trying to do everything now, he’s building a team that’s better equipped to win more in the future. A Europa League play-off draw against Barcelona means that qualification to the continental competition is more difficult than games against Reading and Nottingham Forest, but United will need to learn how to win if they are to win any silverware in the coming seasons. the most challenging of the opposition.
Champions League qualification and other glories will be the ultimate goal for this group of players, but it can’t be achieved against ‘beatable’ sides alone. It’s good to prioritize your goals to minimize potential risks and maximize profits, but there’s a risk of limiting the amount of rewards you can reap.
(Top photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)