How has Ten Hag improved Man Utd? Let the Mailbox count the ways…

·11-min read
Man Utd manager Erik ten Hag thinks on the touchline Credit: Alamy
Man Utd manager Erik ten Hag thinks on the touchline Credit: Alamy

The Mailbox answers the question of how Erik ten Hag has improved Man Utd. Also: the Real deal for Cristiano Ronaldo; and indifference towards City.

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Erik’s impact
I’m sure many will have bitten at Lee’s Ten Hag mail but, bizarrely, I find myself agreeing with it a teeny tiny bit.

The most positive I’ve been since Fergie was the back end of van Gaal’s first season. We played superb football (highlight battering Liverpool for 90 mins only to scrape a win through the Mata volley), threw any chance at the league away by playing Rooney as cover for Carrick and letting Falcao miss 20 chances against (Jose’s) Chelsea, plus Louis got pissed at the awards night and flirted with a violinist.

Next up was the Mourinho second season, no tinpot trophies but we stopped City winning the league against us at the etihad and took their tables at Wings. We had a manager who knew how to outpoint and outscore Guardiola in the league so it was onwards and upwards as far as I was concerned.

This year the highs (Wembley residence and beating everyone at home) have been offset by remarkable lows, Sevilla the worst trip I’ve had since the covid/quarantine/penalties/Gdańsk episode. We played a higher line in the first half of the season but reverted to counterattacks for wins against City, Liverpool and Arsenal – unlike the brief van Gaal spell where we went toe to toe with everyone. Barca over two legs was special but it was secured with pragmatic football in the second leg. Also there was the whole swapping Cristiano Ronaldo with Wout Weghorst which, no matter the logic, is f*cking terrible.

So we’re not playing particularly good football and results are all over the place… why the positivity?

To honour the retirement of Souness, United had become Paul Pogba. Horribly indisciplined on the pitch, flamboyant(?) off it and not as good as they thought they were. Lingard always put a shift in for us but suffered from lack of quality and enjoying dancing too much for middle aged men in bucket hats. Cavani was there for the money and Ronaldo couldn’t believe what he was seeing/wanted to burn the mother down. Luke Shaw spent more time on his hair and teeth than on the pitch while McFred dominated our starting XI.
The whole squad was completely unlikeable*

Thus, the impact of Casemiro and Martinez can’t be understated. Injuries and suspensions provide a “what could have been” about this season and – for fans at least – allow us to dream about further competent signings that actually want to win football matches. The others have been hit and miss but there’s nothing United fans like more than commanding/aggressive players and we got two in one summer.

So, we have a squad we like/don’t detest and we’re winning all our home games – even if I jinxed the Wolves match. That’s probably why we’re slightly happier than Liverpool fans? Despite the Anfield thing.

Also, there’s a thing called trajectory. The nadir of last season means, barring a complete collapse, we’re on the way up. Liverpool on the other hand, even if they scrape past us for 4th.. it’s a long way back to 97 points and annual champions league finals against Madrid?

*except Marcus, obvs.
Simon MUFC


…Ok, I’ll bite. What has Ten Hag done to improve this team? We’ll start top down.

He’s improved the dressing room by being fair and consistent with everyone. When Ronaldo’s undermined Solskjaer and Rangnick, the team descended into camps that seemed like they couldn’t stand each other. Ten Hag offered Ronaldo a role in the squad, which Ronaldo thought was beneath him and threw his toys out of the pram and was let go. When Rashford overslept and was late for a meeting, he was benched despite being in great form. When Garnacho had a poor attitude, he was told to buck his ideas up. Ten Hag owns the dressing room and is consistent and fair with everyone. This is probably best compare with Solskjaer who made exceptions for a number of people.

He’s improved the mood by treating people like humans. Jadon Sancho may not have re-captured his Dortmund form, but he’s now not as terrible option to have as he was under Solskjaer and Rangnick. He’s working his way back into form and he’s low on confidence, but there’s patience and understanding. Martial might not be in as good a form as he’s ever been, but compared to his desire to leave the club due to Solskjaer playing him despite his injuries, meaning his form was poor and his confidence suffered hugely from all the flack he was getting, him wanting to be there and play and be better than Weghorst is an improvement. Even with Maguire, who has become something of a parody of a competent defender, Ten Hag can’t be said to have thrown him under the bus or to have frozen him out – Maguire’s been dropped because of poor form and other players in his position being better than him.

He’s improved the coaching. Rashford is a much better player under Ten Hag – yes this is down to Benni McCarthy as well, but he was brought in when Ten Hag was manager. Luke Shaw has been dependable and looks like a good defender again. The team plays with a reliable system. There are patterns of play we expect to see. There is more to the gameplan than Ole’s “put 11 players in the team and hope Fernandes or Pogba create something out of nothing”. The team defends as a team. This is probably best shown at home where our defensive record is pretty damn good because we defend well as a team. As for defensive errors, it’s not like Varane or Martinez have dropped many clangers. Even Fred has reduced the number of clangers he drops from every game to something like 1 in 4. Given the change in style, tactics and relative defensive solidity compared to under Solskjaer and Rangnick, I get the impression you don’t actually watch many Man Utd games, which is fine.

Ten Hag is not the Messiah; he’s not going to turn Manchester United from dog sh*t into gold in one season, especially when his striking options went from Martial and Ronaldo to Martial and Weghorst; or when Maguire is a backup CB or his plan relies on players like Fred and McTominay to be able to play first time forward passes accurately and under pressure. Weghorst has been… I wouldn’t say a disaster but has been a bad mistake, basically reducing us to 10 men whenever he’s played. Squad depth is still wafer thin. Our away form has dropped off a cliff and our mentality isn’t quite there yet as shown when we got hammered by Liverpool in a freak result (you’ll never persuade me that 7 goals from 8 shots on target is anything other than a freak). While Martinez and Casemiro have been great over the season, Anthony is very hit and miss for such a huge fee and Malacia has been a liability. But for the squad he inherited and the resources he’s been given, which it turns out has not been billions in his 2 transfer windows, it seems like he’s on the right path.

This is represented by our league position where we are 4th despite playing the highest number of games of any team in Europe this season with injuries and suspensions to key players (Martinez, Varane, Martial, Eriksen, Casemiro) and our proven ageing goalscorer forcing his way out of the club. We’re a point above Liverpool, with a game in hand and 3 out of the 4 games left to play at home, against teams currently sitting 10th to 14th. We’ve exceeded out points total from last season. A win and a draw would see us do better than under 2 out of 3 of Ole’s seasons with us. If we win our remaining games, which I think we have a good chance of doing, it will represent our best points total since Mourinho got us to 2nd with 81. It’s not the finished article yet but there’s hope.
Daniel (it’s the hope that kills you), Cambridge

Read more: Ten Hag deserves shielding from blame for as long as Man Utd demand he makes do

…Ok Lee, I’ll bite. But first let’s refute your conclusion that this has been your (Liverpool’s) worst season in a decade. I understand why you would want to forget the 20/21 season, given it was a laughable defence of the title. However, at this stage of that season you had fewer points and a lower goal difference. There is some striking similarities given you were hilariously dumped out early in the cups (4th round both cups both seasons); the difference being this time you don’t have the excuse of VVD being injured for most of the season (even though now he tends to play as if he is carrying an injury). Also, worth noting a decade is ten years – you were mostly abject up until 2018/19, aside from the time you slipped up under Bodgers.

As for United and Ten Hag, it is really difficult to see what has improved. We have been in the top 4 for most of the season, unbeaten at home after losing the first game, in the final of both cups having already won one (something Ole couldn’t quite manage to do), and we are currently 5 points better off than what we finished on last season and still have 4 games left. All of which achieved without a goalscoring #9 and first choice defence for most of the season. So aside from results improving in every single way imaginable, you are correct.

As for the long ball football jibe, you might want to go check out long ball stats because we are 11th in that particular table. Do you know who has played the 3rd most long balls in the PL? You should do because you support that team; only behind Brentford and Everton.

Your team were second last season and are now scrambling to get into the top 4. We were 6th. The simple and irrefutable fact is, one team is moving forwards while the other has gone backwards.
Garey Vance, MUFC


…Thanks for the concern Lee. I do worry you don’t quite understand what the word improvement means as by your definition everyone from 4th down can’t have improved as they’re not miles better than terrible Liverpool. Anyway, improvements – Trophies (+1), finals (+2), with 4 games to play – league points (+5), goal difference (+8).

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

Real deal
References to the most profitable transfers of all time always make me think of Ronaldo but not the profit Man Utd made but rather the more encompassing one made by Real Madrid.
The Spanish club bought Ronaldo in 2009 for £80m. He played 438 games for them across 9 seasons, scoring a remarkable 450 goals (more than 1 a game!). Those goals helped the club to four Champions Leagues successes including an historic three-in-a-row, along with a collection of La Liga, Copa del Rey, and FIFA World Cup trophies. All the while, his commercial appeal drove huge revenue for the club.
After this staggering return on their investment, they still managed to turn a £20m profit by selling him to Juventus for €100m in 2018. Notwithstanding inflation, that is staggering business. Overall, Ronaldo’s transfer to and from Madrid strikes me as one of the most “profitable” of all time.
Damian (Dublin)


Hated? Adored? Generally ignored
Dear Calv_from_the_frog, I think you overestimate others fans feelings towards this Man City. You say you don’t want to be loved, just not detested. If only City could elicit such passionate responses. In the 90s I hated United and their dominance, but my feeling towards City is just pure indifference. If City win the league again, there will just be a general shrug of the shoulders. Even if you win the treble you won’t be remembered in the way that Utd 99 are. You are just a synthetic club these days, with a clinical and almost detached aura about the place and certainly not a team to get worked up about either way.
Chris, London

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