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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Erik ten Hag has one more change to make to Manchester United’s identity

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On a weekend of refereeing howlers it was apt that the former official Martin Atkinson skulked to the back row of the press box at Elland Road. Out of view and as distant from the pitch as possible, Atkinson watched Paul Tierney preside sensibly over a committed contest where the only line that was crossed was by those to his right on the terraces. Atkinson will have strolled down the gangway satisfied with the officiating after a chastening Saturday. Only the monitor available to Atkinson did not show the ball that dropped to Wout Weghorst for his late disallowed goal was via a Leeds player’s arm. Also read: Avram and Joel Glazer exploring possibility of buying out siblings on United board Still, the robot at Stockley Park ignored a replay that the broadcasters had beamed into the living rooms and pubs and drew his lines. Weghorst’s afternoon ought to have ended with an assist and a goal. Instead, his league drought extended to five games. Manchester United did at least achieve their first Premier League away win by a two-goal margin this season. More points squandered by Arsenal and a short stint above Manchester City in second place restarted the tedious title chatter around United on Sunday. Gary Neville feels they are not in with a shout but Roy Keane does. United trail Arsenal by only five points but the leaders have two games in hand – the first against City at home on Wednesday night. There was premature talk of a title tilt from United in the wake of the derby win last month. They took one point from their next two games, conceding goals in the 89th and 90th minutes north and south of the Thames. Two years ago, as soon as United reached the summit they got dizzy and wobbled with a surprising defeat at home to Sheffield United. The squad and manager have changed for the better but they are a way off from emerging as credible and unlikely championship challengers a la Liverpool in 2013-14. United could only play three more league games before the spring internationals. Progress in Europe and the FA Cup and fixtures with Brentford and Brighton will have to be rearranged for April or May. So United can hardly get up a head of steam in the league. United have won two of their last five league games Nine seasons ago, Liverpool could as their calendar was devoid of European football. Arsenal were sanguine about their FA Cup exit and that narrow loss at City has not upset their league form anywhere near as much as Sean Dyche or an errant Video Assistant Referee have. United’s matchgoers are more than happy to assume the identity of a cup team this season. They were chanting about Wembley at Elland Road and crowed “2-0 in your cup final”. United fans’ only visit to Wembley since the stultifying FA Cup final in 2018 was for a league meeting with Tottenham in January 2019. The turnstiles were locked for the FA Cup semi-final with Chelsea in July 2020. They have ticked off Moldova on their European odyssey and headed to the beaches of Nicosia and San Sebastian in a Europa League campaign with reduced air miles. Few cities stir United fans’ souls more than Barcelona, where thousands of Mancunians will descend this week. United moved up to second for a couple of hours on Sunday It was six months ago today that Erik ten Hag hauled the United players in for a punishing run in more than 30-degree heat less than 24 hours after the Brentford debacle. Ten Hag was also working up a sweat, an admission of his own culpability in the 4-0 hammering that has proven to be season-defining. Renascent United are ahead of schedule with their reboot. Should they enter the March internationals third in the table, with a trophy in the museum and still in the FA Cup and the Europa League, they will have overachieved. Should they lose to Newcastle in the League Cup final and get ejected from the domestic and European cup competitions before the clocks go forward, as long as United occupy a top-four place there would be a measure of progress. A club mired in an identity crisis as recently as early August now has one; there were more than a dozen passes in the build up to Marcus Rashford’s imperious winner at Leeds. The only identity adjustment United have to make next season is to become genuine championship challengers. Ten Hag has restored standards so swiftly that a trophyless campaign would now have to be considered a failure. It cannot be as bad as the referees’ season, though. Read more: Ten Hag reveals discussions with Garnacho between Leeds games ‘Rashford one of the best goalscorers in Europe’ Rashford prevents United’s win from being remembered for the wrong reasons United player ratings vs Leeds All the United news and views Story SavedYou can find this story in  My Bookmarks.Or by navigating to the user icon in the top right.

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