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Friday, January 27, 2023

Manchester United’s (Almost) Midseason Vibe Check

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At the time of this writing on the afternoon of January 7, 2023, Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United are marching in the right direction.

The Reds prepare for their EFL Quarter Final matchup against Charlton on Tuesday, just a day after earning a 3-1 win over spiraling Everton in the FA Cup Third Round. United currently sits in fourth in the Premier League with 17 of 38 matches played, and the team has a tantalizing two legs against Barcelona in the Europa League knockout round playoffs looming next month.

Conceivably, Ten Hag’s Manchester United could find themselves as favorites in three cup competitions as the snows begin to melt with one or more trophies in ETH’s first season also marking the club’s first major silverware since 2017. Additionally, Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea are experiencing topsy-turvy seasons and United are in the driver’s seat to cinch up the final Champions League spot.

And lest we forget, the Cristiano Ronaldo circus was also sent packing during the World Cup break as the disgraced United legend now peddles his wares for Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia. Also, did I mention the Glazers are looking to sell the club?

All of this is a far cry from when this team took the pitch in its first consequential matches in August 2022.

For the sake of my site manager, I won’t pad out the word count with a retelling of how United started the season with two straight losses with a combined score of 6-1 while Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister’s own goal accounted for the only goal scored for United.

This season has been a lot. And it’s a testament to Ten Hag’s confidence and management that he was able to navigate out of one of the least enviable managerial starts in United’s history.


Erik ten Hag’s Mighty Reds

This team is flying right now. I’ll leave it to my tactically-minded colleagues like Pauly and Suwaid to explain through the underlying numbers why this team is playing so well – this is a vibe check after all.

But it all starts with the players that Ten Hag inherited stepping up with some rediscovering form not seen since the best days of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure. Marcus Rashford, Luke Shaw, Raphaël Varane, Bruno Fernandes, and Diogo Dalot are all performing amongst the best at their position in the league. Pair this with Ten Hag’s additions like Lisandro Martinez, Casemiro, Christian Eriksen, and even Antony and Tyrell Malacia in spots, and you have a foundation for a team that can sustain its competitive level * IF * the club continues to invest in squad depth.

Since the EFL Cup Third Round match against Aston Villa on November 10th (the second to last match before the World Cup break), United have scored 14 goals in seven matches while only conceding four goals and earning four clean sheets – in total, United have 13 clean sheets across all competitions this season.

From the front, Rashford leads the team with 13 goals (also scoring three more in the World Cup) and he has contributed an additional four assists. It’s been an important season for Rashford who is showing not only that he can rediscover his goal-scoring abilities but that he can also do it across the front line at the left, center, and right forward positions.

Adding to the excitement of Rashford’s play is Alejandro Garnacho’s move into the first team. The Argentine forward plays with confidence bordering on arrogance as he runs at defenders. If he maintains his current trajectory, he will provide more memorable moments like his goal at Fulham, and, if United are now a serious club, they will look to cash in on a player whose potential will fund more signings.

In the center of the park, Casemiro has been a revelation. The man is a steady presence who sets the tone with crunching tackles. Even better, he has already scored key goals that he coupled with incredibly memorable celebrations. Anyone who feared that he joined United for the paycheck can be assured that he wants to play and play well for this club.

(It almost makes you wonder what United could’ve looked like had they paired Pogba with a player of Casemiro’s quality BUT I DIGRESS.)

Defensively, Martinez and Varane might be the best centerback pairing in the league and they are flanked by Dalot and Shaw who are easily playing their best football in a United shirt. The elite-level of the backline may balance on a razor’s edge knowing that Varane and Shaw are likely to pick up a knock or two before the end of the season. But when Ten Hag has his first choice defense, they’re clicking in a big way and making David de Gea’s life a lot easier.

I should also mention, de Gea, who just reached an important club milestone, is playing well enough to justify another contract. He may not be the perfect keeper for Ten Hag’s system, but United could do a lot worse than keep the Spaniard on for the right price.


Things to keep our eyes on

With the team looking to go deep into three cup competitions and finish in a Champions League place, some reinforcement in the January transfer window will be imperative. The team is not in a position to make a transformational signing like when they signed Fernandes in January 2020, but finding reasonably-costed depth in key positions like fullback, central midfield, and center forward will give United a better chance of hoisting a trophy and making recruitment infinitely easier in the summer.

At the time of this writing, United already announced goalkeeper Jack Butland joined the club on loan from Crystal Palace to replace Martin Dúbravka who was recalled back to Newcastle after roughly four months wearing red. Additionally, Dutch forward Wout Weghorst is heavily rumored to join on loan from Besiktas and may even be a United player by the time this piece is published.

The Harry Maguire reclamation project is turning towards a positive direction. Yes, he has not had a good time over the last year and some change. But Maguire still had the opportunity to start for Gareth Southgate’s England in the World Cup and the United club captain had a decent outing in Qatar. He is far from unseating Martinez or Varane in the preferred partnership, but I think he is getting to a place where most people can feel comfortable when Ten Hag rotates him into the starting lineup.

One unfortunate variable weighing into the vibe check is Jadon Sancho. We witnessed some very exciting flashes in the preseason when Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Sancho were on the same forward line, but Sancho has not featured for the team in months. On the advice of Ten Hag, Sancho took an elongated sabbatical away from the team during the World Cup break to get his mind and body right. It was only this past week that Sancho returned to Carrington to resume individual training.

Sancho’s time since joining Manchester United has been tumultuous at best. Between the end of the 2020 Euros last summer, to getting COVID and missing the beginning of his first season at United, to already playing under four(!) managers since joining in July 2021, Sancho has had to deal with a lot personally and professionally. I hope that he is able to find peace and confidence in himself again. The world-class football will follow after.


Embracing Optimism

Look, I recognize this entire piece could be voided in just a week or two with second-place Manchester City coming to Old Trafford on January 14th before United travels to first-place Arsenal on January 22nd.

But what I think is important right now and what I’m focusing on is this team has bounced back from a hellish start of the season. He’s showing grace to players like Sancho who need it, and he is consistent in his authority like with his recent punishment of Rashford for arriving late to a team meeting. Ten Hag is leading the way and the players are following while putting in good performances.

With reports that Ten Hag is also taking over the club’s reserve team, he is clearly remaking United in his image. I am starting to see the vision, and I think Ten Hag has proven that he must be backed if and when new ownership comes into the fold.

Plenty of bumps still remain on the road, but good times are on the horizon. Let’s all make sure we take the time to enjoy the moments on our way back up the mountain top.

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