A defeat to Arsenal, but a good one. It was one team at the start of their process against one three years into theirs. And actually, United have progressed under Erik ten Hag at a rate thus far which suggests they will get to their end goal a fair bit quicker.
There’s still some work to do to transform United into a title-challenging side, and this lot could do with an upgrade. But here are five players – three of whom he signed in the summer – that Ten Hag can build around at Old Trafford.
One of the most intense footballers around – you wouldn’t want to be stuck at a party with him. Just you, trying desperately to make small talk and him providing one-word answers and not blinking. It’s as though he plays football in a haze of fury, in which he imagines every opposition has slighted him in some way: taking the p*ss out of his silly haircut; calling him a short-arse.
But he manages to toe the line in the most part while that chip-on-the-shoulder attitude is infectious in a good way, and has bred a ruthlessness that’s been absent in the United defence. As has the composure Martinez also boasts in spades.
Casemiro is the midfielder United have needed since Michael Carrick and concerns over his age and therefore his price tag are as laughable to the masses now as they were to the informed when he signed in the summer.
Perhaps his greatest strength as a central midfielder is his ability to create chances and score goals while doing as good a job defensively as a player who barely crosses the halfway line. He’s also, crucially, used to winning the biggest games and the biggest trophies, which sounds like something ex-pros claim would have more of influence on a dressing room than it actually does, but his presence does seem to have shifted the mentality of the squad significantly.
He’s obviously got one of the more punchable faces in the Premier League and his whinging becomes unbearable in pretty much every game he plays, but he has taken over the captaincy from Harry Maguire with aplomb. He’s been a leader at United since joining the club but appears to take it to a new level when he’s actually wearing the armband.
Competitiveness has ramped up at United since Ten Hag’s arrival, with the desire to win far greater than it’s been for a good while, and Bruno Fernandes wants to win more than anyone. Combine that with his ability to score and create and you’ve got a player who could captain the club to major titles.
Perhaps it’s because the Arsenal fans are so adamant that Thomas Partey is the best thing ever (or for another reason) but there will have been a fair few neutrals who took great pleasure in Rashford making the midfielder look a right cumbersome wally with that nutmeg before his wonderful strike against Arsenal.
And it was the sort of goal to convince you, beyond doubt, that Rashford is a world-class footballer. And he’s about as good a study into the effects of mentality and mindset on football as anyone. He may have bulked up slightly since last season but essentially he’s got the same physique and skill level now – as he scores wonderful goals and beats defenders for fun – as he did then, when he could barely control the ball, let alone run with it.
The Brazilian scored a goal in each of his opening three Premier League games but none in his last eight. He’s both fun and incredibly frustrating to watch. As capable of brilliant defenders look like fools as he is of passing the ball to the opposition or smashing a shot from an impossible angle way over the bar.
United spent €95m on Antony – which at the moment looks as though it could have been more wisely used – and there’s little doubt he was signed at Ten Hag’s bidding. The Dutch boss absolutely has to try to build around him.