Man Utd’s miserable mob at Palace illustrate pace of change under Ten Hag

Ian Watson
Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag gives a thumbs up.
Erik ten Hag starts his second season in charge with Man Utd in a much better place.

It’s always darkest before the dawn, apparently. And even in the south London sunshine, it was bleak in the extreme when Erik ten Hag first copped a sight of Manchester United.

The Dutch coach, recently confirmed as the latest to take a turn at managing the unmanageable, sat alongside John Murtough and Steve McClaren in the Selhurst Park stand and watched the players he would inherit pretend to go through the motions one last time for Ralf Rangnick.

There were a few who weren’t there. Cristiano Ronaldo was said to be nursing a hip injury. Was he, aye? Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford had been ill, and though both were expected to return, it was decided there was little point. Luke Shaw had just had some bolts removed from his leg where it had previously broken. The players who turned up, in body if not in spirit, did so after a 15-day break from their previous fixture: a shambolic 4-0 defeat at Brighton. If United could have forfeited, they almost certainly would have.

This was the team Ten Hag first watched turn out for an ugly, broken, damned United that he had been given the responsibility for fixing…

A season and half a summer later, we ought to reflect on how much progress Ten Hag as made on this particular job.

The goalkeeper, far from the biggest let-down in this team but still in need of upgrading, has been shuffled aside and replaced by one more suited to Ten Hag’s requirements. None of the back four are guaranteed starters, with only Diogo Dalot in contention for a place in Ten Hag’s first-choice XI. The era of McFred, mercifully, is over. Palace was the pair’s last stand before Casemiro and Christian Eriksen arrived to address what was then United’s biggest weakness. In attack, only Bruno Fernandes will feature next season.

Perhaps it was the best time for Ten Hag to step in because it certainly felt like United could not sink lower. Yes, they still finished that 1-0 defeat in possession of a ticket to Europe the following season but only because of results elsewhere. The last of a series of nadirs, many more spectacular than a limp, end-of-season defeat played out in shades and sliders, was a perfect illustration of how hopeless United had become.

John Murtough looks set to follow Richard Arnold out of Man Utd.

Fast-forward a year and the picture looks vastly different. Impressively so. Many of the faces have changed, and those that remain, for the most part, are smiling and hungry again. Ten Hag is still in the midst of his rebuild, one we knew would take longer than a season, but the speed of his craftsmanship should be saluted. Given how miserable a mob United were, it’s fair to say Ten Hag is ahead of any reasonable schedule, even in the unreasonable environment of the Premier League.

Ten Hag needed a core of new players. There were some talents and reputations worthy of salvage but not enough to comprise an XI. The new manager’s arrival came at the same time United suddenly showed some competency in the transfer market – not likely to be a coincidence – as well as some of the more baffling behaviour that we’ve become accustomed to in the last decade. Lisandro Martinez, Casemiro and Eriksen gave United their best hit rate in years.

With those who remained, there were individual fights to wage before the collective battle could be won. Most pressingly: Ronaldo. For a new manager, it was potentially a booby-trapped no-win encounter. Win it he did, masterfully shuffling Ronaldo towards Piers Morgan’s sofa.

With Jadon Sancho, he took a more empathetic approach and even with Harry Maguire, Ten Hag was gentle. The writing was on the wall from the early weeks of last season, even if Maguire didn’t see it. The defender, United’s former captain, can’t say he hasn’t been treated fairly, all the while as firmly as necessary.

The contrast between the first XI Ten Hag clapped eyes on and his first XI for the start of next season could hardly be sharper. Far beyond just the names, the energy, the belief and the buy-in prompt genuine optimism for the season ahead. Ten Hag’s authority, unlike all his predecessors in the last 10 years, is unquestioned. To achieve all that in little over a year is more than he or anyone at United could reasonably have expected while Palace were pulling their pants down.

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