Jamie Carragher was not alone in calling Erik ten Hag ‘effectively an interim coach’ when INEOS took over at Man Utd, but the permanent job is his again.
If Erik ten Hag truly is ‘effectively an interim coach’ at Man Utd then he might well have earned a permanent appointment as the captain of the good ship INEOS.
It was Aston Villa against whom this brave new era was kickstarted, a late victory in a game Man Utd were the inferior side for for long periods. Not seven weeks later, the script was recycled to great effect.
Aston Villa are a curious team. That much can be deciphered solely through their results against the teams they still wish to emulate this season: those who qualified for the Champions League last campaign. Unai Emery’s side have beaten the title-challenging pair who have maintained those high standards, while the other two who have fallen off drastically have inflicted upon them chastening league doubles.
This win certainly bore elements of the Boxing Day reverse. Rasmus Hojlund was brilliant and Villa were as wasteful as Andre Onana was superb. Scott McTominay was a late substitute and Man Utd won it even later when that seemed highly improbable at one stage.
“I said before the game that we were competitive with Arsenal, competitive with Liverpool so if we play our best we can beat anyone,” Ten Hag said then, and while his apparent curse of failing to win away at his closest rivals has been lifted, that does remain to be seen.
It was Jamie Carragher who delivered his ‘interim’ verdict soon after – and he was far from alone – but Ten Hag has harnessed that “character” and “personality” Man Utd showed against Villa in December to potentially salvage something from what at one stage seemed to be a complete write-off of a season.
The Champions League was a dud and their League Cup defence went up in flames. The FA Cup offered scant salvation with progress against two lower-league opponents but closing the gap to Aston Villa to five points has opened up an avenue of intrigue which most if not all had assumed was closed.
Perhaps Ten Hag was alone in believing this campaign could still be rescued, even in those darkest days of the Bournemouth, West Ham and Nottingham Forest defeats. The Dutchman was consistent in the maverick view that having his best players simultaneously available might be useful. Man Utd’s longest unbeaten Premier League run and best winning sequence in all competitions this season coinciding with their strongest period in terms of general squad availability adds some credence to that theory.
That said, the “hope” Ten Hag harboured to keep a “consistent” team was undermined somewhat by the loss of Luke Shaw to injury at half-time, with Lisandro Martinez’s latest issue robbing Man Utd of half their starting defence.
The first game Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane have started together under Ten Hag was thus littered with opportunities surrendered to the opposition as that backline’s relationship is lacking in those important elements of understanding, but they were commanding at times and Onana’s reflexes and positioning helped when needed.
Villa’s pressure did eventually tell with Douglas Luiz’s goal, at which point it seemed certain the hosts would kick on and assert the advantage. Yet it marked the end rather than the start of any storm, Man Utd never needing to weather any particular onslaught thereafter.
The substitutions both managers made with a quarter of an hour to play might have ordinarily signalled the contentedness of both to settle for the point. But while Emery swapping Leon Bailey for Youri Tielemans was a sign of satisfaction, Ten Hag removing Marcus Rashford to bring on McTominay only indicated that there was a game to be won.
No Premier League player has scored more goals as a substitute this season, McTominay netting his fourth off the bench with a bullet header from the excellent Diogo Dalot’s sumptuous cross, following some fine Kobbie Mainoo footwork.
As with every supposed corner Man Utd turn, there are caveats immediately greeting them: a positive goal difference, but it is zero; three straight wins against teams in the top half, but none in the top four; an impressive victory, but their £82m attacking millstone spent the entirety of it on the bench. But this was a victory by and for Ten Hag, whose hands are just about back on the wheel.