Manchester United beating Newcastle was a summation of everything good about them since Erik ten Hag took over and new owners would be fools to alter course.
In the end, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that, some time in the days building up to their EFL Cup final win against Newcastle United, something innate clicked within Manchester United.
The warm-up came with the 2-1 win against Barcelona three days earlier. It may have been the Europa League rather than the Champions League, but to beat this particular club at this particular moment was a potent reminder of Manchester United’s self-image, a perfect pick-me-up ahead of a cup final against a club whose aversion to silverware over the last 70 years has easily been as great as United’s greed.
That the match itself was low on drama spoke volumes for the progress made at Old Trafford since appointing Erik ten Hag. Over the course of almost a decade Manchester United became a melodrama, a living, breathing soap opera with numerous sub-plots bubbling away below a veneer of greatness built on former glories.
Elsewhere, others got on with the job of scooping up trophies as United fought themselves like cats in a bag until the farcical scenes of the second half of last season, when no-one seemed to be taking notice of anyone else as stories leaked into the tabloid press and the team atrophied on the pitch.
The key to Manchester United’s resurgence this season has been a combination of factors coming together at the right time. Recruitment since Ten Hag arrived has been superb. Casemiro might be 31 years old – so, what, he may only have another five years left in him? – and there is always reason to wonder why when Real Madrid are happy to sell a player, but there can be little questioning the influence he holds over the team on the pitch. Christian Eriksen was an absolute steal on a free transfer. Lisandro Martinez is cheap at double the price. The list goes on.
Players already at the club have also improved. Marcus Rashford has been little short of sensational, not just getting back to the best of what we saw before the downturn in his form which started in 2019 and went so far as making his departure from Old Trafford seem like a possibility, but way beyond.
Fred has been rejuvenated. Alejandro Garnacho has started to blossom. Aaron Wan-Bissaka looks like a different player. Again the list goes on, and it has happened to too many players more or less simultaneously for the standard of coaching and organisation not to be responsible.
Conversely, the effect of getting rid of the disruptive elements within the playing squad cannot be understated. Manchester United have been a tighter unit this season and have not missed Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard or Dean Henderson, while the Cristiano Ronaldo saga reached a conclusion which ultimately couldn’t have been better for the club.
It is difficult not to believe that the upturn in the team’s performances on the pitch has not been at least in part due to greater harmony off it. Ronaldo’s last appearance for Manchester United was that inept 3-1 defeat at Aston Villa; they’ve lost once in the 21 games since then, and that came away from home against the league leaders.
Meanwhile off the pitch, the tug of war over the club’s future remains in the balance, but any prospective new owner should probably be taking note of the improvements seen over the last year as proof that Manchester United don’t even need untold billions of pounds to spend on shiny new Mbappes to be competitive near the top of the Premier League and at the business end of major knockout competitions.
The money was always there, it was too often just spent almost artistically badly. It may not be a coincidence that this improvement has coincided with the departure of former Chief Executive Ed Woodward, either.
So, where do they go from here? They’re eight points off the top of the Premier League table, and with a third of the league season still to play, that’s not necessarily beyond them. They’re six points behind Manchester City with a game in hand. At the very top of the table, Arsenal have reverted to being the Arsenal that just keep on winning again after their brief blip, but it’s not inconceivable that they will drop points over their remaining games, so challenging for the league title remains a possibility, albeit still a distant one for now.
The remaining cups offer similar causes for optimism. They have a home draw in the fifth round of the FA Cup and some of the other names you’d expect to see alongside themselves at this stage in the competition – Newcastle, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool – have already been eliminated.
They’re second favourites to win the FA Cup – behind Manchester City – and favourites to win the Europa League. The EFL Cup is already won, and while the odds are probably stacked against them winning a quadruple this season, a treble of knockout trophies doesn’t seem unreasonable.
Of course, Manchester United might be a very different club by the end of this season, if new owners have been confirmed by then. But regardless of who they are and how this season turns out, it does feel as though there is an enormous opportunity about to present itself for Manchester United, and whether it’s the same rapacious turbo-capitalists as it’s been for the best part of the last two decades, the oil money, or the polluter running the club, they would be foolish to change too much.
The lion’s share of Manchester United’s success has come under just two managers, Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, who they were fortunate enough to have running their team for a combined period of more than half a century.
Perhaps modern football cannot accommodate that fort of institutional manager. In a culture in which losing three straight games can be enough to get the sack, the idea of anybody lasting a quarter of a century as a manager at one club seems fanciful in the extreme.
And maybe Erik ten Hag’s appointment is a significant step towards moving away from the idea so beloved in some quarters of the media that the next Manchester United manager has to be someone who ‘got’ the club, with their ‘United DNA’ and that their blood which has to run red, white and black.
Well, Erik ten Hag has ‘got’ the club, alright. He’s got Manchester United winning, and that’s the metric that counts for more than melodrama or boardroom machinations ever could.
With this clean broom, the talk of what Manchester United do in the future almost feels a little redundant. They don’t need to make a statement and they don’t need to put fear into anybody. All they need to do for now is continue on the trajectory upon which they’ve already been placed by their manager.