Andrik ten Hag’s Manchester United have learned how to suffer and deal with difficult moments after years of adopting a laissez-faire attitude to defeat. There is a realization that the team can be better than the sum of its parts if the players work together.
Against Manchester City they were organized and showed new-found discipline for 90 minutes to win an underwhelming derby. Despite City enjoying 71% of possession, they could muster only one shot on target, which was Jack Grealish’s opener. While City were below their best, their playmakers need only a moment of genius to create a goal – as Kevin De Bruyne proved – but United limited them through precision defending.
Erling Haaland, who has 21 Premier League goals this season, was anonymous, kept at a safe distance from David de Gea’s net by Raphaël Varane and Luke Shaw. In front, the Brazilian bash brothers of Casemiro and Fred worked tirelessly, ensuring City did not have the time nor space to open up United.
Further forward, United pressed as a four-man unit to slow down City’s progress, preventing the defense from instigating attacks. The efforts of Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Anthony Martial and Christian Eriksen ensured the six outfield players behind always had time to get into the right positions to make sure City could not move through the lines with the ease they regularly enjoy.
Previously, United’s squad liked or disliked their manager but rarely has there been a mutual respect between the two parties. Under past managers going a goal behind might have resulted in a capitulation but with Ten Hag at the helm players have real belief in their own ability and that of their head coach. At the Etihad in October, City scored three times in 10 minutes but the mentality is strengthening at Old Trafford.
“In big games against City everyone knows there’s going to be long periods of the game when you are going to suffer because they keep the ball so well,” Shaw said. “They’re so good at that. We were ready for that – 100% everybody had to be ready today, even those starting on the bench. The manager made that clear before the game. In the game against them in October we learned a big lesson. It showed us where we were at that point in time, but the win today shows we’re clearly going in the right direction and taking the right steps.”
Shaw is a fine example of the progress made under Ten Hag. At the start of the season he could not get in the team at his natural position of left-back. Since then he has impressed Ten Hag with his attitude and performances, and has been able to adapt to playing centre-back. He was selected to partner Varane ahead of Harry Maguire, Lisandro Martínez and Victor Lindelöf because he was seen as the best man to keep Haaland quiet.
For far too long, United have been dependent on their litany of stars producing moments of individual quality to turn matches in their favor but under Ten Hag the collective is more important. A defensive unit that can be relied on brings a greater confidence to the forwards; knowing things are secure at the back relieves the pressure on strikers.
Rashford, the match-winner, put his body on the line after pulling up in the first half with an injury. There is an added level of commitment to the cause that was absent when players did not have the camaraderie for a team aiming to be title contenders.
In United’s previous Premier League home game, to 3-0 win over Bournemouth, they were the dominant force. They had 18 shots and their opponents were unable to cope with a relentless forward line. It shows that United are adapting their plans on a game-by-game basis. For City’s visit, Fred was brought in to add solidity in a more defensive role; in previous eras, United players might have seen this as an acceptance that they were the inferior team rather a cunning plan to build a platform for victory. They are able to shift mindsets with ease and maintain their confidence to execute a plan.
Liverpool were defeated in August and Arsenal in September at Old Trafford, two games when the visitors dominated. But United are more comfortable within themselves, no longer attempting to emulate the historic concept of “playing like a Sir Alex Ferguson side”. The more they beat those challenging for European spots, the closer United will come to the title, and they are finding a formula to do it. Last season City and Liverpool left Old Trafford with simple victories to emphasize the gap between the sides. This campaign only Brighton have taken three points away from the Theater of Dreams, which was on the opening day, before Ten Hag’s philosophy was fully instilled.
United have already surpassed last season’s total of 20 wins across all competitions and all the markers show signs of improvement that cannot be ignored. They have won five consecutive league games and nine overall. As City are learning, short spells of poor form can define a season and, with Pep Guardiola’s side rapidly slipping out of the title race, third-placed United need to maintain momentum to put pressure on their rivals.
Ten Hag is using his players’ newly discovered discipline to help United grow quickly into what he envisaged when he first saw them live at Crystal Palace, against their opponents this Wednesday, eight months ago. The transformation has been impressive but it is merely the foundation for what Ten Hag hopes to achieve during his tenure. A title challenge this season might come too soon for United but they are on the right path.