The ‘Manchester United are back’ bandwagon is almost ready for boarding under Erik ten Hag

A comfortable win against Bournemouth has left Manchester United clear in fourth place and starting to dream of a Premier League title again.

Another Manchester United home game, another comfortable win. TO 3-0 win against Bournemouth didn’t require them to break into a sweat, but this wasn’t an insignificant result. All around them near the top of the Premier League table, their rivals were dropping points. Arsenal and Newcastle canceled each other at The Emirates. Manchester City were held at home by Everton. Spurs lost at home to Aston Villa and Liverpool to Brentford.

United are now two points clear of Spurs in fourth place in the table and are within sight of second place. There’s even been some conjecture about launching a surprise title bid. Unsurprisingly, there has been considerable praise for the players that they’ve brought in after last season’s disaster; Casemiro, Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martinez have all lifted this team, while offloading Cristiano Ronaldo has surgically removed the one major cause of Old Trafford drama from the club.

In the four games since he finally left the club, United have played four, scored nine goals and conceded none. Marcus Rashford alone has scored four of those goals.

And perhaps that’s the single most impressive thing about the way in which Ten Hag has transformed Manchester United this season. The re-signing of Cristiano Ronaldo was a desperate throw of the dice from a leadership that seemed to value marketability over what a player could offer on the pitch. The Glazers are still there for now, but even their time owning the club seems to be coming to an end and with that it feels as though United – and some might say for the first time in almost a decade – are focused on the football again .

While new players are a highly visible manifestation of an improved culture within the club, the decision to bring in Erik ten Hag as the new manager proved to be ultimately pivotal. Manchester United have not been successful in this respect since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson almost a full decade ago. David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were, one after the other, the wrong man for the job, with the transition from Solskjaer to Ten Hag via the disaster that was Ralf Rangnick during the intervening period.

Ten Hag’s success hasn’t been built on buying in expensive new players alone. He’s also clearly improved players that were already there. It’s only been a few months since there was considerable conjecture that Marcus Rashford had reached the end of the line at Manchester United and that he might benefit from a move away from the club that brought him through.

Rashford had spent much of the last two or three years cutting a forlorn figure at Old Trafford and had started to look as though he might even be falling out of love with the game.

It had become easy to forget just what a thrilling presence Rashford was when he first arrived on the scene with Manchester United. But that early promise had shriveled away, a missed penalty in the shootout at the end of the Euro 2020 final crowning a period that he would likely sooner forget. But looking back now, it feels as though Rashford simply hadn’t really been coached properly throughout this decline.

Consider, for example, what happened over the days leading up to the Bournemouth match. Rashford was dropped to the bench for their match at Wolves after oversleeping and missing a team meeting. He was introduced as a substitute at halftime at Molineux. Half an hour later he scored the only goal of the game, his seventh Premier League goal of the season and his 12th in all competitions.

That he has got back to the verve with which he landed in the first place at the same time that Ten Hag arrived at the club doesn’t seem to be a coincidence, and we can see this because Rashford is not the only player to have significantly improved this season. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire and Donny van de Beek all started against Bournemouth, having all spent much of at least the last couple of years becoming memes. Fred, a player frequently derided and capable of a mistake or two when United were at their most insipid, has come off the bench to shore things up on multiple occasions.

There will, of course, be considerably bigger tests over the second half of this season than Bournemouth. After their brief FA Cup Third Round and EFL Cup interlude they resume with two of the biggest that the Premier League has to offer: Manchester City at home and then Arsenal away. Their previous games this season against these two teams ended in very different results. A 6-3 defeat at the Etihad Stadium at the start of October seemed to confirm that the gap between Manchester City and Manchester United was as great as ever, but since then City have dropped a point more than United and their next meeting will tell us a lot about whether the gap is as wide now as it was three months ago.

Arsenal, meanwhile suffered the only defeat of their Premier League season so far at Old Trafford at the start of September. The three points they dropped that evening still make up almost half of the seven that they’ve lost all season. But a return trip to The Emirates Stadium will be another stiff test, and another chance for Manchester United to demonstrate they’ve exorcised the ghosts that have plagued much of their last ten years. Win both of them, and that championship race could well be on.

And it’s worth asking the question at this point: is it as simple as all this? Spurs, Liverpool, Chelsea and plenty of others are undergoing something approaching a psychodrama at the moment while Manchester United, who’ve had more than their fair share of soap opera-esque intrigue over the years, are starting to look as though they’re snapping seamlessly into gear.

The disruptive elements appear to have been purged and a proper coach has been brought in, along with players who are enhancing the team and who seem to be there for the right reasons. It remains a little early to be jumping on the ‘MANCHESTER UNITED ARE BACK’ bandwagon, but that wagon certainly seems to be heading in the right direction.

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