EPL: Manchester United fortunes turned by Erik Ten Hag methods

The Dutchman has overseen a change in mentality that makes his side a very different prospect to the one that was thrashed by City in October, writes PAUL HIRST.

Every time Erik ten Hag climbs the stairs of the first-team building at Carrington, he is given a reminder of the lofty expectations at Manchester United.

At the top of the winding staircase at the club’s training base is an illuminated trophy cabinet measuring roughly 3x4m, containing a replica of each major trophy United have won.

The Premier League, the Champions League, the FA Cup, the Carabao Cup and the Europa League – they are all there, on separate stands, a beam of artificial light shining down on them from above, giving each piece of silverware added reverence.

On the floor below, Ten Hag is given a reminder that he is following in the footsteps of arguably the greatest manager of all time. A signed, framed picture of Sir Alex Ferguson is perched on reception. It was a gift from the Scot to the receptionist Kath Phipps, in recognition of her 50+ years at the club.

In the corridors on the second floor, Ten Hag walks past murals of players from yesteryear, some of them celebrating famous wins. It is another reminder of the club’s high standards.

It is fair to say that those standards were not met on October 2, when United were pummelled 6-3 by their neighbours, Manchester City, at the Etihad Stadium. Those of a blue persuasion who were in the directors’ box that day recall seeing “glum” faces – and hearing some industrial language – among the United hierarchy as Erling Haaland and Phil Foden scored a hat-trick apiece.

Quite understandably, Ten Hag was not happy either. “Embarrassing” was how he described the performance to his players in the dressing room, and he used the same adjective when speaking to the media afterwards.

Since then, harsh words have been replaced by superlatives. United’s post-derby record in all competitions reads: played 18, won 15, drawn 2, lost 1. “That day was a setback,” Ten Hag said. “We have made a lot of progress since.”

Their sole defeat in that run was inflicted by Aston Villa in November, since when United have recorded eight successive wins, the latest of which came against Charlton Athletic in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals on Tuesday. But no congratulatory messages were posted on the televisions in the plush first-team canteen next to Ten Hag’s office this week. Instead, the screens were full of instructions for the players about their nutrition and what they should be eating to replenish their tired bodies before today’s (Saturday’s) clash with City at Old Trafford. There was no backslapping or high-fiving among the coaching staff or analysts.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, there is an acceptance that the opposition United have faced in their unblemished run has not been top class. Secondly, and most importantly to Ten Hag, the staff acknowledge the team are still well short of what the Dutchman wants.

Thanks to the near-faultless player recruitment – and the appointment of Pep Guardiola – in recent years, City have moved far ahead of their rivals, even though they still have the odd bump in the road, such as the humbling Carabao Cup exit to Southampton on Wednesday night.

Within the four walls of Carrington, United are very much viewed by the manager, his superiors, the coaching staff and the players as a work in progress. The prevailing mood before the derby is one of calmness and confidence, rather than giddiness.

Speak to those in the know and they will tell you that United’s recent good run did not come because of their derby defeat. It was not a knee-jerk reaction. It was more a case of long-term planning coming to fruition.

The change in mentality among the squad that Ten Hag, 52, demanded when he took over has started to kick in. Discipline has improved, so has the understanding of his tactics, and, crucially, the new signings, notably Lisandro Martinez and Casemiro, have settled in.

One of the “rules” Ten Hag speaks about so often is that the players have to buy into him and his methods. If you do not, you are out, which is why Cristiano Ronaldo was jettisoned. Contrary to what some may believe, Ten Hag worked hard to keep Ronaldo at the club before the player conducted his controversial TalkTV interview.

The pair held numerous meetings in which Ten Hag tried to persuade Ronaldo to stay and be part of his squad. He was respectful towards the Portugal forward, but he would not accept the role Ten Hag had lined up for him, so when the opportunity arose to ditch the 37-year-old after the interview, the United manager did just that.

Ten Hag’s message about discipline has started getting through to the players too. He and his coaches believe that if you have a lax attitude at the training ground, that will creep into your game on the pitch, so no slacking is allowed.

Anyone who is late to training or a team meeting will be dropped, as Marcus Rashford found out to his cost a fortnight ago for the game away to Wolverhampton Wanderers (he came off the bench to score the winner). Discipline and respect had deteriorated under previous regimes, so the strict new rules have been welcomed by the squad. “It is good for everyone to understand that we can’t go over the line, that you have to follow the rules of the manager,” Bruno Fernandes, the United midfielder, said.

Casemiro did not start at the Etihad and Martinez’s partnership with Raphael Varane was in its infancy. Both were key factors in the defeat, and Martinez has been a revelation since then. The World Cup winner was one of seven centre backs on a shortlist given to Ten Hag last summer. Villarreal’s Pau Torres, Alessandro Bastoni of Inter Milan, Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly – now of Chelsea – and the Croatian defender Josko Gvardiol, of RB Leipzig, also featured on the list.

Ten Hag plumped for Martinez as he wanted an aggressive left-footer who could play the ball out from the back. Martinez, 24, has exceeded expectations so far but he will be given the ultimate test by Haaland this lunchtime.

Ten Hag’s reign has not been without its troubles. The defeats by City, Brighton & Hove Albion and Brentford were some of the worst of the post-Ferguson era. Some of his substitutions have been questioned by the fans too, but he has got all of the big calls right since the derby. He was right to replace Harry Maguire with Martinez and to get rid of Ronaldo. He was right to recall Luke Shaw and give Jadon Sancho time off to deal with his issues.

The former Ajax manager is a disciplinarian, but according to those who work with him, he is an understanding type too, who values mental as well as physical wellbeing. The players have improved of late because they are getting to know the methods of Ten Hag, who is hands-on in training, and those of Mitchell van der Gaag, his assistant, who shares his manager’s attention to detail.

By the time Ten Hag attended the final match of Ralf Rangnick’s reign away to Crystal Palace last May, they had already prepared every detail of the first six weeks of pre-season training. Benni McCarthy, the former Porto striker, is partly responsible for the improvement in finishing and the players have warmed to the other coaches too. McCarthy, brought in by Ten Hag in July, often takes the forwards away from the main group for individual training and is regarded as a motivational coach who is relentlessly positive.

Ten Hag has been his usual self at Carrington this week, energetic yet focused on the task in hand, holding meetings with his coaches and analysts.

That will be the case next week, regardless of the result today (Saturday). Even if United win, the message from their manager will be the same: there is still a lot of work to be done before they can add more trophies to their collection.

-The Times

Originally published as How Erik ten Hag’s methods have transformed Manchester United since the October derby

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