The good and the bad of Erik ten Hag's first season at Man United

Erik ten Hag’s first season saw a top four finish, Carabao Cup success, new signings excel and masterful handling of the Cristiano Ronaldo storm… but Man United still capitulate in big games, don’t score enough and lack a clear philosophy

  • Ten Hag’s first season in charge ended with defeat to Man City in FA Cup final 
  • But United have still made progress, coming third and ending trophy drought
  • They still remain some way short of challenging for the top honours 

Erik ten Hag’s first season as Manchester United manager ended on a low note as rivals Manchester City beat them in Saturday’s FA Cup final.

Despite a quite literal helping hand from Jack Grealish, United were clearly second-best to Pep Guardiola’s side at Wembley as City took another step towards emulating the Reds’ 1999 Treble.

Ten Hag admitted his side were ‘broken’ after the defeat but rightly pointed out there are ‘a lot of positives to take into next season.’

That is undeniable. The Dutchman has United heading in the right direction again after several years of drift under various predecessors.

They finished third in the Premier League and ended a six-year trophy drought by lifting the Carabao Cup back in February.

Adding the FA Cup by beating a City team that has swept all before them this season was always going to be a tough ask, with a clear gap remaining between the two.

So that defeat shouldn’t take the shine off a pretty good season for United, which we assess here.

Erik ten Hag’s first season as Manchester United manager ended with the disappointment of losing 2-1 to Manchester City in the FA Cup final on Saturday

But overall it has been a positive campaign under the Dutch coach, which included winning the Carabao Cup in February to end a six-year trophy drought


Returning United to the Champions League

When Ten Hag arrived from Ajax 12 months ago, returning United to what they believe is their rightful place in the UEFA Champions League was objective No 1.

Despite a few wobbles as the regulars in the team tired towards the end of a long and demanding season, United in the end achieved this aim with comfort.

They finished up third in the table, some way behind champions City and runners-up Arsenal but ahead of Newcastle United and some eight points clear of Liverpool in fifth.

United had become all-too-familiar with the Europa League, playing in it five of the last eight campaigns, so the restoration of elite Champions League football is significant.

Not only will the enhanced prize money enable United to complete better business in this summer’s transfer market, the Champions League is considerably more enticing to targets like Harry Kane, Declan Rice and Mason Mount.

It’s also a matter of prestige. As one of football’s biggest and most successful teams, United feel they should be regulars in Europe’s top competition.

United ended up finishing third in the Premier League to return to the Champions League

Though they couldn’t keep pace with Man City and Arsenal, it represents a clear improvement

Ending the trophy drought

When United beat Newcastle 2-0 to win the Carabao Cup in late February, it ended a six-year wait for silverware dating back to when Jose Mourinho’s team lifted the Europa League in 2017.

While long-suffering fans of many underachieving clubs will scoff at the ‘agony’ of a six-year drought, it represented United’s longest gap since 1968-1975.

As Ten Hag said, United ‘is about glory and honour’ so even the smallest of the season’s prizes restored a winning feeling at Old Trafford that had been lost.

It also represented the overcoming of a psychological hurdle. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United regularly fell short when it mattered, losing four semi-finals and the 2021 Europa League final to Villarreal during his tenure.

It seemed as though United had forgotten how to win on the big occasions but that has changed under Ten Hag.

They beat Newcastle pretty comfortably in the Carabao Cup final and then dug deep to get past Brighton on penalties in the FA Cup semi-final a few weeks later.

Although they lost to City in the final, it feels like a breakthrough has been achieved.

Casemiro celebrates after opening the scoring for United in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley

Lifting the Carabao Cup ended a six-year wait for silverware since the time of Jose Mourinho

United celebrate after holding their nerve to beat Brighton and reach the FA Cup final

Fortress Old Trafford

There was a time when opponents were genuinely frightened of coming to Old Trafford and set up with 10 men behind the ball to avoid a thrashing.

But this fear factor quickly diminished when Sir Alex Ferguson retired a decade ago, with visits to United nowhere near as daunting as they once were.

Ten Hag deserves credit for restoring some of this. United had the second-best home record in the Premier League, behind only City, and lost just one league game at Old Trafford all season.

Even that was way back on the opening afternoon back in August, when Brighton won 2-1.

After that, United won 15 and drew three of their 18 home games, recording notable wins over City (2-1), Liverpool (2-1), Arsenal (3-1), Chelsea (4-1) and Tottenham (2-0).

Only Newcastle, Leeds and Southampton managed to come away with a point.

United’s third place finish was achieved on the back of their formidable home form and ‘fortress’ Old Trafford is something Ten Hag will be keen to keep going next season.

Old Trafford is slowly but surely becoming a place where opposing teams fear to tread again

Most signings were a success

Ten Hag was characteristically forthright about the players he wanted when he arrived at United last summer.

They spent over £200million, which stretched the budget somewhat and meant further additions in January beyond a few loan signings were impossible.

Nonetheless, the outlay has been thoroughly vindicated in the majority of cases.

Brazilian midfielder Casemiro has been the star, running the show with his class in quite a few games and solving United’s long-standing need for someone to shield their back line.

Despite his monumental success at Real Madrid, Casemiro has been fully invested in what Ten Hag wants to achieve. Even after the 4-0 defeat by Brentford in August, he wanted to come and make things right at United.

Though his discipline has let him down at times, Casemiro’s winning mentality has been a major plus for United. Just witness his animated discussions with Bruno Fernandes, even when United win.

Casemiro (right) and Christian Eriksen (left) proved to be the perfect match in midfield 

The animated conversations between Casemiro and Fernandes demonstrate raised standards

Lisandro Martinez, who Ten Hag knew very well from Ajax, has also proved an excellent signing.

He has forged an impressive partnership with Raphael Varane at the heart of the defence and United fans will look forward to seeing more of him next season after his metatarsal fracture.

Christian Eriksen has also done well, slotting into the midfield well and complementing Casemiro and Fernandes. Hopefully there is more to come from Tyrell Malacia.

Antony has performed OK but not great. The £82m transfer fee and the fact Ten Hag pushed hard to get him were always going to mean a burden for the Brazil winger.

Figures of eight goals and three assists are underwhelming and Antony has often frustrated with his decision-making in key areas, but allowances have to be made given it’s his first season in England.

More of Ten Hag’s coaching should improve him into a genuine threat in United’s attack with a better end product.

The decision not to sign January loan arrivals Marcel Sabitzer and Wout Weghorst reinforces their status as quick-fixes in an emergency, though both performed the role expected of them.

Lisandro Martinez has looked an excellent signing in the heart of Manchester United’s defence

Antony cost £82million and has so far shown only glimpses of what he can produce for United

Adept handling of the Cristiano Ronaldo affair

It seems an age ago now but Cristiano Ronaldo started the season as probably United’s biggest source of goals. He did score 24 across all competitions in 2021-22, after all.

But it was always doubtful whether Ronaldo would buy into the pressing game Ten Hag wanted and when he was dropped to the bench after the Brentford defeat, there was no way back.

Although he scored a handful of goals off the bench, Ronaldo was always going to be frustrated at a lack of game time.

This exploded into the open when he stormed down the tunnel after not getting on in the home game with Tottenham and then in his infamous Piers Morgan interview in which he went with both barrels at Ten Hag and the club.

Some managers with less courage of their convictions may have acquiesced to Ronaldo and handed him more starts, but Ten Hag was in alignment with the club that he had to go.

United as a team improved once he had departed and the risk of a dressing room divide was removed. With hindsight, Ten Hag’s handling of the Ronaldo affair was first class.

Ten Hag had the courage of his convictions when it came to dealing with Cristiano Ronaldo

Rashford renaissance

One of the chief beneficiaries of Ronaldo’s exit was Marcus Rashford, who ended the season with 30 goals in all competitions, by far his best return for United.

After injury struggles the year before, Rashford looked completely revitalised as he scored on a regular basis, especially around the turn of the year.

His half-dozen Carabao Cup goals powered United to their first silverware in six years and he showed a knack of scoring in the bigger games too – home and away to Arsenal, against Liverpool and Man City at Old Trafford.

Ten Hag must take his share of the credit for empowering Rashford to perform to his top level.

Marcus Rashford has been outstanding all season, netting 30 times across all competitions

Not shirking the big calls

As well as Ronaldo, Ten Hag was decisive in dropping captain Harry Maguire from the side after the debacle at Brentford back in August.

That led to Varane and Martinez forming a far more solid defensive partnership and the writing really was on the wall for Maguire when left-back Luke Shaw was favoured in the middle.

Towards the end of the season, with Martinez out injured, Victor Lindelof slotted in, relegating Maguire to the role of fourth-choice centre-back and a likely summer exit.

Ten Hag has also marginalised the midfield pairing of Fred and Scott McTominay for a Casemiro-Eriksen combination to good effect.

And while everyone got the odd chance, the manager was very clear about his strongest XI and kept rotation to a minimum unless his hands was forced by injuries and suspensions.

The outcome has been stronger performances in the main from this United side and a number of players coming to realise where they stand in the pecking order.

Captain Harry Maguire was the biggest casualty of the Brentford thrashing back in August


Too many embarrassing capitulations

While the overall picture is of United progress, there have been too many matches which have served as a brutal reminder of how much further they have to go.

The sight of Fernandes huffing and putting during the utterly humiliating 7-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield will remain an abiding memory of the season.

That was one of many defeats on the road where United simply capitulated as soon as things started going against them.

There was the aforementioned four-goal loss at Brentford early on, the 6-3 beating they took against City at the Etihad, a one-sided 2-0 defeat at Newcastle and the meek Europa League exit against Sevilla.

In all, United lost eight Premier League games away from home and Fulham (10th) were the only top-half side they managed to beat on their travels.

If Ten Hag has designs on challenging for the title, this needs to change rapidly. United must show more gumption in the big games away from home and not fold when things go against them.

Bruno Fernandes did himself no favours by sulking during the 7-0 thrashing by Liverpool

Erling Haaland tore United to shreds back in October as Man City crushed them 6-3

Another capitulation saw United beaten 3-0 by Sevilla in the Europa League quarter-finals

United goalscorers 2022/23 

All competitions

30 – Marcus Rashford

14 – Bruno Fernandes

9 – Anthony Martial

8 – Antony

7 – Casemiro, Jadon Sancho

6 – Fred

5 – Alejandro Garnacho

3 – Cristiano Ronaldo, Marcel Sabitzer, Scott McTominay

2 – Christian Eriksen, Wout Weghorst, Diogo Dalot

1 – Luke Shaw, Lisandro Martinez

Actually, Saturday’s Cup final was an encouraging sign. When Ilkay Gundogan scored after just 12 seconds, United were on the ropes but they inched their way back into the contest.

It is something that can only be developed with time and through bitter experience, but Ten Hag won’t tolerate collapses such as those seen at Anfield and the Etihad again next season.

Rashford needs back-up

United’s goal total for the season was woeful. They scored just 58 times in the league, just one more than they mustered in the disastrous 2021-22 season.

Of course, there’s no shame in winning games 1-0, as they often did on their travels, but United’s goals column compares very unfavourably to the teams around them.

City racked up 94 league goals, Arsenal scored 88, Newcastle 68 and Liverpool 75. Even ninth-placed Brentford matched them on 58.

There can be no complaints about Rashford, who netted 17 times in the league, but nobody else got into double figures. Fernandes got eight, including a few penalties, while we could justifiably have expected more goals from Anthony Martial (6), Jadon Sancho (6) and Antony (4).

Jadon Sancho scored six times in the Premier League but United are still hoping for more

It’s no secret that United will go out to buy a new centre forward this summer, with Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Napoli’s Victor Osimhen front-runners, and they certainly need more firepower.

The lack of goals isn’t entirely Ten Hag’s fault. He didn’t have infinite cash at his disposal last summer and there were more pressing priorities but he will be judged on whether the goal tally improves next season.

De Gea dilemma

A mixed season for United’s first choice keeper David de Gea. His 17 clean sheets earned him the Premier League Golden Glove award and his excellent shot-stopping rescued United in several games.

But unforced errors are creeping into the Spaniard’s game and it’s a worry for Ten Hag, who is likely to push for a No 2 who can genuinely challenge De Gea for the gloves (assuming he signs a new contract).

David de Gea’s mistakes have now become a source of genuine concern for Ten Hag

The Man United keeper was criticised for his slow reactions to Ilkay Gundogan’s volley

De Gea made a howler against West Ham last month when Said Benrahma’s shot creeped in

He allowed the ball to squirm past him in the losses to Brentford and West Ham, plus analysts said Gundogan’s second goal in Saturday’s Cup final would have been saved 81 per cent of the time by Premier League standard keepers.

Ten Hag cannot legislate for individual errors and has always gone out of his way to provide public backing for De Gea.

Equally, reserve keepers Tom Heaton and Jack Butland weren’t given much opportunity to prove they could be more reliable.

No sign of a philosophy (yet)

Look at the best Premier League teams of recent years and they all have a clear style of playing.

Guardiola’s City excel at keeping total control of the ball, pressurising their opponents into surrender. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are counter-pressing monsters, giving nobody a moment’s peace.

We don’t quite know the philosophy of Ten Hag’s United yet given it’s still early days in his reign and he doesn’t have all the top quality players he wants.

There were expectations of a hard-pressing forward line but, although United have improved in this area, they wouldn’t be described as too intense.

Certain traits are beginning to emerge which follow United tradition – quick counters, transitions, wing play.

But nobody is looking at Ten Hag’s United so far and discerning a crystal clear way philosophy. But it may come with time and the right signings.

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