Erik ten Hag has inspired a quick-fire revival – but now he faces a big test
Hope is now restored at Old Trafford and Manchester United can turn a corner with Gunners win
Well, well, well. From being in a right mess two weeks ago, Manchester United are a home win over Arsenal this afternoon from being right at the heart of the Premier League title race.
It is some turnaround in the fortunes of a team.
And all credit to manager Erik ten Hag for making the big calls that enabled this three-match winning sequence that has restored hope at Old Trafford.
To jettison Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Maguire as starters, in order to get the players he wants on the pitch who can implement his preferred style and tactics, was a major call by the Dutchman at the time he made it.
He wanted his chosen players, but imagine if United had lost to Liverpool at Old Trafford with Ronaldo sitting on the bench for most of that game.
The pressure on Ten Hag would have been immense, whether he was a new manager or not.
Now he has a settled and winning side – and the players he is picking are delivering.
You can’t ask for more than that – and there will be a big welcome for the team back to their home ground.
The pursuit of Frenkie de Jong from Barcelona is now forgotten, and United seem to be moving on as a group.
The manager will know well that he cannot jettison those players forever, but there will be plenty of matches for them in a busy season.
Those who were sidelined, and also the likes of new arrivals.
Casemiro and Antony, and the injured Anthony Martial, when he’s ready, will surely be in line to get a start on Thursday when United play Real Sociedad in the Europa League.
Last Thursday’s win over Leicester City was the first of six Manchester United matches in an 18-day spell.
Ten Hag cannot, and won’t, keep the same starting XI in every match of that demanding schedule, but I’ll be astonished if he makes any changes today.
The lads who are doing the business will get the call again.
There’s a solidity and a plan about United now that certainly wasn’t there against Brighton or Brentford – and Ten Hag is not going to disturb that.
The attacking players look confident in the defence, and there is a serious work-rate all through the team.
Away 1-0 wins, such as United recorded at Leicester and Southampton before that, are the results that make a club’s season.
You always find that the team that wins the crown at the end of it all will have a couple of splashy 6-0 victories on their season record.
But they will also have three or four 1-0 away wins, that were dug out and ground out at places like Wolves, Southampton, Leeds and Everton – stadiums where away wins, by any score, are not easily achieved.
I’m not for a minute suggesting that, if they win today, United are title contenders.
For now, wins or not, they are miles off Manchester City and, for that matter, off a fully stocked and firing Liverpool too.
Yes, they beat Jurgen Klopp’s side, but Liverpool were also fumbling for form at that time.
Their 9-0 win over Bournemouth, and then last week’s 98th-minute winner against Newcastle, mean Liverpool are back up on the horse too.
As for Manchester United, there has been a resilience and organisation about them now in the last three matches that Ten Hag has somehow instilled in his charges after their opening disasters.
Today, though, United hit another dose of reality in taking on a 100 per cent Arsenal, with 15 points from five matches.
Not even the Gunners’ famous ‘Invincibles’ of 2003/4 won their first five matches.
Their manager Mikel Arteta is quietly building something special with Arsenal, and he clearly has a rapport with his playing squad.
They are working for him and there is a togetherness obvious in this Arsenal team just now that wasn’t always evident in recent seasons.
Perhaps that is because Arteta has shown to his players that he is not afraid of making the big calls either.
Club record signing Nicolas Pepe has been sent off on a season-long loan.Pepe now looks like a seriously expensive failure for Arsenal, one that happened on
Arteta’s watch, but he seems willing to just march on and leave the deal behind him.Emile Smith Rowe was being talked of as a future England player this time last year.
But he now doesn’t start and is having to get used to closing 15-minute cameos in matches.
By contrast, Gabriel Martinelli has emerged as a big talent up front.
Then there’s newly appointed skipper Martin Odegaard who is beginning to show why, after a few false starts to his senior career, he was once labelled the ‘new Messi’ when a kid.
You’ll never confuse the current Arsenal defenders for Tony Adams or Martin Keown from the Arsene Wenger glory days, but they are solid and goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale is doing a good job.
However, the big difference in Arsenal’s excellent start to this season has surely been the arrival of Brazilian striker Gabriel Jesus.
He came to London with something to prove to Arsenal, and something to prove to Manchester City too.
Jesus was the man who was moved on to make room for Erling Haaland – and you wouldn’t be arguing with Pep Guardiola’s call there right now, but Jesus is Brazil’s centre-forward in a World Cup year.
He has a status to protect and only goals and assists for Arsenal will do that. The Brazilian has made a cracking start so far, and his club will be looking for more goals from him as the season progresses – and maybe even one or twotoday. Arsenal would be well content with a draw this afternoon.
It would keep their fine start moving along sweetly and keep the Gunners’ fans onside.
The supporters seem to be very much with the Arteta regime after the disunity of the end of the Wenger reign and the unhappiness of the Unai Emery times.
Arsenal look like they are back in business as a big club – and a point, or three, today would surely confirm that.
Manchester United surely want to build on their three wins.
This match will not quite be at the level of intensity of Fergie-Wenger, of Keane-Vieira, of the days when players from the clubs threw pizza at each other.
But it will be tasty enough –and if United can win, they can certainly say they have turned a corner after that shocking start to the season.
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