Paul McGrath: Only one man can be hailed as Man United’s star of the season
Manchester United legend salutes manager Erik ten Hag after stunning revival at Old Trafford
ERIK ten Hag has been Manchester United’s best performer this season.
Yesterday’s gritty 1-0 win against Bournemouth was not quite enough to seal a top-four finish in the Premier League, with Liverpool’s late equaliser against Aston Villa keeping the race alive for a few more days at least.
United now need just one point from their final two home matches against Chelsea and Fulham – and I have no doubt they will get the job done.
When you look back to the opening weeks of the season and look at where United are now, manager Ten Hag has masterminded an incredible transformation.
Don’t forget, they lost at home to Graham Potter’s Brighton on the opening weekend of the season and were then hammered 4-0 by Brentford a week later.
At that point, Ten Hag looked like he had walked into a job that might be impossible for him to deal with.
Then you throw in the problems he had with Cristiano Ronaldo and it added more fuel to the fire.
The manager needed to win that battle with Ronaldo and then back it up with success – and that’s what he has done.
Taking on a player of that magnitude and getting him out of the club was always going to be a massive story, but Ten Hag prevailed.
This was a manager putting down a marker and standing up to one of the biggest players and egos in world football.
If things had gone wrong after he got Ronaldo out of his squad, people would have suggested it was a mistake and Ten Hag would have been under huge pressure.
Yet he won the League Cup a couple of months ago, he is looking forward to an FA Cup Final against Manchester City and now he has the Champions League spot he needed.
Manchester United have to be in Europe’s elite competition, it’s as simple as that.
And while I would not describe finishing third or fourth in the Premier League as a success for my old club, it is a big achievement for Ten Hag given all that he inherited last summer.
I have been looking at the way Tottenham’s season has fallen apart and it reminds me of United a year ago.
They had a caretaker manager in charge in Ralf Rangnick and some of the players looked like they had given up, but I just don’t understand that attitude.
Maybe earning £100,000-a-week dilutes your ambition a little, but Tottenham’s players should be ashamed of their performances over the last few weeks and that was United’s story when Ten Hag arrived.
They were a mess at the back, players were not performing and too many in that dressing room didn’t seem to be able to cope with the pressure of playing for United.
Marcus Rashford was struggling until Ten Hag arrived and the same could be said of a few more United players, but this manager has found a way to get them into the top four.
Who would have imagined at the start of this season that United would finish ahead of Liverpool, especially after that 7-0 hammering handed out by Jurgen Klopp’s men to United at Anfield?
Well, Liverpool may have won the bragging rights that day, but the more important prize has been claimed by United.
It would have been easy for United to fold after that drubbing against Liverpool, but they have clung on and will get over the line for a top-four finish.
Questions will now be asked about what comes next and the reality is they are still a long way behind Manchester City at the top of the table.
Players will need to be taken out of the squad and new faces have to come in, hopefully with the backing of new owners at United.
Yet all of that will be made a lot easier now that they will have Champions League football on the agenda once again.
You can look to Rashford’s goals, the invention of Bruno Fernandes in midfield and the impact of Lisandro Martinez as some of the reasons why United have improved this season, but the biggest reason of them all has to be the manager.
Ten Hag kept a cool head after those opening two games where I feared relegation was more likely than a top four finish.
Now he can look back at a job well done and look forward to even more in the FA Cup Final against Manchester City.
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