Red Devils have improved under Ten Hag, but there is no evidence that Arsenal push for first title since 2004 will implode
Tomorrow’s outcome will tell us more about Arsenal’s chance of going the distance, not United’s. United are improving, but they are not championship material yet. Erik ten Hag knows that.
“The fans may dream but we’re not,” he said when the gap was recently cut to six points. Ten Hag is not playing mind games. He recognises how far United must go, and it will be more helpful to him if the understandable excitement at how far the team has developed in six months is balanced by realism that it will take longer than a season to create a side capable of lifting the title.
Ten Hag has done exactly what you would anticipate from a good and competent coach taking over a club of United’s stature.
That is not meant to sound like damning with faint praise. There is a lot more to admire about Ten Hag’s work than his immediate predecessors.
The new manager will see his Old Trafford rebuild in phases. He is still at stage one.
His success so far has been based on imposing a new culture around the training ground, showing the players he is the boss to root out disruptive personalities, and organising the team so they are more resilient.
We are yet to see the Ten Hag blueprint from Ajax, which is all about domination of the ball. United’s best moments this season – the victories over Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City especially – were built on organised defence and counter-attack. United played ‘underdog football’ in those matches. Those results could have gone either way, but unlike last season United were competitive and found a way to use their assets to hurt the opponent – helped by the resurgence of Marcus Rashford – to make their own luck.
That is the only way they can hurt Arsenal at the Emirates, too. Ten Hag deserves admiration for seeing that and structuring the side accordingly. He has compromised his footballing vision to get the most out of the squad he has inherited.
Mikel Arteta did the same when he first took over at Arsenal, beating big teams in the FA Cup by soaking up pressure and hitting them on the break. Like Ten Hag with Cristiano Ronaldo, Arteta sent a message that he would accept no nonsense from any of his players, taking on and getting rid of high-earning, star names like Mesut Özil and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang.
Now Arsenal fit Arteta’s preferred vision of a fast, young, energetic side focused on ball retention, opening up teams when camped in their half as much as when moving through the gears from back to front. Ten Hag will know United are ready for the biggest honours when they have the same swagger.
To get there. United must prepare for bumps in the road as the transition continues. In the manager’s mind, this season – and possibly even the next one – will be about putting the solid foundations in place until he has a starting XI which he knows can execute any game-plan.
I suspect Ten Hag will have mixed feelings about the reaction should United get a result against the leaders tomorrow. Naturally, a positive mood is welcome. It can also be dangerous if expectation levels rise too soon.
Those predicting a United title so early in Ten Hag’s reign would be wise to remember how two years ago Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side were top of the league at the halfway point. Nobody beyond Old Trafford was fooled or surprised how soon it unravelled.
Ten Hag is an upgrade on Solskjaer. That is already clear. But rewind to January 2021 and it was staggering how few people at United were prepared to accept the reality that they needed a top-level coach. They were talking with their hearts more than their heads whenever United had a good result, and that ended up costing them time and money as they tried to get back towards the top.
There was too much emotion and not enough logic and the same was true when performances were awful. One of the most recurring mistakes in football is when we overestimate how strong a side is after a promising run, and make rash statements about the long-term future when a big team suffers a dip.
During the worst moments under Ralf Rangnick, particularly when United were ripped apart by Manchester City and Liverpool last season, the popular accusation was how ‘they were years behind the leaders’.
The same was often said of Arsenal in the last few years, repeated when they struggled and fell below Tottenham Hotspur in the race for fourth in May. I am not being wise after the event calling that nonsense out. Clubs of Arsenal and United’s size should never be ‘years behind’. The same applies to Chelsea and Liverpool as they look to recover next season.
Their resources are too vast to keep them down too long and history shows that the combination of the right managerial appointment and just two or three top-level players is transformative. With respect, any decent manager spending over £200 million in the transfer window – including a midfielder of Casemiro’s class – is always going to see some sort of improvement.
The question around Arsenal as much as United in trying to end Manchester City’s domestic dominance is whether these teams will evolve to be like Liverpool under Jürgen Klopp, or Tottenham Hotspur under Mauricio Pochettino.
Arsenal are at that point first.
They are on the threshold of being title winners and must show they can take that final step.
At the moment they are slight favourites because even with 19 games remaining, if they win their game in hand eight points is a big lead. If it extends to 10 or 11 rather than gets cut to six or five, Arsenal will enter ‘it is theirs to lose’ territory, piling the pressure on City to go on one of their long winning runs to catch-up.
Nothing I have seen so far suggests Arsenal will implode.
It would be brilliant for the Premier League if they last the course, easing fears that Manchester City’s financial power has made the title race predictable.
As United look to join the party, they should enjoy their new-found consistency under Ten Hag and allow it to continue at his pace.
Last weekend I referenced the popular observation that Alex Ferguson needed seven years to win the title. What that overlooks is he actually finished second in the league in his first full season in 1988, and had already won the FA Cup, League Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup before winning his first league in 1993.
Progress comes before title success and the difference between tomorrow’s rivals is this: United are still at the start of Ten Hag’s journey to the promised land. Arsenal may be getting closer to the end of Arteta’s.