Carabao Cup final 2023: Inside Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United revolution

1 month ago

Erik ten Hag helped Man Utd lift their first trophy for almost six years.

Manchester United won their first trophy in almost six years when they beat Newcastle in the Carabao Cup Cup final at Wembley.

It is the latest step in a season of progression at Old Trafford.

Had they not lost their opening two Premier League games against Brighton and Brentford, United would now be regarded as genuine title contenders. They remain in the FA Cup and have now emerged triumphant from a pulsating two-legged Europa League tussle with European heavyweights Barcelona.

The upbeat feeling amongst supporters is far removed from the mess their club appeared to be in at the end of last season.

United won 38 trophies during Alex Ferguson’s 26-year reign at Old Trafford, including 13 league titles, two Champions Leagues, five FA Cups and four League Cups.

However, since his departure in 2013 they had won only the FA Cup under Louis van Gaal, the League Cup, Europa League and Community Shield under Jose Mourinho, and the Community Shield under David Moyes.

But the start of Erik ten Hag’s reign has restored hope to the Old Trafford faithful.

Why Ten Hag became ‘the obvious choice’

The Dutchman has done an impressive job since arriving from Ajax as manager in the summer, the sixth man to try to recreate at least some of the success Ferguson enjoyed before he stood down in 2013.

It goes against the general narrative of their respective time at United to offer former executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and director of football negotiations Matt Judge at least some credit for their old club’s present position.

Yet there are those that remain who believe it is due.

Woodward and Judge helped set out the template that was expanded by chief executive Richard Arnold, director of football John Murtough and technical director Darren Fletcher which ultimately led to Ten Hag being identified as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s permanent successor.

Key characteristics were demanded of potential candidates.

Did he win? Did he win with style? Did he make players better? Did he develop young players? Did his teams dominate the ball? Did he have the strength of character and personality to deal with all that being Manchester United manager entails?

Crucially, was he prepared to work with staff at the club rather than ignoring them or working against?

Ten Hag soon became an obvious choice.

Yet the background work went on. The Dutchman spoke to United on a number of occasions before he was offered the job. Scenarios were put to him for his observations on how he would deal with them.

On 21 April, the appointment was confirmed.

‘A throwback to the Ferguson era’

Ten Hag’s uncompromising attitude to his work was evident immediately.

Ajax still had five Eredivisie games to play. Ten Hag was committed to retaining the title. He would only speak to United officials on his one free afternoon a week until the season was over. Murtough took a weekly flight to Amsterdam, taking key members of staff with him.

Immediately after Ajax’s final game on 15 May, Ten Hag flew to London, where he spent a week meeting more staff, purposely staying away from United’s Carrington training base, before attending the final Premier League match at Crystal Palace.

The next day he held his first news conference, when he spoke of United’s “fantastic history and high potential”.

By the time he left for his family holiday in Ibiza, every minute of every pre-season training session had been planned.

“A big thing within the squad is the control he takes and the rules he sets out,” defender Luke Shaw told BBC Sport. “Everyone has to follow them. If you are not doing what he wants you won’t play, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

During the pre-season trip to Australia, young forward Alejandro Garnacho was late for a meeting. He didn’t play a match on the remainder of the tour.

Ten Hag’s decision to drop Marcus Rashford for the trip to Wolves on New Year’s Eve for “disciplinary reasons”, made bigger headlines. Rashford scored the winner at Molineux after coming on as a substitute. He said afterwards he understood the decision. Ten Hag had made his point.

“Rashy was on fire at that point – and still is,” says Shaw. “It just shows what the manager is like by dropping one of our best players. It shows the standards he sets and what you can expect if you don’t follow them.”

In the middle of the Garnacho and Rashford events was the Cristiano Ronaldo saga.

Ten Hag first rebuked the Portuguese superstar for leaving Old Trafford straight after he had been substituted at half-time during a pre-season appearance against Rayo Vallecano.

When Ronaldo refused to come on as a late substitute during the home game against Tottenham on 19 October and stormed out of the stadium in disgust, Ten Hag responded by axing him from his squad to play Chelsea the following weekend.

There have been times in the past where United sided with players in personal disputes with managers. Not now. Ten Hag has 100% freedom to deal with team issues exactly as he wishes.

Within days of Ronaldo criticising Ten Hag in his explosive interview with Piers Morgan, he was booted out of the club.

In that sense, Ten Hag is a throwback to the Ferguson era.

‘It means everything’

He is also a very modern coach. Be it the high press, controlling possession or pushing full-backs high up the pitch, Ten Hag, as you would expect from someone who learned from Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich, has brought new ideas to Old Trafford.

“The manager wants us to be a possession-based team,” said Shaw. “We work a lot in training on tactical stuff, on what he wants when we are in possession and what kind of movements he wants from everyone. He wants us to be a pressing team, very aggressive and, at times, very hard to play against.”

He has also made some bold tactical decisions. One of them was using striker Wout Weghorst as a number 10 to allow Rashford more freedom to threaten the opponents’ goal. Another was picking Shaw as a centre-half.

Speak to senior figures at Old Trafford and they will tell you there is still lots to do. Ten Hag had been recruited to execute a long-term plan.

Whether it is down to Ten Hag is not entirely clear but there have been no celebratory dressing room antics posted on social media during the current run. The focus is always directed on the next game.

United feel like a club moving forward in a manner not seen since Ferguson stood down in 2013.

“From the outside if definitely looks like that but I think also from the inside, being here so long, it feels like that too,” said Shaw.

This first trophy, in a controlled performance against Newcastle, confirms that progress.

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