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Under Erik ten Hag, Manchester United Has Regained Some Dignity

Bruno Fernandes of Manchester United celebrates after scoring a goal to make it 0-1 with Christian Eriksen and Wout Weghorst during the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Manchester United at Selhurst Park on January 18, 2023 in London, United Kingdom.
Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

A wise man once said that there is truth to be found in exaggerations. OK, that man was me, and I just made it up, but in the case of Manchester United's recent form, it applies. Though the knee-jerk reaction to the 2-1 victory over Manchester City on Saturday was overwrought, it's worth considering the current state of United, after years in a relative wasteland outside the title race. Much to the chagrin of anyone old enough to remember the team's golden days, United has been playing like a team ready to make that leap back into the very top of the Premier League.

That this realization comes off the back of Wednesday's 1-1 draw against 12th-place Crystal Palace, of all teams, is perhaps the most United thing possible. This is a team that a supposedly reforged United should beat, even away from the cavernous confines of Old Trafford. But if one were to ignore the scoreline and focus on the process, there's reason for optimism for this season and the future.

This is the type of game that has usually left United disappointed in recent years. Surely, there is some disappointment, but the side thoroughly outplayed Palace for all but one stunning free kick. The United goal is a good stand-in for the recent progress under manager Erik ten Hag in his first season at the club: There is more fluidity and purpose, particularly from the midfield, and so it fits that Christian Eriksen played a lovely one-two with Marcus Rashford before centering the ball to his midfield compatriot Bruno Fernandes, who took a little step before rocketing a curler into the top right corner of the goal.

A draw, especially one that came down a late moment of individual brilliance from Michael Olise, doesn't deflate the run that United has been on over the last three and a half months. Since losing to City on Oct. 2, United has been scorching, only losing once to Aston Villa on Nov. 6. Otherwise, the Red Devils have won 16 games and drawn three, including Wednesday's Palace hiccup. The marquee game in that span was, of course, the 2-1 City win, which saw United come back from 1-0 down, albeit with some controversy: The equalizer saw Rashford seemingly in an offside position, though the referee inexplicably ruled that he did not make a play for the ball.

That Rashford was both involved in that goal and scored the winner four minutes later is no coincidence. Once a potential superstar and now, merely, a great player in his own right, Rashford has been powering the charge for United over the last month. Since returning from the World Cup intermission, the 25-year-old has eight goals in eight matches, including seven matches in a row with a tally. (The Palace match was his first without a goal since United's last second win over Fulham back on Nov. 13, though he did set off the action for the goal on Wednesday.) More impressively, only one of those goals was from the penalty spot; he's earned almost all of them the hard way.

Under ten Hag, United finally has a blueprint for how to compete for the title, particularly as City struggles to keep up their world domination. (The less said about the other perennial title contender, Liverpool, the better. For me.) The Dutch manager sets up United in a 4-2-3-1 formation each time out, usually playing Fernandes in the hole behind the striker. This allows his most creative forward player to influence proceedings, while having Casemiro behind to scoop up opposing attacks and Eriksen to create from further back and, crucially, while drifting out wide. With Eriksen combining with both Rashford and Luke Shaw on the left, United can overload teams with talent before launching balls to the center, either on crosses or on cutbacks, like the one for the goal against Palace. The addition of Lisandro Martínez in defense has also strengthened a previous failure of the side; his pairing with Raphael Varane is more confident than, say, the Harry Maguire-Victor Lindelof duo of recent years.

To say every single player on the squad has improved under ten Hag wouldn't be inaccurate, but the quality beyond the starting XI might be the thing that holds United back this season. The biggest question mark is the midfield depth; while the starting trio of Eriksen, Fernandes, and Casemiro is as good as any in the Premier League, it gets dire behind them. The usual suspects of United's down period are still there, and no one is shaking when Scott McTominay or Fred sub on. This depth will be tested in the immediate future: United now has to go to North London for a showdown with league-leading Arsenal on Sunday without Casemiro, since the former Real Madrid stalwart picked up a yellow-card suspension after a risky 80th-minute tackle on Wilfried Zaha on Wednesday. (Frankly, that could have been a red card.)

These successes don't feel like flukes, though. There's an adult at the wheel—with some offense meant to former manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær—and ten Hag is slowly but surely implementing his style, one victory at a time. At the very least, United is no longer a sadsack. Its games are reaching must-watch status, and if Rashford can keep up his torrid form, the weaknesses can be nullified by virtue of goal deluges. A title race might not be exactly in the cards, but there's no reason that United can't grab a strong foothold in the top four. And if the club addresses some of its personnel issues in the near future? No one outside of Old Trafford will love to see this club competing for titles once again, but it's looking more likely with each passing match.

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