Can Man United win the Premier League? How Erik ten Hag has made believers of fans after derby comeback

OLD TRAFFORD, MANCHESTER — The first half of the 189th Manchester derby will not live too long in the memory, but there was at least one admirer of proceedings.

Bastian Schweinsteiger didn’t have the best of times from a footballing perspective in his two years at Old Trafford, but he has retained an affinity for Manchester United. He liked what he saw.

Highlighting “a lot of improvements” since United were eviscerated 6-3 by Manchester City last October — it wasn’t exactly difficult to improve on that performance — Schweinsteiger tweeted: “Great to see that the Ten Hag system is bearing fruit.”

Holding City to a goalless first 45 minutes might not rank highly in United’s illustrious history, but Schweinsteiger was right: in three months, Erik ten Hag has quite clearly got the Red Devils playing to a greater collective standard. They really should have been leading City at halftime, Marcus Rashford failing to convert two good chances, and it was Anthony Martial’s forced substitution and a problem for Rashford himself that helped swing the game in City’s favour.

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The chaotic ending that followed, with Bruno Fernandes equalising in controversial fashion and Rashford prodding in a winner four minutes later, owed as much to a renewed vigour within the United ranks than any Ten Hag masterplan. They are still not as good as their local rivals — that much was clear — but they showed that, on their day, they can match them.

The challenge now is to sustain this winning run, which now stands at nine games in all competitions, because — believe it or not — United are back in a real title race.

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After the previous derby, Ten Hag had some major problems to fix even to get United in top-four contention, never mind close to matching City. These are the next steps towards bridging that gap and, at long last, putting up a real title fight.

Can Manchester United win the Premier League?

United’s victory, their 12th in 18 top-flight matches this season, put them a point behind City in the Premier League table. They are still third, but they are now within six points of leaders Arsenal, who have a game in hand.

They have two matches to come in the next eight days: away to Crystal Palace on January 18, and then at Arsenal on January 22. If they win both of those games — and the Gunners lose to Tottenham on January 15 — then they will be level on points with Mikel Arteta’s side, having played a game more.

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At their current rate, they are on course to finish the season with 80 points, six more than they managed in 2020/21, when they finished second to City. It would also match the tally they achieved in 2010/11, when they won the title by nine points ahead of Chelsea.

They are certainly not favourites to win the league for the first time since Alex Ferguson retired, but there is now a strong argument to say they are at least contenders again. And that was not expected in Ten Hag’s first season in England.

How has Erik ten Hag improved Man United?

Ten Hag knew there had to be significant improvement at United after his opening month in charge included home losses to Brighton & Hove Albion and Real Sociedad, a 4-0 thrashing by Brentford and that nine-goal humiliation at the Etihad Stadium. As the season reached the halfway point, it’s clear he has done so.

Defensive strength

United’s defending early this season was a shambles, brutally exposed by Brentford and City. The collective commitment to keeping out the opposition has improved to such an extent in recent weeks that they now have a solid enough foundation on which to build a title challenge.

Raphael Varane’s return to fitness and form, particularly since the World Cup, has given Ten Hag an imperious figure to marshall the heart of the defence. Since the derby demolition in October, Casemiro has embedded himself in the United midfield so astutely he looks like he’s played there his whole career. Luke Shaw has been outstanding both at left-back and as a makeshift centre-half; indeed, it would be worth every other defender in the league watching the way he kept Erling Haaland on the fringes of the action at Old Trafford.

Since the derby loss on October 2, United have conceded seven league goals, a number bettered only by Arsenal (six) and Newcastle United (three). Their expected goals against figure of 8.95 in that time frame is only inferior to Arsenal, Newcastle and City. And they’ve only lost one of their past 19 games in all competitions.

They’re becoming very tough to beat.

System play

In his derby programme notes, Ten Hag pointed to the 3-0 League Cup win over Charlton Athletic, when he made several changes to the starting lineup, as another sign of growth in the team. “That is one aspect we are working towards: having a system which works so well that it is no problem to rotate players because everyone knows the part they have to play.”

The importance of that functioning system can’t be overstated. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United relied too much on individual flair to dig them out of trouble; when players couldn’t find that inspiration, the team quickly collapsed, as could be seen when they lost 5-0 at home to Liverpool, 2-0 to Man City and 4-1 at Watford before Solskjaer was sacked.

Ten Hag’s United is one built as a functioning unit, where different players are getting to grips with the different parts that must be played. In the win over City, Bruno Fernandes started wide on the right, Rashford on the left, Christian Eriksen as a No.10 and Shaw at centre-back. At full-time, Rashford was the lone striker, Fernandes in central midfield and Shaw on the left of a five-man defence. Not one of them looked out of place.

Belief restored

As United closed out the final few minutes against City, Varane was whipping up the crowd behind David de Gea’s goal at every opportunity. After the final whistle, he led the fans in a Jurgen Klopp-style fist-pump celebration, the noise echoing around Old Trafford.

Fernandes had also spent much of the second half, particularly after Grealish’s opener, encouraging his team-mates rather than complaining about decisions. Rashford, whose winner made him the first United player to score in seven consecutive games since Cristiano Ronaldo in 2008, made the decisive contributions at the attacking end having looked like he might have to come off at halftime with an injury.

“He has learned how to deal with it,” said Ten Hag. “In top football, you have to suffer, to sacrifice. You have your painful moments, especially a player like he is. He keeps investing, keeps going, keeps focusing for his chances, and in the end, he got rewarded.”

If United keep fighting and keep believing as they did here, the rewards this season could be very great indeed.

“The fans may dream, but we have to keep our feet on the ground,” said Ten Hag. “Our game has a lot to improve. It can’t happen that, after half-time, we’re losing so much control. It’s unnecessary.

“It’s also top football. Small details have a big impact. We have to keep working on that and investing in that.”

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