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The Erik ten Hag masterstrokes that have thrust Manchester United into the title race

Erik ten Hag applauds the fans – The Erik ten Hag masterstrokes that have thrust Manchester United into the title race - Getty Images/Ash Donelon
Erik ten Hag applauds the fans – The Erik ten Hag masterstrokes that have thrust Manchester United into the title race - Getty Images/Ash Donelon

Since the Premier League re-started on Boxing Day Arsenal have taken 17 points from nine games, Manchester City have 20 points from 10. Manchester United? They have outstripped them both with 23 points also from 10.

Talk of the title being a three-horse race appeared to come to a halt when United ended their nine-match winning run with a 1-1 draw away to Crystal Palace last month. The wheels came off the "United are back" bandwagon in a matter of days when they then went to Arsenal and were put in their place, losing 3-2.

It was, however, United’s only defeat in 19 games in all competitions and, by any measure, that represents serious progress under manager Erik ten Hag.

In fact, United have won 27 games this season, the most across Europe’s top five leagues, and it was telling that Ten Hag pointed out in his programme notes before the 3-0 win against Leicester City that they are the only club in the hunt for four trophies.

If United, Arsenal and City continue their post-World Cup form the fact is that United still only finish third (Arsenal and City with 82 points mean it would go down to goal difference with United on 81) but it would be incredibly tight. The momentum is with Ten Hag. The gap is narrowing with Arsenal and City having to play each other at the Etihad. United are suddenly in this – five points off the top having played a game more.

We have already seen City close the same gap, only to throw it away against Nottingham Forest at the weekend, although they remain most people's favourites. So why can't United be in the title mix, especially when, in Marcus Rashford, they have the most in-form striker in world football?

Since the re-start, his 16 goals are six more than the next prolific striker in the top five leagues – Karim Benzema with 10. Erling Haaland has nine and Napoli’s Victor Osimhen, who is being tracked by United, also has nine.

It means United cannot be discounted, which is all the more remarkable considering their season started with two crushing defeats. The players were even sent on a 13.8k run, in sapping heat, after the second – the 4-0 loss away to Brentford. That distance represented how much less they had covered than their opponents during the Brentford game.

Cristiano Ronaldo stands with his hands on his hips – The Erik ten Hag masterstrokes that have thrust Manchester United into the title race - Getty Images/Catherine Ivill
Cristiano Ronaldo stands with his hands on his hips – The Erik ten Hag masterstrokes that have thrust Manchester United into the title race - Getty Images/Catherine Ivill

But Ten Hag ran with them. He showed he was in this with them; with a group of players who had been ridiculed, blamed or, in turn, over-protected and then over-exposed by a succession of floundering, finger-pointing managers.

At the time it was derided, but it has proved to be one of several sure-footed masterstrokes from the 53-year-old Dutchman since he arrived from Ajax last summer. Even those close to Ten Hag admitted they were not sure he could make the step up to a club of United’s dimensions, especially if there was not the infrastructure around him, but those concerns have been banished.

The handling of Cristiano Ronaldo, the sensitive yet focused treatment of Jadon Sancho and the re-building of Rashford. There are many examples of how Ten Hag has managed United with clarity, firmness and, above all, a fairness that has been lacking in the past.

Take the game away to Wolves on New Year’s Eve when Rashford was dropped to the bench for disciplinary reasons. It looked like it would blow up into a big story on the back of Ronaldo’s departure, with Ten Hag standing accused of failing to deal with big players. A crisis loomed.

Marcus Rashford arrives at Molineux – The Erik ten Hag masterstrokes that have thrust Manchester United into the title race - Getty Images /Ash Donelon
Marcus Rashford arrives at Molineux – The Erik ten Hag masterstrokes that have thrust Manchester United into the title race - Getty Images /Ash Donelon

It appeared even worse when United were struggling and the manager was forced to turn to Rashford. But the England forward came on, scored the only goal in a precious win and left the field at the final whistle with his smiling manager wrapping his arms around him. Rashford later fronted up and told the media he was rightly disciplined for sleeping in and missing a team meeting.

Smiling Erik ten Hag wraps his arms around Marcus Rashford - The Erik ten Hag masterstrokes that have thrust Manchester United into the title race - Getty Images/Matthew Ashton
Smiling Erik ten Hag wraps his arms around Marcus Rashford - The Erik ten Hag masterstrokes that have thrust Manchester United into the title race - Getty Images/Matthew Ashton

The matter was over. It was dealt with and although it can be argued that Ten Hag was lucky, he made his own luck. That is what the best managers do with their astute decisions. And when it comes to Rashford, the rest is history.

There is also genuine warmth and gratitude towards Ten Hag from the dressing room for the way he has dealt with Sancho, who the manager was brave enough to say was working on both “physical and mental” issues and was placed on an individual training programme before being reintegrated into the team. Again Ten Hag did not make a huge drama out of it or vilify the player or make matters worse by over-protecting him. It was all very grown up. There are other examples: Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, David de Gea. All have been handled superbly.

Jadon Sancho and Luke Shaw celebrate – The Erik ten Hag masterstrokes that have thrust Manchester United into the title race - AP/Dave Thompson
Jadon Sancho and Luke Shaw celebrate – The Erik ten Hag masterstrokes that have thrust Manchester United into the title race - AP/Dave Thompson

And now we enter a huge week for United. On Thursday, it is the second leg of their Europa League play-off against Barcelona, after last week’s impressive performance at the Camp Nou, before Sunday’s Carabao Cup final against Newcastle United.

Manchester United have the golden opportunity to win their first trophy for six years, and the importance of that – the first trophy Jose Mourinho won at Chelsea was the League Cup, the same with Pep Guardiola at City, and it proved a catalyst – is not lost on Ten Hag. But what he said at the weekend was telling. He spoke of trophies not being handed out in February, before correcting himself. What he meant was the big prizes.

The cup games, however, mean that United might lose ground. They do not play another league game until they travel to Liverpool on March 5. Arsenal will have played three league matches before then and can, in theory, stretch their advantage over United to 14 points, which would surely appear insurmountable. City will have played twice.

Conversely, if they slip up then United, with their momentum perhaps boosted by cup success, are ideally placed. We are moving into a pivotal period this season with United in a conversation they did not think they would even be privy to.