“Top four and a trophy”. Ask most grounded, half-sensible Manchester United fans at any point since Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2013 retirement what they’d take from an upcoming season and this has been the most common refrain. Until now it is a record of achievement United have failed to put together since Fergie’s departure.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Jose Mourinho both managed runners-up finishes in trophyless seasons. Mourinho delivered the Europa League and EFL Cup in his debut season but finished sixth in the league. Louis van Gaal finished fourth in his first campaign but fifth in his FA Cup-winning second. Until this season, United have not actually managed the fabled “top four and a trophy” season that most Reds have deemed a minimum post-Sir Alex requirement.
By default, this should surely mean that current manager Erik ten Hag is the best United have had since the fabled Scotsman handed in his hairdryer? That depends on your point of view. Mourinho for example would certainly disagree. Just try telling AS Roma’s current manager that the “treble” of the EFL Cup, Europa League and Community Shield wasn’t a landmark achievement. The Portuguese coach is also known to tout the distant second-place finish to Manchester City the following season as his greatest achievement in football.
Solskjaer can match him for second place and offered up some prime cuts of Champions League drama, particularly in the comeback against Paris Saint-Germain. The Norwegian’s argument would be bolstered had he won the 2021 Europa League final that he lost on penalties to Villarreal. But his work in refreshing a creaking squad and returning the joy to Old Trafford cannot be overstated, even if social media wags have come to denigrate his reign as being primarily about “vibes”. But, given that near-miss in the final arrived in a season in which United finished second in the league, Solskjaer has actually come closer than anyone but Ten Hag to delivering on the “top four and a trophy” remit.
But what of Ten Hag? The EFL Cup gleams in the United trophy room and ambitious Red Devils followers dream of denying City the treble in order to add the FA Cup to it. Meanwhile, a 4-1 destruction of an ailing Chelsea in their penultimate game has sealed Champions League qualification with a game to go. On paper, Ten Hag has delivered.
Go deeper and you start to see signs of dysfunction. The 7-0 drubbing to Liverpool. The sharp drop-off in form after winning the EFL Cup at Wembley. Ridiculously poor performances against Newcastle United, Brentford, Brighton & Hove Albion and others in the league. A tame exit from a Europa League they were favourites to win at the hands of Sevilla. As good as it looks on the aforementioned paper, this is a season where United have had to take the rough with the smooth at times.
Yet there is a lot of credit due for the way Ten Hag has dealt with the sort of problems his predecessor did not have to endure. Not only has the Dutchman outperformed every United boss since Sir Alex Ferguson, he has done so while putting out multiple fires. Take the case of Cristiano Ronaldo for example. Having the most famous footballer on the planet question your methods on national television while you’re still getting your feet under the table is a logistical nightmare. But Ten Hag handled the insubordination with dignity and kept fans, players and staff onside as a result.
The former Ajax manager has also navigated the choppy waters of the takeover, not letting the Glazer family’s brinkmanship with Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Sheikh Jassim derail the football side of things. He has also tackled slightly more conventional issues like the plummeting form of his captain, Harry Maguire, and his lack of a potent centre forward option.
All told and barring a real humiliation at Wembley against their local rivals, this season has been a resounding success for Ten Hag. The upshot of that is the shifting of the aims now. “Top four and a trophy” is no longer the pinnacle. Another season of the same won’t feel like it does now, an important step in the club’s evolution. It’ll feel stagnant. Ten Hag knows that soon United must return to what they used to take for granted. For the Red Devils the next target is a proper tilt at the Premier League title.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change