Manchester United are back. Maybe not yet to the level they enjoyed under Sir Alex Ferguson as the dominant force of English football, but the Premier League's most successful club are finally showing signs of a resurgence under manager Erik ten Hag.
United go into Saturday's Manchester derby against Manchester City at Old Trafford having won 11 of their last 12 games in all competitions and they are on a run of eight successive victories. Ten Hag's team also moved closer to winning the club's first trophy since 2017 by reaching the Carabao Cup semifinals this week.
United's upwards trajectory has also been achieved despite a nightmare start to the season that saw them initially drop to the bottom of the table following defeats against Brighton and Brentford in their first two games. They've also had to weather the twin storms of fan unrest against the Glazer family, the club's owners, and Cristiano Ronaldo's exit following the mutually agreed cancellation of his contract in November.
But for perhaps the first time since Ferguson retired in May 2013, after achieving United's most recent Premier League title, there is a mood of optimism at Old Trafford and a win against City will take it to a whole new level. How has it happened so quickly following the shambolic performances of last season?
ESPN's Mark Ogden and Bill Connelly dig deep to find out.
The Ten Hag effect inside the club
Erik ten Hag's appointment as manager was confirmed last April and the process that resulted in the hiring of the then-Ajax coach was the crucial starting point.
United chief executive Richard Arnold and football director John Murtough didn't just want a coach to make things better on the pitch; they wanted somebody with the strength of character and principles to instill discipline and structure to a squad whose morale and unity had been fractured under previous managers Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick last season. Ten Hag has done just that, starting with strict discipline on the pre-season tour to Australia, when minor infringements of his rules, including poor time-keeping, led to players being dropped.
Youngster Alejandro Garnacho was overlooked in the summer for such minor breaches, but that thread of discipline ran through to Marcus Rashford being demoted to the substitutes' bench at Wolves last month for over-sleeping and missing a team meeting.
Sources have told ESPN that the Rashford decision was rooted in Ten Hag's treatment of Garnacho. One rule for all, no matter of age or status, and there is now a clear sense of the squad being unified and disciplined -- a point made by defender Luke Shaw recently when he said that players would do "whatever they liked" until Ten Hag took charge.
Ten Hag's firm handling of Ronaldo also earned him the respect of the squad. Whenever Ronaldo broke the rules -- leaving the ground early during matchdays, refusing to play as a substitute -- Ten Hag took action against the club's star player. When Ronaldo's contract was cancelled in November, it was a clear sign Ten Hag was now fully in charge.
All of the above has contributed to the success on the pitch. Ten Hag and his coaches now command the absolute respect of the squad, the supporters are fully behind the new manager and the United hierarchy feel vindicated in their appointment.
Tactically, Ten Hag has brought clarity, too. United have consistently played a 4-3-3 formation, which now looks solid and reliable because of the players he has brought to the club. Lisandro Martinez has been a revelation at centre-half and has formed an outstanding partnership with Raphael Varane. Martinez's leadership and organisational skills have been evident in the improved performances of goalkeeper David de Gea and full-backs Shaw and Diogo Dalot.
In midfield, Casemiro has brought world-class quality and experience to transform the central area of United's team, while Christian Eriksen has added much-needed vision and flair in attacking midfield. But ultimately, it all comes down to Ten Hag. He has brought the squad together, imposed his authority and shown a keen eye for the right players and characters -- players who can lead and inspire as well as play football. -- Ogden
Does the data support their results?
United have mostly backed up their spot in the table. They're fifth in xG differential and sixth in goal differential, which would suggest that ranking third in points per game is a bit lucky, but here's a reminder that they began the season as dreadfully as possible, losing to Brighton and Brentford by a combined 6-1. Since the third matchday, both differentials rank fourth, and they've nailed the post-World Cup restart -- six wins from six league and cup matches by a combined 15-1 -- albeit against rather dreadful competition.
For all the noteworthy personnel changes made to the attack -- adding Antony and Eriksen; bringing back Anthony Martial; getting Garnacho involved; dumping Ronaldo; letting Jesse Lingard, Edinson Cavani and Paul Pogba walk; resurrecting Rashford (but not Jadon Sancho) -- United's attacking averages are almost exactly the same as last season in league play. In 2021-22, they averaged 0.15 shots per possession, 0.12 xG per shot and 1.5 goals per Premier League match; this season those averages are 0.16, 0.11 and 1.6, respectively. Very similar.
However, there's been a noticeable shift on the other end of the pitch as United's primary undoing last year came in defense.
2021-22 defensive averages (Premier League only): 1.5 goals allowed per match (13th), 1.6 xG allowed (11th), 0.15 shots allowed per possession (12th), 0.12 xG allowed per shot (11th), 68% save percentage (11th)
2022-23 defensive averages: 1.2 goals allowed per match (fifth), 1.2 xG allowed (fourth), 0.13 shots allowed per possession (ninth), 0.10 xG allowed per shot (fourth), 71% save percentage (seventh)
Despite suffering some occasional issues in transition, United are allowing fewer high-quality looks than they did last year under Solskjaer and Rangnick. And that's despite allowing four goals to Brentford in August and six to Manchester City in early-October.
In 25 other league and cup matches, they've allowed 16 total goals. Newcomers Casemiro (midfield), Martinez (central defense) and to a certain degree Tyrell Malacia (left-back) have been transformative in this regard, both in understanding what's required within the system and executing very well.
If there's a warning sign, however, it's that close games might turn on them at some point.
Points per game in matches decided by 0-1 goals (Premier League):
1. Arsenal 2.43
2. Manchester United 2.30
3. Tottenham Hotspur 1.80
4. Crystal Palace 1.83
5. Fulham 1.57
6. Manchester City 1.50
7. Liverpool 1.46
8. Aston Villa 1.44
9. Newcastle United 1.42
10. Nottingham Forest 1.42
United have played in 10 matches decided by 0-1 goals and have won seven of them outright, which is probably unsustainable. (Arsenal's current rate of success: also probably unsustainable, though they've fared much better in non-close games.) But at the midway point of the season, Manchester United have been one of the four best teams in England and have earned their top-four spot because of it. -- Connelly
Players who have turned around this season
One consistent frustration raised by players last season, sources have told ESPN, was their belief that under both Solskjaer and Rangnick, they were not coached or improved on the training pitch. It led to many players switching off during games and producing woeful performances for the team.
Rectifying that was a crucial aspect of Ten Hag's job, but some players appeared to be bordering on become a lost cause. Martial, Harry Maguire, David de Gea and even Rashford were in danger of losing their way at United.
No player has enjoyed a transformation under Ten Hag quite like Rashford, though. The new manager has put many, including Shaw, Fred and Dalot, back on track, but Rashford has seen the most dramatic improvement.
When Tag Hag arrived, Rashford had lost his England place and had just endured his worst season as a professional, scoring only four goals in 25 Premier League games. But the forward goes into the derby this weekend in the best form of his career. He has scored 18 goals in 30 games for club and country -- including three at the World Cup -- and is on a run of scoring in six successive games for United since returning from Qatar.
Ten Hag has given Rashford the confidence to play to his strengths -- pace, movement and cutting in from the left -- and the player's form and overall demeanour are as positive as they have ever been.
Shaw's performances have also been outstanding and the 27-year-old is now a key figure, despite starting the season out of the team following Malacia's impressive start at left-back. The presence of Malacia as competition for his place clearly worked as a positive for Shaw and since regaining his place, he has been a top performer; he has also shown himself to be a more-than-capable option at centre-half when asked to fill in during an injury crisis.
But while Rashford and Shaw have turned their performances around -- Ten Hag has also inspired improvements from Martial, De Gea and others -- another key element has been the manager's refusal to accept poor performances.
In the past, certainly under Solskjaer, out-of-form players were left in the team, either due to a lack of competition or the manager's reluctance to drop big names or expensive signings. Ten Hag has shown no such reluctance and captain Maguire -- the world's most expensive defender at £80 million -- was dropped after two games. Ronaldo was also taken out of the team after the disastrous start to the season.
Scott McTominay, Sancho and Antony have also lost their starting spots with Ten Hag demanding top quality in every game. That mentality has led to widespread improvement throughout the squad and the knowledge that second-best will no longer suffice. As a consequence, players are now performing in all areas of the pitch and results have improved dramatically. -- Ogden
Erik ten Hag reflects on the progression of his Man United side after their 3-0 win over Bournemouth.
So where do they go from here?
This season's great accomplishment has been in shoring up last season's biggest weakness (defense). To be sure, you can make up a lot of ground by improving your weakest links, and if United indeed finish in the top four this season and make a Europa League run, having a squad mostly free of weaknesses will be the primary reason for that.
Heading into next season, United will have a stronger sense of the identity Ten Hag is creating and will have fewer holes to fill on the proverbial depth chart. Therefore, it will be the perfect time to address two primary issues: upside in attack and 2024 contract expirations.
Three non-Ronaldo United players -- Rashford, Martial and Anthony Elanga -- have combined to play 1,353 minutes in all competitions at the center-forward position this season. They have combined to score nine goals from the position, with four assists on 10 chances created, which certainly isn't bad. But Rashford has been more prolific from the left wing (0.83 xG+xA created per 90 minutes, compared to 0.60 from center-forward), and Martial is ... Martial: very good, but never quite among the very best in the league.
The impending addition of Wout Weghorst is interesting in that the 30-year old former Wolfsburg star can serve as a huge target around goal, especially in late comeback situations; that could be a big thing considering how much worse they've been than the league's other top teams in terms of playing from behind. Still, he's 30, and he scored two goals in 20 matches for Burnley last season. There's only so much upside or longevity you're hoping to get from such a move, even if Weghorst can indeed help in the short term.
Figuring out a long-term plan up front will be of immense importance if United want to establish themselves as genuine league title contenders again. Maybe you attempt to further establish Rashford in central positions, and hope that two of the young trio of Antony, Garnacho and Sancho can thrive more consistently on the wings. Maybe you whip out the checkbook for a central star. Whichever it is, a plan is needed.
They also have some decisions to make regarding a few key players whose contracts are expiring in 2024, as those decisions will dictate where else United might need to shop this coming summer.
Goalkeeper De Gea is rumored to be close to accepting a long-term, lower-rate contract to finish his career at the club (he's 32), and United recently triggered one-year extensions for Rashford, Shaw, Fred and Dalot. All four will require new contracts in summer 2024, however, with all of the "We might need to sell his rights a year before expiration to get something for him" repercussions that come with extension talks.
Rashford will likely command some lucrative offers, though it's fair to assume the club will treat re-signing him as a must. Dalot, only 23, has been mostly strong since displacing Aaron Wan-Bissaka at right back; it seems likely he will stay aboard, too.
But what does the club do with the 27-year old Shaw? When healthy, Shaw remains excellent, but he has indeed had injury issues here and there, and Malacia awaits in the wings. Fred has enjoyed some positive moments in a backup role this year, too, but he would have to be signed well into his 30s, and United already needs to get younger in the middle with Casemiro and Eriksen having already hit 30 years of age.
There are still some weak-ish links for United to address. Neither Victor Lindelof nor Maguire is incredibly convincing in the back even if United's defense has improved, and Varane has struggled to stay healthy. Shaw's post-restart emergence there might answer a couple of different questions at the same time. (And speaking of questions, it's fair to assume that "What the heck do we do with Jadon Sancho?" will not likely to go away soon.)
Still, United's roster makes much more sense than it did a year ago, and figuring out what to do both with the center-forward position and Shaw's future could have an impact in the coming months. -- Connelly