The Red Devils have secured their return to Europe’s elite competition thanks to their inspirational manager and smart recruitment
Manchester United there. It looked like they were about to seal their return to the Champions League on Saturday before Roberto Firmino’s 89th-minute equaliser for Liverpool against Aston Villa, but the Brazilian’s goal changed little in reality.
Victory over Chelsea on Thursday clinched a top-four finish for the Red Devils. That might be the bare minimum United should aspire to, but given how they ended last season, registering their worst-ever points total in 30 years of Premier League football and finishing 13 points off Tottenham in fourth, the achievement should be lauded.
GOAL looks at all the reasons why United are back where they feel they belong and looking forward to hearing that enchanting music once more at the Theatre of Dreams.
The Ten Hag effect
Erik ten Hag has been the driving force behind an excellent season, raising standards in the dressing room and not allowing players to get away with lateness or bad attitudes. His new regime began in pre-season when he took a hardline against Cristiano Ronaldo and other players for leaving the friendly with Rayo Vallecano early.
And when Ronaldo left October’s clash with Tottenham early, he banished the Portuguese from the team altogether.
He even took a firm stance with talisman Marcus Rashford when he benched him against Wolves for turning up late to a team meeting. But Ten Hag does not pick fights or single out players, and he has created a harmonious atmosphere.
Witness how the team have always managed to respond well after a big defeat, winning every match after a loss, with the exception of the second game of the season at Brentford and the recent loss at West Ham.
Ten Hag is set to achieve the highest points total for any United manager in his debut season since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure and looks like the most suitable boss the club have had in the last decade.
He may not have won as much as Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho had over their careers, but the key difference is United have got Ten Hag at the peak of his powers, unlike his predecessors.
Rashford fit and firing again
It should not be forgotten that Rashford ended last season with plenty to prove after a miserable year marked by injuries and a severe lack of confidence. He had made only 16 starts in all competitions, scoring a meagre five goals.
But after an intense individualised training camp in the US before pre-season began, Rashford set out on his path back to greatness. He has not just rediscovered his form, he has turned into a type of player not many thought he was capable of becoming: explosive, clinical and talismanic.
Rashford has scored 30 goals in all competitions this season, 18 more than second-top scorer Bruno Fernandes. And he has stepped up in the biggest games, scoring against Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City as well as against Barcelona and Newcastle in the Carabao Cup final.
Ronaldo’s second honeymoon with United lasted about eight months and the divorce papers were already being prepared last summer.
The Portuguese was desperate to leave Old Trafford but had no takers, and his lingering presence was a drain on the team until he finally departed in November after his controversial interview with Piers Morgan.
Ronaldo played more than 45 minutes in just five Premier League matches this season, and United only won two of them, against Everton (thanks to his winning goal) and West Ham. The other matches were the 0-0 draw with Newcastle and the dismal defeats to Brentford and Aston Villa.
On the night his interview with Morgan was announced, United were in action at Fulham, a match Ronaldo did not travel to.
While he was bad-mouthing the club and plotting his exit, Alejandro Garnacho was firing United to a thrilling late victory. It was a sign that the club were already moving on from Ronaldo’s ill-fated and ill-advised second coming.
Six months on, they are in a far better place without him. While Ronaldo is causing headlines for the wrong reasons in Saudi Arabia, United are set to return to the Champions League, a competition he used to consider his stomping ground.
Martinez revitalises the defence
A 5’9 Argentine might not have seemed like the ideal solution to United’s defensive woes at the time, but Lisandro Martinez’s arrival has made the team far more solid and been crucial to their rise back towards the top four.
Martinez has compensated for his lack of height with superb skills in bringing the ball out from the back, ensuring United are far more confident in possession and making David de Gea’s life a lot easier. He is not lacking in confidence and has also been a key leadership figure in the dressing room alongside Casemiro.
Martinez has formed a fantastic partnership with Raphael Varane, who has enjoyed better luck with injuries in his second season with United. The pair’s influence on the team became most evident when the team struggled after they both got injured in April, losing to Sevilla, Brighton and West Ham.
It’s not just Martinez and Varane who have made United’s defence great again. Aaron Wan-Bissaka has shown a marked improvement under Ten Hag and recovered his place in the starting XI while Victor Lindelof has been a reliable substitute in Martinez’s absence.
And De Gea deserves credit too – leaving aside his gaffes against Brentford, Sevilla and West Ham – for keeping more clean sheets than any other goalkeeper in the Premier League.
Incredible home form
United’s results at Old Trafford have been astonishing under Ten Hag. They have won 26 home matches this season, bettering the tally from the 2007-08 campaign when they won both the Premier League and Champions League.
With a home game to spare, they have 45 points, 10 more than they managed in the whole of last season.
If they win their remaining home game against Fulham, Ten Hag’s side will set United’s best points total for a decade, when they took 48 points at Old Trafford in Ferguson’s final campaign.
They will equal also equal the club-record 27 home victories, which has stood since the 2002-03 campaign.
United have the longest unbeaten home run in the Premier League, having only lost once, in their opening game of the season against Brighton. And their last home defeat in any competition was against Real Sociedad in the Europa League on September 8.
Most crucially, their home results have made up for their disastrous away results. Ten Hag’s side took 27 points from a potential 57 in their 19 away matches, losing seven out of nine matches away to top-10 opponents.
Fernandes has become an all-action hero this season. He has played across the midfield, filling in for Casemiro when he has been suspended while also playing on both wings and as an attacking midfielder. And with a couple of notable exceptions, he has risen to the challenge.
The Portuguese is United’s leading assist provider with nine, and his a total of 16 goal contributions (goals plus assists) is second only to Rashford. He has also shown remarkable leadership, be that in the traditional sense by being the most vocal player on the pitch or when leading by example with his play.
As well as giving his all when on the pitch, he has shown super-human efforts to make sure he is available for every game. He has not missed a single match due to injury, playing through the pain of a foot injury sustained in the FA Cup semi-final with Brighton and then starting just four days later against Tottenham.
United desperately needed a shake-up after years of the dreaded ‘McFred’ midfield axis, and they could not have asked for a better man to do that than a five-time Champions League winner.
Casemiro has provided United with a badly-needed injection of experience, commitment and bloody-mindedness, and given them a real presence in arguably the most important area of the pitch. As well as shielding the defence, he has fuelled many attacks and above all has been a galvanising force for others.
He has also had 11 goal contributions, most notably his bicycle kick which took all three points for United at Bournemouth.
While United have experienced a resurgence and have got back towards the Champions League on their own merits, they have been aided by a few of their traditional rivals taking more than a few steps back.
Chelsea, their opponents on Thursday, have experienced the sharpest fall in fortunes, having finished third last season before plummeting to 12th.
They have been in disarray ever since Todd Boehly sacked Thomas Tuchel in September and replaced him with Graham Potter, who had done admirable work with Brighton but had no experience with a top-level team and truly elite players.
But sacking Potter and hiring Frank Lampard on an interim basis was an even worse idea, with the former midfielder losing seven out of nine matches since taking charge in April.
Liverpool, meanwhile, have looked burned out from their relentless previous season when they just missed out on the title to Manchester City and reached three finals, while star summer signing Darwin Nunez has struggled to adapt to his new surroundings.
Tottenham, who sneaked fourth last season, became worn down by Antonio Conte’s strops but have looked in even worse shape since they cut ties with the Italian in April and are now on course to miss out on Europe altogether.