When Erik ten Haag huddled together the Manchester United players after the midweek draw with Crystal Palace, he told them it was “very disappointing” but just a clash. His improvement is evident and he needs to focus on it ahead of the big match on Sunday.
It certainly could have been a bigger game if it weren’t for Wednesday’s 1-1 draw, but it’s still possibly the most consequential fixture between Arsenal and United in over a decade. Maybe longer Sunday’s game is no longer a meeting of the still-ran or faded empires.
It’s the Premier League leaders against potential challengers, with Sunday’s decision likely either way.
If it’s not yet a headline performance, it could be a showcase of what’s to come.
Much of that is down to Mikel Arteta, given his transformation of Arsenal in three years, but a lot of it is also down to Ten Haag, who made an impact in three months. From that perspective, it is definitely a meeting between two of the brightest managers in the Premier League right now.
The growing feeling among an excited United contingent is that this is “the real deal”. Having endured an ultra-intense recreation of the 1968–93 period, the number of false dawns the club has endured over the past decade may seem strange. Yet it’s based on the reality of what players can see every day, and how it directly compares to what came before.
Unlike Jose Mourinho or even Louis van Gaal, Ten Haag is not a manager who has passed his prime, mainly using the methods of 10 or 20 years ago. His coaching is state of the art.
Unlike Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he has a defined vision of football and the ability to execute it.
Many in the United squad are talking about how it feels like the first modern coaching in those years, especially when discussing it with other club and international team-mates.
There are some ironies in this as well.
The first is that, unlike many top-class coaches, Ten Haag may not have that “traditional charisma”. This came up in discussions at United about the next appointment. This is also one of the reasons why Tottenham Hotspur did not sign Ten Haag in the summer of 2021. The future will tell whether this was a mistake.
Present indicates that there has not been an issue. If Ten Haag doesn’t really command a room, he asserts control in a cool way.
The players have appreciated how straight forward he is with them. His man-management has clearly been excellent. The Cristiano Ronaldo Circus was handled very cleverly. Formerly sidelined players like Aaron Wan-Bissaka have been re-energized to give it their all after being given unexpected reprieve. Ten Haag himself praised Luke Shaw’s willingness to play at centre-half, and most felt included.
The squad has appreciated how Ten Haag has real steel, and that is a notable difference from Solskjaer.
Their rules have adapted to a certain standard, such as the way Marcus Rashford was sent off for being late to training despite being in career form. Arteta would appreciate it. Rashford himself loves Ten Haag, and has given him great feedback in terms of man management and tactical coaching. He feels he has a defined role for the first time in years.
Ten Haag meanwhile has also quipped frequently on private jets. He is also monitoring the diet of the players and some have been given new strength and conditioning programmes.
Ten Haag expects the same from its staff, Brains. His own morale has been described as “unrelenting”, with days “long and intense”. He expects a similar level from his coaches.
He does something special there too.
If you look at the combined bench on Sunday, it will have a reduced staff strength, possibly just Ten Haag and assistant Steve McClaren. Much of the coaching team has been hired back at Carrington. That is, for two reasons.
One is to allow input from there, and a wider approach. The focus is on match day two. Ten Haag felt that there were too many people around the United team.
This focus has come to the fore in sports. One of the elements that Ten Haag is most pleased with in this recent run is how the team’s resolve has changed. He feels that all this has created the right mindset in his team. Only three months ago, after all, it would have been inconceivable that United had come back against Manchester City. Not now, as last Saturday showed.
Players now better understand their strategic roles, and this application is amplified by the intensity that comes with the feeling that you’re on the right track.
Some of this reflects another irony. While Ten Haag has a clear vision of how he wants to play, which is naturally like his Ajax 2018-19, it is fair to say he is still some way away from implementing it – perhaps another season.
He had to hand over the ball and adapt to Manchester City. He will probably have to do the same against Arsenal.
This is not a criticism. Instead it speaks to Ten Haag’s ability to compromise but still stay on track.
This can perhaps be seen most in Casemiro with United’s Player of the Season so far. Ten Haag wanted Frenkie de Jong for a highly specialized midfield role, and pretty much saw him as unique, having qualities similar only to Ryan Gravenburch. The latter moved to Bayern Munich, however, de Jong did not leave Barcelona.
This was disappointing for Ten Haag as he felt the Dutch midfielder could immediately improve the whole team’s understanding of his approach. This is one reason why the gap in the side was so devastating in those opening games against Brighton and Brentford. That is why he pressed for Casimiro. The Brazilian obviously has a very different profile of midfielder to De Jong’s but that doesn’t matter.
Casemiro is huge, a magnet for loose balls and very accurate on his own through passes. The midfielder’s suspension for Sunday is another reason why this game hasn’t been maximized the way it could have been.
It is disappointing for this weekend but not a concern for the medium term. It already looks like this stability may soon return to previous levels, if not the 1996-2005 rancor. This was largely due to the personalities of the two historical managers. These are two very modern managers, and different figures.
These are now two clubs that, after a decade of crisis, are now in a better position than most of the Premier League.
Ten Haag deserves enormous credit there, especially considering how much work there was to do. He is a thinker who is capable of considerable compromise. The optimism at Old Trafford is what the team can see when it has realized its idea.
At present, their result cannot come on Sunday. He probably won’t challenge for the title. As Ten Haag told the players after Palace, though, progress is clear.