Erik ten Hag was upbeat on the day of the Netherlands’ World Cup quarter-final against Argentina, indulging British journalists for nearly two hours at a luncheon ahead of the evening’s tense match at the Lusail Stadium.
Ten Hag had wryly texted Lisandro Martinez he would “see him on Monday”. Martinez’s return to Carrington has been postponed for another two weeks, and the World Cup champion can expect lots of back-slapping.
Martinez might have been preoccupied with the mental comedown of a League Cup fourth-round clash against Burnley on Wednesday night if the Netherlands had held their composure from 12 yards. The season of Manchester United resumes at Old Trafford. Alejandro Garnacho pushed the ball into the corner of the net at Craven Cottage 38 days ago.
Fifth in the Premier League with a game in hand, 90 minutes away from the League Cup quarter-finals, an FA Cup third-round tie at home to Everton, and a tantalizing tie against Barcelona in the Europa League in February all point to progress for a club that has shipped at least four goals in eight defeats in the previous year.
Leicester. Liverpool. Watford. City. Brighton and Liverpool. Brentford. Seven criminal scenes are nearly as disturbing as those in Se7en. Brentford, the most heinous, prompted Ten Hag to conduct a forensic inquiry in August.
Ten Hag summoned the players to train less than 24 hours later, on a scheduled day off in 30-degree heat. The players watched the first half together in Carrington’s tiered briefing room, which could double as a cinema. The certification would have been inappropriate for youngsters.
According to a source close to Ten Hag, he was so enraged by the Brentford catastrophe that he “wanted to kill” the United players. The screening at Carrington was unpleasant but necessary, and United channeled that angst into an encouraging victory over Liverpool nine days later.
Ten Hag was pleased with the extra time between games, and the performances were night and day. Ten Hag murmured, “f——-g hell,” as he reflected on the Brentford and Liverpool results. Those two words contained two polar opposite performances.
United had a somber afternoon at Manchester City in early October, the sixth time in the previous 54 years that they had surrendered six goals in a game. In the 4-1 defeat at the Etihad in March, United was more disjointed than under Ralf Rangnick. The good news is that they have only lost one of their last 12 games.
“We’re heading in the right path,” Ten Hag stated two weeks ago in Jerez. “However, there is still much space for improvement. I am pleased with how the players execute and the fact that they play as a team with the appropriate spirit and approach. However, maintaining that process is always a challenge. As a result, maintaining good standards is essential.
“Satisfaction makes you sluggish. So don’t be too pleased with yourself as a group. Give your everything every day. Only when you set those high standards and maintain them – it’s up to me to control that – and set a good example. However, the players and staff at Manchester United must live up to the high standards in order to compete with the greatest clubs in the Premier League and achieve our objectives.
“We were simply not good enough at the start of the season. I knew when I came in that we would have days like that, that we would lose.
“And we were a little bit unlucky because Lindelof and Martial fell out with injuries in our last pre-season game. They were in the lineup all preseason, but you have to change. It is possible to lose games. Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t happy. But these things were bound to occur.
“I knew it was going to be a difficult project. Manchester United was not in the circumstances that you would expect of them, and while I believe we are moving in the right path, we are still a long way from where we need to be. I observe improvement through observation as well as data that validates the progression.
“What information? A lot about how we play. I see us growing, and the first goal is to get back on track because they have been in different styles and systems since returning from the World Cup.
“We have seen against Man City, it was our huge difficulty in that game, we played in a different style and because we want to be dominant and proactive and you see also in this World Cup many nations are playing passive and waiting and playing on the reaction.
“Players come back and they have been playing six weeks in a different atmosphere and another style of play and then they have to get back to our style and system and our rules and principles and it’s a team sport. As a result, all XI must be on the same page.”
Victor Lindelof, who was injured in August, has been vital to United’s progress as one-quarter of their defensive square, with summer signings Martinez, Casemiro, and Christian Eriksen filling the other corners in a Scandi-Latino alliance.
“At the start of the season, we had a few games where we didn’t perform well,” a sweaty Lindelof admitted after United’s final practice session in Spain. “However, since then, we’ve been performing and playing some really great football, and I believe everyone is striving towards the same goal, which is exactly what we need.”
Lindelof, a United Nations employee for almost five years, has earned the trust of five different managers at the permanent, caretaker, and interim levels. The 27-year-old Swedish skipper has now assumed a prominent position at the club level, notably in Spain, where the training team had 13 teenagers.
“There are a lot of young men here, bringing a lot of energy,” Lindelof explained. “When younger guys come up, you want to help them a little more, talk to them, and clearly the way we want to play here, of course, I’m here trying to help them.”
Lindelof is expected to start against Burnley and Nottingham Forest when United’s Premier League season starts on December 27. “We knew the World Cup was coming, and we were prepared for it,” he added. “It was good to get some days off, recharge a little bit and prepare to start again.
“Those who go to the World Cup are playing at a very high level, so I think they’ll be at a high fitness level as well,” he says. “Of course, for us as well, it was nice to get a few days off, and this week we’ve been training pretty hard, and I think my fitness level is good.”
Lindelof, like Ten Hag, had touch with several of the players in Qatar. He now has to contend with two World Cup-winning center-backs.