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Manchester United

Man Utd's brief title charge is over - but winning a cup was always more important for Ten Hag this season

12:00 GMT+4 25/01/2023
Rashford Ten Hag Carabao Cup GFX
Arsenal may have handed the Red Devils a reality check, but the Premier League was never their main target for 2022-23

A week is a very long time in football. Manchester United’s 2-1 derby victory over Manchester City on January 14 sparked talk of a title challenge at Old Trafford, but one point from their subsequent two games has brought them crashing back down to earth.

United saw victory snatched away from them at Crystal Palace when Michael Olise curled home a spectacular free-kick in stoppage-time, and Eddie Nketiah turned one point into three for Arsenal with his 90th-minute strike against Erik ten Hag’s side on Sunday.

Arsenal’s 3-2 victory saw them move 11 points clear of United at the Premier League summit with a game in hand as they chase their first domestic crown since 2003-04.

City can still spoil the Gunners’ party, but United are realistically now just playing for Champions League qualification. Club legend Roy Keane said as much after their loss at the Emirates Stadium, telling Sky Sports: “For all the money United have spent they are still well short. I think they are certs for top four, maybe win a cup, but in terms of competing for league titles there is a way to go.”

Ten Hag himself was “annoyed” by the final result, but has insisted that his players won’t dwell on it ahead of League Cup and FA Cup commitments. “It’s a big week, so I can imagine that the players are ready for it,” he told a post-match press conference.

Winning the title in his debut season wasn’t on Ten Hag’s list of objectives when he joined the club from Ajax last May. He inherited United’s worst-ever Premier League squad, one that finished a massive 35 points behind champions City in 2021-22.

The fact that he has been able to generate any kind of title talk since then is remarkable, even when taking into account the club’s £220 million outlay on new players in the summer transfer window. United are back, regardless of their latest league setback.

Winning a trophy would confirm that, and they are now just three games away from glory. United face Nottingham Forest in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semi-final on Wednesday, with a final clash at Wembley against either Newcastle or Southampton up for grabs.

United then come up against Reading in the fourth round of the FA Cup four days later, while a huge Europa League play-off tie against Barcelona in February is also looming large on the horizon.

Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, David de Gea and Phil Jones are the only current United players who were involved when they won the Europa League back in 2017, with that 2-0 victory over Ajax under Jose Mourinho's management the last time the club were able to celebrate any kind of silverware.

Ten Hag is on course to bring the club’s painful six-year trophy drought to an end, but he is taking nothing for granted. He added after the Arsenal game: “I also told the players: ‘If you want to win trophies, titles – we have to change our mentality. It is not possible that you are in a top game, making three such big mistakes, where you concede goals and especially the last goal.

"[We have to be] 100 percent focused, do the sacrificing, do the suffering, follow the rules and the principles.”

The Dutchman’s honesty is refreshing, and his refusal to accept anything less than the highest possible standard will take United to a new level.

That mindset has rubbed off on his players too, with Lisandro Martinez, who scored his first goal for the club against Arsenal, telling MUTV: “We have to keep going. [We] don't have a day to be sad. We have to go tomorrow and change. We have to go for the next one.”

Under Ralf Rangnick, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Mourinho, Louis van Gaal and David Moyes, United lacked the same inner strength. It was generally a case of one step forward, two steps back. Ten Hag has changed that culture in nine short months, and his United will only get stronger.

Keane is right that they are still short on depth in certain positions, but a fresh recruitment drive will surely be sanctioned at the end of the season to address that.

"We're still seeing a lot of the same players - even though United have spent a fortune - that United fans, pundits and coaches have said weren't good enough in previous years,” ex-United captain Gary Neville told Sky Sports after Sunday's loss. "Yet, they are still playing. Ten Hag is getting the maximum out of them but they are making mistakes in big moments.

"That's not down to the coach - he's doing the best he can with them. These players don't throw the towel in anymore."

A new centre-forward - with Burnley loanee Wout Weghorst only serving as a stopgap - will be the priority, and Tottenham’s Harry Kane is reportedly at the top of United’s list. Reinforcements may also be needed on the right wing and at right-back, with the jury still out on £85m man Antony and Aaron Wan-Bissaka still cutting an inconsistent figure.

By that stage, Ten Hag will hope to have multiple trophies already in the bag, meaning wholesale changes won’t be necessary. He already has a cohesive unit at his disposal, with everyone pulling in the same direction - it is now just a case of fine-tuning.

The title was a distant dream this time around, but next season it may well be United’s priority. They should have all the tools to compete with Arsenal and City, and make a mark in the Champions League, with a view to regaining their status among the global elite after a decade of underachievement.

For now, though, just tasting success again will do. A golden opportunity to do just that awaits Ten Hag and his squad - they can't let it slip away.