MANCHESTER, England (AP) — After two games of the season Manchester United sat at the foot of the Premier League with no points and a goal difference of -5.
Roll the clock forward five months and manager Erik ten Hag has turned the club’s fortunes around to the point that a win against Arsenal at Emirates Stadium on Sunday will spark genuine belief that an unlikely title challenge is on.
It has not been an overnight success for United’s Dutch manager, who had to contend with an unsettled Cristiano Ronaldo while also trying to knit together a much-changed squad after taking over a team that finished sixth last season and 35 points off champions Manchester City.
This was supposed to be a season of transition, and after back-to-back losses at the start of the campaign United looked more likely to fight to avoid relegation rather than compete for the title. United trails Arsenal by eight points.
It might still be too soon for Ten Hag's team to mount a sustained challenge at the top, with Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace a reminder that it's a work in progress.
However, the improvement is clear — and a win against high-flying Arsenal would be further evidence of United’s title credentials.
The Associated Press looks at some of the key factors in the team’s turnaround.
Ronaldo’s departure in November removed a cloud hanging over United and an unhelpful distraction for Ten Hag at a time when he was trying to establish himself at the club.
While Ten Hag tried to make it work with the Portugal great, their relationship was only ever likely to be a temporary one of convenience, with a younger, more mobile center forward needed to implement the Dutchman’s tactics of pressing from the front.
Ten Hag gave the 37-year-old forward opportunities — playing him on 16 occasions — but Ronaldo was largely ineffective at the point of United’s attack, scoring only three goals.
More of an issue was his behavior off the pitch — leaving early during a pre-season friendly and refusing to come on as a late substitute against Tottenham in October.
His explosive interview with Piers Morgan on the eve of the World Cup was the final straw.
Managing the Ronaldo situation throughout the summer and the opening months of the season was an added challenge for Ten Hag, however, he has emerged with his authority intact.
United’s decision to terminate Ronaldo’s contract was evidence the manager has the trust of the club’s hierarchy.
Ronaldo has since signed for Saudi Arabian team Al Nassr while Ten Hag can focus on building for the future instead of trying to accommodate an aging star who is past his peak.
It was a desperate start for Ten Hag, with the 4-0 loss to Brentford in August coming on the back of an opening home defeat against Brighton.
It raised questions about his insistence on playing out from the back with a squad unsuited to those tactics, as well as his decision to sign Lisandro Martinez, who at 5-foot-9 looked likely to struggle with the aerial side of English soccer.
It would have been easy for Ten Hag to try to adapt his methods as he settled into a new league in a new country, yet he remained convinced United could play his way.
He stuck with Martinez, dropping captain Harry Maguire instead, and the Argentine has been one of the outstanding defenders in the Premier League this season.
And while United remains a work in progress, there have been clear signs of the players embracing Ten Hag’s system and showing the bravery to take the ball in tight spaces even in their defensive third.
United appointed the former Ajax coach in part because of his commitment to his methods that saw him win three Dutch league titles and reach the semifinals of the Champions League in 2019, beating Real Madrid and Juventus on the way.
He has shown the courage to stick to his beliefs even after such a humbling start to the job and the benefits are clear to see now with United arguably producing its best soccer since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
Ten Hag has left United’s players in no doubt about who is the boss.
Nicknamed the “new sheriff” when he arrived, he has laid down the law when necessary.
After the defeat to Brentford he ordered his players to come in on their day off to do a punishing run during a heatwave in Britain to make up the 8.5 miles difference in ground covered between them and their opponent in that match.
He also reportedly joined in on the run as a show of solidarity and collective responsibility.
That wasn’t the only time he has had to exert his authority.
He accused his players of lacking bravery in United’s 6-3 derby loss to Manchester City in October.
Individually, he dropped Ronaldo and made the forward train away from the first team squad for refusing to come on as a substitute against Tottenham — and Marcus Rashford was also dropped to the bench against Wolverhampton last month for oversleeping and missing a team meeting.
Maguire has spent much of the season on the sidelines after struggling for form, while Luke Shaw was also dropped earlier in the campaign before establishing himself as a key figure in the team.
The message is clear: no one is too big to be left out.
After spending much of the summer trying to sign Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong, United ultimately turned to Real Madrid’s Brazil international Casemiro.
At a cost of around $80 million, he didn’t come cheap. But he has added steel and composure to a United midfield that has been desperate for a player of his profile since Michael Carrick retired in 2018.
Arguably, United has not had a dominant midfielder of Casemiro’s type since the departure of former captain Roy Keane in 2005.
Casemiro’s authority, range of passing and anticipation to win the ball has had a transformative effect on United.
In 12 Premier League starts, he has been on the losing side only once. United has won 14 of 19 games in all competitions with him in the starting lineup.
His understanding with Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes is developing to form an imposing midfield unit.
United, however, will have do without him against Arsenal after he picked up a fifth yellow card of the season on Wednesday, which means he’s suspended for Sunday’s match.
United desperately needed someone to replace the goals scored by Ronaldo, who hit 24 last season.
In the absence of a top-class forward being recruited last summer, Ten Hag needed those goals to come from within his existing squad and Rashford has been the answer.
The England international underwent an intense pre-season training schedule to ensure he was in peak condition after injuries impacted his previous two campaigns — and it has paid off.
Ten Hag has also given him the opportunity to play in his favored position on the left of the attack and that settled role has seen him produce arguably the best form of his career.
His winner against City last weekend saw him score in seven-straight games — a run that came to an end against Palace.
Notably in that match against City, he shook off a first-half injury to play on and produce the decisive moment.
“He knows that in football you have to suffer and sacrifice and have painful moments,” Ten Hag said. “He is unstoppable and opponents will go tough against him but he keeps going.”
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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James Robson, The Associated Press