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Rating Man Utd's season so far: Ten Hag has cojones! Ronaldo-less Red Devils might just be going places

09:00 BST 28/09/2022
Man Utd 2022-23
Manchester United have recovered from a dire start to the season thanks in part to Erik ten Hag's decision to bench some big names.

Manchester United went into the international break on the back of a four-match winning streak – a run they had not matched since April 2021.

Few would have predicted that manager Erik ten Hag would oversee such a swift revival after kicking off his reign with two defeats, including a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Brentford.

Red Devils legend Gary Neville said the team played like 'Under-9s' during the loss as many other pundits suggested the club had finally hit rock bottom after nine years of mediocrity in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.

However, a 2-1 home win against age-old rivals Liverpool turned the tide, and United appear to have rediscovered a distinct identity under the guidance of Ten Hag.

A sense of optimism is now building around Old Trafford, but who have been their standout performers? And which players look set to be victims of the revolution?

GOAL takes a look below...

  • Christian-Eriksen

    Best player

    There have been plenty of stellar performers during United's mini-revival, including former Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane, who finally looks in top physical condition after a strong pre-season.

    Marcus Rashford is also starting to look like his old self, while the arrival of Casemiro seems to have inspired Scott McTominay to hit new heights.

    Varane's new centre-back partner Lisandro Martinez, who joined the club from Ajax for £46.5 million ($53m) in the summer transfer window, has also impressed, along with fellow new signing Tyrell Malacia, but the biggest impact has been made by a certain Danish maestro.

    Christian Eriksen was snapped up on a free transfer following his exit from Brentford, and has since provided United with the creative spark in the middle of the park that they have been missing for so long.

    The 30-year-old is capable of running the show from a deep-lying role in a similar fashion to club legend Paul Scholes, and his composure on the ball and ability to lead by example has helped to bring the best out of his new team-mates.

  • Antony Manchester United Arsenal 2022

    Best performance

    United's confidence-boosting 2-1 triumph over Liverpool was an unexpectedly solid team performance that set the tone for what has come since, but Ten Hag's men reached an even higher level in their last Old Trafford outing.

    Hard-fought 1-0 victories over Southampton and Leicester on the road set the Red Devils up perfectly for a home fixture against Arsenal, who arrived in Manchester as Premier League leaders boasting a 100 per cent record.

    After an early VAR scare that saw a Gabriel Martinelli opener ruled out, United took the lead via a dream debut goal for £85m ($92m) new boy Antony – another acquisition from Ajax – to send the capacity crowd into delirium.

    The Gunners responded strongly and Bukayo Saka eventually hit a deserved equaliser on the hour mark, but crucially, the hosts did not panic and remained patient for chances to counter.

    Rashford finished off their two best opportunities to stun the Gunners and seal a statement victory for United that has led to some talk of them being potential dark horses for a first league title since 2012-13.

  • Bruno Fernandes Man Utd Southampton 2022-23

    Best goal

    United only have a modest total of eight goals to their name so far this season, with Bruno Fernandes grabbing the pick of the bunch to give them their narrow win at St Mary's.

    The Portuguese showed off the finishing prowess that initially saw him emerge as a new Premier League star in his first full season at Old Trafford as he volleyed home a Diogo Dalot cross to cap off a flowing team move.

  • Lisandro Martinez 2022-23

    Best new signing

    Given we've already recognised Eriksen as the catalyst for United's upturn in fortunes, let's go with Martinez here.

    He certainly deserves some plaudits. After all, the Argentine got off to the worst possible start, with former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher going public with the most scathing criticism of the centre-half.

    He told Sky Sports after United's humiliating loss at Brentford: "We should never judge managers or players too early, but I’m convinced this can’t work because he’s the size of 5’9 playing in a back four.

    "He cannot play there in the Premier League. Every single team that play Manchester United... should target him. If they don’t, they’re crackers. I think [United] have got a huge problem.”

    Martinez has since proven Carragher wrong with his subsequent four performances in the Premier League, striking up a solid partnership with Varane in the process, and if he can keep it up, then it's difficult to see a way back into Ten Hag's starting XI for club captain Harry Maguire.

  • Harry Maguire Man Utd Brentford 2022-23

    Biggest disappointment

    United's embarrassing defeat at Brentford is the clear winner here, with their seventh successive away loss completing the club's worst run on the road since 1936.

    The floodgates opened when David De Gea allowed a tame shot from Josh Dasilva to slip through his grasp, and the United keeper then played Eriksen into danger for Brentford to pounce and score a second through Mathias Jensen.

    Ben Mee and Bryan Mbeumo also got in on the act before the end of the first half and Brentford then cruised to a famous victory, with Ten Hag subsequently calling his troops in for extra training on their day off.

    Maguire received the biggest punishment for his role in the defeat, however, with the world's most expensive defender dropped to the bench for United's subsequent winning run.

    Fernandes has donned the captain's armband on a temporary basis, but it seems inevitable that a permanent change will soon be made, with Maguire's long-term future at Old Trafford now in doubt.

  • Fernandes-Man-Utd-2022-23

    Biggest positive

    United's decline since Sir Alex Ferguson's departure has been underpinned by a lack of togetherness in the dressing room, with damaging press leaks becoming a regular occurrence.

    Player power undermined the efforts of previous managers such as David Moyes and Jose Mourinho, with the likes of Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku proving to be disruptive figures after being snapped up for mega fees.

    Pogba was one of several high-profile departures at Old Trafford this summer, with Ten Hag wasting no time in overhauling the squad and stamping his authority on the team.

    The biggest positive for United has been how the players have unified so quickly under the Dutchman. Everyone is playing for each other, the huge gaps in midfield have been plugged and De Gea is no longer being left exposed by a slow, ponderous defence.

    The drastic change in attitude has been more important in getting supporters back on side than the positive results, and that team spirit could carry United a long way if they avoid any serious injuries.


    Surprise package

    The first new face to arrive at Carrington in the summer was the relatively unknown Malacia, who cost United just £13m ($14m) from Feyenoord.

    The Netherlands international wasn't expected to walk straight into United's line-up, but he has done so through sheer will and hard work, earning comparisons with one of the club's finest left-backs of all time, Patrice Evra.

    Neville, the man who played alongside Evra on the opposite side of United's defence, has even credited Malacia for inspiring the team's recent turnaround.

    "I will point to a little thing that I saw in the second half of the Brentford game and that's Tyrell Malacia," he said on his podcast for Sky Sports. "Someone on the pitch with a bit of personality, fight and spirit."

    Malacia is now deservedly keeping Luke Shaw out of the team and, at just 23 years of age, the talented full-back still has plenty of potential to unlock as his United career progresses.

  • Jadon Sancho Manchester United Sheriff 2022-23

    Could do better

    Casemiro is the obvious name to mention here, with the five-time Champions League winner having failed to push his way straight into United's team following his switch from Real Madrid. Indeed, McTominay has held his spot ahead of the Brazilian, but it is surely too early to judge whether he will be a success at Old Trafford.

    Ten Hag's current preferred XI is certainly not set in stone and is purely based on who has stepped up to the mark in the opening months of his tenure.

    Jadon Sancho has been among those to catch the eye, silencing some of the doubters that questioned his £73m ($79m) price tag throughout his first season at Old Trafford after his move from Borussia Dortmund.

    The 22-year-old's recent improvement is unquestionable, but there is still a lingering sense that he is not quite managing to reach the level he's truly capable of.

    Flashes of brilliance have been shown, most notably in the form of his superb individual goal against Liverpool, but he has only scored on one other occasion and has not yet recorded an assist.

    His influence also appears to fade in games, which could explain why Ten Hag has subbed him before the 70-minute mark on four occasions already.

    If Sancho can raise his numbers in the final third and start pacing himself more effectively, then he could become one of United's most important players, but for now, the jury is still out on the England international.

  • Cristiano Ronaldo

    Cause for concern

    Finally, we come to the curious case of Cristiano Ronaldo and his long-awaited return to Manchester.

    The Portuguese superstar scored 24 goals across all competitions in his homecoming season, but United still failed to win a trophy and slipped to their worst-ever Premier League finish.

    This led to suggestions that Ronaldo had disrupted the balance of the team and, after his failed bid to secure a summer exit to continue playing Champions League football, that theory appears to have been proven right.

    Ronaldo led the line during the Brentford defeat, and cut an isolated figure as he watched his team-mates being opened up at will while struggling to keep any sort of shape.

    Ten Hag has since opted to deploy Rashford through the middle ahead of Ronaldo, sparking a clear improvement in the Red Devils' pressing game, but the 37-year-old frontman remains a problem.

    Another former United defender, Rio Ferdinand, has warned that Ronaldo will be "absolutely fuming" at his new bench role, and if his situation doesn't change quickly, he could prove to be a disruptive presence in the dressing room.

    A January exit could be the best solution for all parties – Ronaldo, remember, has scored just once in eight appearances in all competitions this season – but the Red Devils would first need to line up a replacement due to a lack of back-up options at centre-forward.

  • Erik ten Hag Manchester United 2022

    Ten Hag's job

    Two weeks into the 2022-23 campaign and Ten Hag was already hearing calls for him to be sacked. The Dutchman looked destined to share the same fate as all of his post-Ferguson predecessors.

    The 52-year-old rode his way through the storm admirably, though, and won the respect of his squad with his ruthless reaction to the Brentford thrashing.

    Ten Hag's new-look United has been built thanks to the club's £220m ($239m) cash injection in the summer window, but he deserves huge credit for identifying the right players and integrating them into the squad seamlessly.

    The Red Devils look like a strong defensive side for the first time in years, and the manager is playing to the team's strengths in attack, with a focus on speed and breaking the lines quickly.

    It remains to be seen whether Ten Hag can bring United's five-year trophy drought to an end this term, but the sense of anticipation among the Old Trafford faithful will rise to new levels if they can pick up another win in their next outing – which just so happens to be against Manchester City.

    Incredibly, after such a disastrous start to the new season, United are now looking forward to their derby date with a real sense of anticipation. It's a fixture that will tell us much about the true strength of Ten Hag's team...