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Monday, June 24, 2024
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Are Manchester United really Premier League title contenders?

35 minutes into Manchester United’s second game of the 2022/23 Premier League, it felt like an entire club was collapsing. Brentford were 4-0 up against Erik Ten Hag’s team amid a backdrop of intense fan frustration over the direction of the Old Trafford outfit. The previous season had ended without Champions League qualification, and protests against the Glazers were at their peak.

A lot has changed since then. The Glazers have signaled their intention to sell Manchester United with officials expected to be lodged for the club this week, while Ten Hag has come to grips with the team on the pitch. Since losing their first two games of the season, United have lost only twice more in the Premier League.

14 wins and four draws from 20 matches have lifted Manchester United up to third place in the Premier League table. On the basis of their last six matches, only a handful of teams have a better record than Ten Hag’s side, leading many fans and observers to question whether United could become a part of this season’s title race.

Arsenal and Manchester City have led the way at the top of the Premier League table until this point, but both teams have shown signs of weaknesses in recent weeks. The Gunners, for instance, have dropped points to Everton and Brentford while City suffered a damaging defeat to United only a few weeks ago.

The improvement in Manchester United has been dramatic since their dreadful start to the season. Ten Hag has placed an emphasis on building an effective midfield unit with summer signing Casemiro at the base. Christian Eriksen has added guile to the side with Bruno Fernandes more tactically and positionally disciplined than at any other point of his United career.

Defensively, the addition of Lisandro Martinez has given Manchester United a level of intensity they were previously lacking with the Argentine forging a strong understanding with Raphael Varane. Meanwhile, Luke Shaw is back to his best at left back with Diogo Dalot and Aaron Wan-Bissaka also finding form on the right side of the defence.

In attack, Marcus Rashford has taken his game to a higher level than ever before in his career, with the England international already boasting 21 goals to his name this season. Alejandro Garnacho’s emergence has also given United another dimension in the final third of the pitch while Wout Weghorst’s arrival on loan has provided a focal point Ten Hag required after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo.

There are areas where United clearly still have to improve. While Weghorst has given Ten Hag a striker to build his attack around, the Netherlands international isn’t much of a goalscorer in his own right. It seems likely that Manchester United will need a higher calibre centre forward to fulfil their potential as an attacking unit.

Antony has also still to fully bed in on the right side of the United attack while Jadon Sancho is adjusting to Ten Hag’s system and approach, but both have shown moments of brilliance that makes one think they’ll have a consistent impact yet. There are also questions over David de Gea’s suitability for an approach that would ideally require a goalkeeper to play out from the back with the ball at his feet.

However, this season still presents Manchester United to enter the race at the top of the Premier League table. In recent past seasons, title-challenging teams have required upwards of 90 points to be in contention, but the standard has dropped somewhat this term. The team that wins the title won’t have to be perfect, as has been the case in recent times.

“We can achieve something in this season, I’m convinced about that but there is still a long way to go about to restore Manchester United back to where they belong,” said Ten Hag when asked about United’s title chances. “The project is not only this season. But, of course, I want to achieve something this season and approach it game by game.”

Ten Hag is right to highlight the long-term project he is leading at Old Trafford. Manchester United were in such a mess when the Dutchman took over last summer that it was always likely to take more than one session to straighten everything out. In many ways, United are already ahead of schedule in their development.

United have a Carabao Cup final against Newcastle United to look forward to and are still in the FA Cup and Europa League. With their 2-2 draw to Barcelona at the Camp Nou yesterday, United showed their ability to not only go toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the world, but at times play above it. Ten Hag has his team fighting on all fronts, but how Manchester United finish in the Premier League will provide the biggest indicator of whether or not they could be in title contention again in the near future.

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