Wed. Jul 6th, 2022

MARTIN SAMUEL: Erik ten Hag has been hoodwinked by the hoax that Manchester United were title contenders under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer… it was LUCK that saw them finish second in 2020-21

  • Erik ten Hag referenced Manchester United’s second place finish last season
  • Their rivals all faced various squad and managerial issues in the 2020-21 season
  • He first needs to overcome the current gulf to reach the Champions League

Erik ten Hag arrived with the air of a man who did not suffer fools. Yet the moment he opened his mouth he appeared to have been hoodwinked by the biggest hoax of all.

The one in which Manchester United were the second best team in the country, and recently. He said it first in the official interview released by his new employers. Then he repeated it in his unveiling to the media. ‘Know that one year ago, this club, this team, was second in the Premier League,’ he said. ‘There’s potential and now it’s up to us to get that out.’

Well, yes and no. There will always be potential at Manchester United because of their size. They can pay big money, recruit good players, even in adversity. Yet it was not untapped potential that propelled United to second place in 2020-21. It was luck.

Erik ten Hag referenced Manchester United's second place finish in the league last season

Erik ten Hag referenced Manchester United’s second place finish in the league last season

The Dutchman has been hoodwinked by the hoax that United were recently the second best

The Dutchman has been hoodwinked by the hoax that United were recently the second best

Liverpool got a clutch of injuries in one, important, position and played some of the season with their best central midfielders at center half. Chelsea sacked their manager midway and ended up focusing on winning the Champions League. Tottenham were embroiled in one of those Jose Mourinho scorched earth campaigns; Arsenal were in yet another season of transition.

As a result, Manchester City won the league by 12 points, and United came second. But it’s an illusion. Liverpool, at full strength, are considerably nearer City we now know. And a lot of teams are better than Manchester United.

So here’s the reality. Manchester City +35, Liverpool +34, Chelsea +16, Tottenham +13, Arsenal +11. And let’s face it, if West Ham did not have a small squad and big Europa League commitments until May, it is quite possible United would have been looking up to them as well.

Liverpool had a clutch of injuries at center-back missing key players such as Virgil van Dijk

Liverpool had a clutch of injuries at center-back missing key players such as Virgil van Dijk

Chelsea sacked their manager mid-season before winning the Champions League with Tuchel

Chelsea sacked their manager mid-season before winning the Champions League with Tuchel

So, for such a straight-talking, borderline abrupt, individual, winding the clock back a year to a time when all around was chaos seemed rather wishful thinking from Ten Hag.

The gap that separated United from the champions in 2021 is smaller than the one currently excluding them from the Champions League places. This is what Ten Hag has to overcome. Not the gulf to Manchester City.

Not straight away. He first must overhaul a Tottenham team who will almost certainly keep Harry Kane and Son Heung-min in tandem, and may yet do enough to make Antonio Conte happy; or a Chelsea team who could be anything next season, depending on Thomas Tuchel’s rebuild.

Manchester United will rebuild, too. So, of course, there is potential. Yet if Ten Hag thinks United were ever truly the second best team in England recently, he’s in for an even bigger surprise than first imagined.

Ten Hag is expected to rebuild Manchester United after their miserable 2021-22 campaign

Ten Hag is expected to rebuild Manchester United after their miserable 2021-22 campaign

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