The energy inside Old Trafford was obvious to even those who only watched Saturday’s Manchester Derby on TV. Manchester United have been re-energised by Erik Ten Hag this season with the 2-1 win over Manchester City extending their winning run to nine matches in all competitions. United are on their way to becoming a serious team again.
Victories over Crystal Palace on Wednesday and Arsenal on Sunday would see Manchester United narrow the gap at the top of the Premier League table to just three points, leading some to speculate Ten Hag’s team could mount an unexpected title challenge. Nobody foresaw this trajectory when United started their season with damaging defeats to Brighton and Brentford.
There’s no denying the progress Manchester United have made in recent months. The control and tactical intelligence they demonstrated against City was in stark contrast to the sort of performances produced by the same group of players under Ralf Rangnick and even in the early part of this season.
And yet the final step in United’s development to becoming genuine title challengers will be the most difficult one. Just because Ten Hag has put in place the building blocks of a good team doesn’t necessarily mean Manchester United will continue on their upward trajectory to the point of becoming champions. Nothing is guaranteed.
“The fans may dream but we’re not,” said Ten Hag when posed with the prospect of United being title contenders this season. “We have to keep our feet on the ground and then face that our game has a lot to improve,” he said. “It can’t happen that after half-time we lose so much control of the game, for instance, and then getting down [going behind] is unnecessary.”
Ten Hag still has deficiencies within his squad to address. Most notably, Manchester United lack a top quality number nine to lead the line. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have both performed the role this season, but neither offer Ten Hag everything he needs from the frontman in his system.
Victor Osimhen would fit the bill for Manchester United with the Nigerian delivering goals for Napoli in Serie A and Champions League this season. However, the signing of Osimhen would almost certainly cost around €100m and with the Glazers looking to sell United they might have not have this much to spend in the summer window.
United could also use a ball-carrying midfielder to broaden their options in the centre of the pitch. Frenkie de Jong was targeted last summer, but the Dutchman wouldn’t entertain the idea of a switch to Old Trafford. That may have changed now that United have made genuine progress, but de Jong would still cost upwards of £60m.
Both Arsenal and Liverpool needed big-money signings to help them become title challengers with Gabriel Jesus joining the former last summer and Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker joining the latter for a combined £140m in 2018. This is the sort of investment Manchester United will need to truly challenge at the top of the Premier League table.
Many teams get to within one or two steps of becoming title contenders then fade away. Tottenham Hotspur did this under Mauricio Pochettino. It could even be argued that Manchester United did it when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in charge, finishing second before collapsing at the start of the 2021/22 season.
It appears Ten Hag is building his United team with stronger foundations, as proven by Saturday’s display in the derby, with the Dutch coach more than capable of holding his own against the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. But it will take him much more to win his first Premier League title.