It says something when Manchester United fans are so starved of joy that they turn out en masse just to see any team in Red trying to get their hands on a trophy.
It was only the Under-18s but 70,000 United supporters crammed into Old Trafford on Wednesday night to see Travis Billion’s young side defeat Nottingham Forest 3-1 to lift the prestigious FA Youth Cup. It was a galvanizing night for the club. United’s home hasn’t seen as many smiles, heard as many cheers or seen as many medals on parade for a good few years.
In fairness, United fans may well have shown their support to the youngsters to such an impressive extent even if the club wasn’t a basket case, but the contrast in atmospheres to the final few games of the season was stark. The supporters have been desperate for something, anything, to cheer for it and it took Alejandro Garnacho and his teenage teammates to finally give it to them.
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Because, let’s be frank, the senior side are losers right now. United have lost 11 league games this season and even when they managed not to lose they often drew against lowly sides, games that felt like defeats. They went out of the Champions League with hardly a whimper, were knocked out of the Carabao Cup at the first attempt and were eliminated from the FA Cup by Championship opposition. The wait for a trophy has now stretched to five years.
They are losers and that needs to change.
Erik ten Hag has an incredibly tough job on his hands when he arrives in Manchester this summer. The Dutchman already has an exodus on his hands from him with six players leaving for free but there will likely be more departures, either players wanting to leave or the new manager wanting to get rid of them. Rebuilding the squad after so many departures will be difficult.
Then he has to coach his side. United have shown this season that they are either incapable or unwilling to follow certain instructions, after Ralf Rangnick was quickly forced to abandon his preferred formation and pressing philosophy and make do with the uncoordinated mess he had inherited from Ole Gunnar Solskaer. Hammering the players into shape will be no small feat.
There are plenty of other decisions — the captaincy, Cristiano Ronaldo’s future, goalkeeping situation, youngsters to promote — that will have to be made too but, perhaps most importantly, Ten Hag is going to have to change the squad’s mentality. Current morale is at an all-time low.
The slightest hint of adversity on the pitch and heads go down, shoulders stoop, tantrums are thrown and blame is passed around better than the ball ever is. The confidence of several players couldn’t be lower and they are just not in the mindset of winning.
Thankfully, Ten Hag, by his own admission, has done exactly that at Ajax. The Amsterdammers had gone three years without winning a trophy themselves when he took charge of the club in 2017 but in the five years since they have won three league titles out of four (2020 was abandoned due to the pandemic), two Dutch Cups and the Dutch Super Cup.
Add to that brilliant runs in the Champions League that hadn’t been seen in years, Ten Hag took a down-on-its-luck giant club and restored it to its former glory. He got back their pride and their dominance.
As he said on the pitch after clinching the Eredivisie on Wednesday night in his final game at the Johan Cruyff Arena: “We brought a certain culture in this club. A winners mentality.” That’s what United desperately need and Ten Hag knows he can provide it. He’s done it once. Now the question is can he do it again?
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