Manchester United’s season has gone just about as well as anyone could have hoped for.
The club stand on the verge of securing Champions League qualification less than 12 months after the ignominy the season before under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick, with silverware already in the trophy cabinet and the hope of more to come – and fans all know who they can thank. Manager Erik ten Hag has, quite simply, been a revelation at Old Trafford following his arrival from Ajax last year.
The Reds have a clear identity on the pitch, the players are back to their best and the fans, as mentioned, have the one thing they crave above all else once again – hope. It’s been a remarkable season for the Old Trafford outfit and it all started with the announcement that Ten Hag would be taking over.
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The small factor of Champions League qualification remains before we can confidently mark the last year down as a success – but should they secure a top four spot it would prove the club’s manager can go toe-to-toe with the Premier League’s best exponents of managerial mind games.
While United have been struggling to get over the line and secure their place in the Europe’s premier competition for next season in recent weeks, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp was doing all he could to help encourage a slip-up.
On April 28, two days after United had drawn 2-2 with Tottenham, Klopp drew attention to his side’s 7-0 demolition of United more than a month prior.
Speaking in a press conference about what he hoped would be remembered about Liverpool’s season, Klopp said: “So this season, if we don’t do something really special, will be remembered for the 7-0 win against United.
“I hope when people speak about it in a few years they will look back on it and [say], ‘that is the year we beat United 7-0’ and that they could say something nice on top of that. And after that, we qualified still for whatever.
“That will be nice, but if not then we have to take that as well.”
It seemed a clear attempt by the Liverpool boss to remind everyone, including United’s manager and players, of the superiority his side had shown on that fateful day at Anfield and sow the seed of doubt in their minds. United followed it up with a win over Aston Villa, before stumbling to losses against Brighton and West Ham that allowed Liverpool to dream of overtaking United and sealing a top four spot for themselves.
Sandwiched in between those United defeats came more mind games from the German.
Asked if his Liverpool side can still make top-four, Klopp said: “Of course, if we imagine they would [slip up]. But I don’t think they will, we will be there and we would really regret that. But if United win their two games in hand and then they are seven points away, it is pretty much done.”
Could Klopp’s decision to call the top four race “pretty much done” have been a last-ditch attempt to try and get some complacency to sneak in within the United dressing room? Perhaps. And that is certainly what happened.
The loss to West Ham was particularly disappointing given David de Gea’s sloppy mistake when the Spaniard’s shot-stopping has always been one of his main strengths, and it left Reds fans feeling a little bit nervous about an end-of-season collapse.
But Ten Hag has instilled this squad with real leadership and they quickly righted the ship. Important wins over Wolves and Bournemouth were secured in difficult circumstances that have now put United on the road to the Champions League – and helped prove Ten Hag has the capacity to deal with the mind games so often thrown around at this time of year by his Premier League rivals.
Klopp clearly knows what he’s doing and has been involved in tussles for the title regularly during his time at the Anfield helm, but Ten Hag’s side are ever-so-close to showing they can rise above that noise and get the job done.
One more point will see United over the line and plans can start being drawn up to ensure United challenge for serious honours next season for the first time in years. Only now, it seems fans may finally get their hope.