Manchester derby can underline United's growth under Ten Hag

Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo, left, waits to enter the pitch as Manchester United's head coach Erik ten Hag gives directions during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Manchester United at King Power stadium in Leicester, England, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

Just two weeks into the season, Manchester City fans might have believed Pep Guardiola had pulled off his greatest act.

Never mind four Premier League titles and 11 trophies in total since taking charge at the Etihad in 2016 — the latest crisis at rival Manchester United had his fingerprints all over it.

“Are you asking me if Erik ten Hag could be here? Definitely,” said Guardiola back in April when questioned about whether the Dutchman was good enough to one day be his successor at City.

At that point the race to become the next United manager was down to two. Ten Hag and Mauricio Pochettino.

Less than three weeks later, Ten Hag was appointed by United. He is the latest to be charged with the responsibility of reviving the fortunes of a club that has endured a near-decade of decline since the retirement of Alex Ferguson, which has coincided with City’s rise to the top of English football.

Ten Hag got off to a disastrous start. Back-to-back defeats to leave United rooted to the foot of the table and humiliated in a 4-0 loss to Brentford.

The date of Guardiola’s endorsement – April 1 – only added to the intrigue.

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The City manager has previously been prickly when the subject of successors has been brought up. Not on this occasion – when he added that he would personally recommend Ten Hag to his sporting director, Txiki Begiristain.

“I will say it to Txiki now,” he said.

Ahead of Sunday’s first Manchester derby between Guardiola and Ten Hag, the picture is very different at Old Trafford.

United has won its last four league games — beating Liverpool and Arsenal in the process.

Victory against City would move it to within two points of the defending champion, with a game in hand, to feed the growing sense within the club that it is on the cusp of something special.

Of course, it’s unlikely that Guardiola’s comments had any effect on United’s decision to appoint the former Ajax coach instead of Pochettino — who was long-considered the front-runner for the job.

Instead, it was Ten Hag’s specific vision that convinced football director John Murtough, and chief executive Richard Arnold that he could be United’s answer to Guardiola and Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who have dominated English football over the past five years.

The 52-year-old was brutally honest in his assessment of what was required to challenge for major titles again — and that has been evidenced by a transfer spend of around $226m in his first transfer window.

Guardiola’s admiration is easily explained. They worked together at Bayern Munich, with Ten Hag coaching the reserve team when the Guardiola led the German giants to three straight league championships.

They are also represented by the same company – SEG International – where Guardiola’s brother, Pere, is a global agent.

Ten Hag had the resume to justify United’s interest, having won three Dutch league championships.

He also earned wider recognition by leading Ajax to the semifinals of the Champions League in 2019 — losing to Pochettino’s Tottenham.

But he represented a gamble to United, having never held a top job in one of Europe’s major leagues of England, Spain, Italy or Germany.

And there were alarming signs when his reign got off to such a bad start.

But Ten Hag quickly showed his authority — dropping captain Harry Maguire and star player Cristiano Ronaldo.

Most notably, he ordered his players to all run 13.8 kilometers in the searing heat after canceling their day off following the loss to Brentford in August. It was the exact extra distance Brentford’s players had run, compared to United, in that game.

Ten Hag joined his players on that run — insisting they were all equally responsible.

That feels like a turning point in United’s season — even if these are still very early days. But it is a measure of the new manager’s confidence in his methods — regardless of the size of the club or the profile of his players.

Within days, he was dubbed the “New Sheriff” by people inside the club.

On Sunday, he comes face to face with the man he has ultimately been tasked with toppling.

Bragging rights in Manchester will be at stake at the Etihad — but Ten Hag’s ambitions will stretch well beyond that.