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‘A final isn’t played, it’s won’ – How Erik ten Hag is reshaping the mentality at Manchester United

Erik ten Hag has led Manchester United to a final at Wembley Stadium where they will bid to win the Carabao Cup.

For fans who witnessed the abysmal 2021-22 season, this comes not only as a surprise but also as a blessing.

The Dutchman’s winning mentality, combined with strict adherence to discipline and eye-catching football, has helped United become a threat.

The Red Devils thrashed Nottingham Forest 5-0 over two legs in the semi-final of the Carabao Cup. After the game, the manager told the media that being in a final doesn’t mean anything unless it’s won.

He said ‘finals, you play them to win’ – a statement that perfectly demonstrates his mindset.

Ten Hag’s ethos has always been simple, his teams either win or don’t. The fact that not winning may be an option at United is scoffed at by the manager. 

In the years before Ten Hag’s appointment, the club went through times when only surviving was misconstrued as success.

For years under the Glazers’ ownership and several managerial reigns, it was only accepted that United would do well if they finished in the top four or reached the quarter-finals of tournaments.

However, that mentality seems to have been washed away by Ten Hag. Within six months of his appointment, he has convinced the players of his project and got rid of those who refused to buy in.

He has also been instrumental in driving the club towards proper discipline. The idea that Man United, one of the greatest clubs in the world, can accept mid-table finishes has been eradicated. 

Ten Hag has taken control of the club’s academy, been in control of transfers and profiled his players to suit his style of play. The Dutchman has also led the way and set an example of what he expects from his players.

In the aftermath of the 2-1 and 4-0 defeats at the hands of Brighton & Hove Albion and Brentford, respectively, Ten Hag led the way in running 13 kilometres along with his squad. 

Erik ten Hag is never afraid to make changes for the betterment of the team

One of the major attributes of the current United players is that they will go the distance to ensure that their club emerges victorious.

Whether it be a late comeback victory against Fulham or a gritty performance against Manchester City, the Red Devils bid to win at all costs. 

Winning is what matters, whether it’s in football or war. To win, generals must, at times, sacrifice some key soldiers. Ten Hag has also done the same at United.

He has benched club captain Harry Maguire, who was one of the team’s best defenders in the past few seasons. The Dutchman was also not afraid to take Jadon Sancho out of the club and prepare him for a comeback at a later stage.

To this end, Sancho prepared alone in the Netherlands and at Carrington, readying himself mentally and physically for the challenges at Old Trafford.

Ten Hag was also not afraid to fine and subsequently bench star player Marcus Rashford for missing a crucial team meeting. 

And in his most significant statement, Ten Hag did not shy away from parting ways with global footballing superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ronaldo is not just any player. For United fans, he is a legend – a star whose light never diminishes and whose value never depreciates. However, Ronaldo was deemed surplus to requirements. 

The former Ajax manager benched Ronaldo, essentially putting out the message to his team that the name on the back of the shirt hardly matters when you’re on the pitch playing for United.

It is integral to Ten Hag’s system that he maintains a stranglehold on his team’s day-to-day affairs.

He understands that it is his leadership that matters, his words that will lead to glory, and he who will have to step up for his players.

In many ways, Ten Hag is a reflection of Sir Alex Ferguson – a father figure, a teacher and, above all, a sore loser.