It is no secret that Manchester United have overachieved this season in context to the pre-season predictions about the team. Offer any of us a trophy and a top-four place, along with the chance at a second trophy, and we would have bitten your hand off.
Part of it is down to recruitment, where Erik ten Hag bought in players worth nearly £250 million.
However, the key reason has been his coaching, leading to improvements from players already at the club. The fans are completely behind the manager due to this reason, as the progress is clear to see.
Here are the five most improved players at Manchester United this season, which fills the fans with hope that more is coming next year:
It was only a year ago that Jamie Carragher was proclaiming that Marcus Rashford should leave Manchester United. Paris Saint-Germain were circling, Barcelona were mentioned, and Rashford himself looked lost at United.
If Ralf Rangnick’s short and ill-fated reign destroyed one thing the most, it was Marcus Rashford’s confidence. He suffered injuries, played through them, received abuse for his performances, and looked like a shell of the player who broke through with confidence and played with a smile on his face.
An output of just five goals and two assists in 32 games across all competitions spoke of a player who had regressed, probably irreversibly. However, Erik ten Hag came in with a mission this season
Trusted as the talisman of the team, free from injury, and playing in a team that attacked cohesively in patterns, Rashford has had the most successful season of his career so far. 29 goals and 11 assists in 53 games across all competitions speak for themselves, but it is the minor things that don’t show on the stat sheet which are most noticeable to the eyes.
The smile is back, the swagger has returned, and the wonderkind that was promised is back on track to becoming one of the world’s best. Although fatigue has caught up with him now, Rashford has put the footballing world on notice with his displays this season. Now it is United’s move to extend his contract.
Another good player who became a victim of the malaise affecting United last season. Luke Shaw had a nightmare 2021/22 season. He missed a combined 85 days due to various injuries, including the flaring up of a leg injury in his leg that was broken on that fateful night against PSV.
Shaw made just 19 league starts for the club, with fans going as far as to write him off and appoint Brandon Williams as his heir apparent at the left-back slot, with Alex Telles also preferred ahead of him sometimes. How times have changed!
This season’s Shaw is a man possessed, in the most complimentary way possible. He is inarguably United’s first-choice left-back, and an argument can be made he is also Erik ten Hag’s 3rd best centre-back. With his world-class ball progression skills, silkiness in his left foot, and aerial domination and fitness, Luke Shaw has become the first name on the team-sheet this season.
A far cry from Brandon Williams taking his place, Shaw has instead signed a new contract that ties him to the club till 2027. Truly an immense transformation from last season.
Forget about improvement from last season to this, Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s improvement from pre-World Cup to post-World Cup has been remarkable. He was one of the players whose place was assumed immediately under threat when Erik ten Hag took over.
A more old-school full-back who lacked attacking nous, Wan-Bissaka became the forgotten man at United during the season before the World Cup break. Reports linked him to Crystal Palace as United were preparing to take a huge hit on their £50 million outlay, a familiar scenario in the ‘Glazernomics’ era.
However, as Ten Hag himself attributed later, Wan-Bissaka’s approach changed after November. He began to show the fruits of the time coaches spent with him during the World Cup break. Shaking off niggling injuries, Wan-Bissaka even displaced Diogo Dalot from his position when the latter was back fit. There was a newfound attacking vibrance to his game, as he repeatedly overlaps now, even showing off the odd step-over and skill to beat his man in attack, a ridiculous thought for Wan-Bissaka of last season.
Marking his return from the wilderness with a statement lockdown performance against Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma in the FA Cup semi-final, Wan-Bissaka has resurrected his United career from the ashes. Another case of Ten Hag not giving up on a player, and not freezing them out altogether.
Ten Hag’s becoming somewhat of a full-back whisperer! Diogo Dalot’s tale at United before this season had been one of unfulfilled potential. Heralded by Jose Mourinho as one of the best young fullbacks in the world when he signed, he never truly found a place at United. Even a loan at AC Milan had mixed results, with glimpses of potential outshined by a lack of concentration in defence, and some errors.
Coming into the season, the expectation was that Diogo Dalot would be the stopgap solution to United’s right-back spot for a year not because he was very good, but just because Wan-Bissaka was worse than him in the attacking phase.
However, Dalot laid all those claims to rest with a statement run of form leading up to the World Cup. Playing the most minutes this season of his career, Dalot has cemented his position as a player of Manchester United quality. He scored his first Premier League goal, and his versatility of being able to play both fullback positions has allowed Ten Hag to manoeuvre his defence in the face of an injury crisis.
Dalot has probably saved United upwards of £40 million in the transfer market with his career renaissance. Now in talks for a new contract at the club, maybe he turns out to be another of Jose Mourinho’s predictions that ages like wine.
united are currently on course to get 71/72 points this season – 2/3 points better than LVGs best – in what land are we in when we say that this is overachievement – ETH has spent 220m on players and very good players at that.
I really don’t get united fans – which 4 teams are so much better than united that no-one expected united to at least challenge top 4 with the likes of casemiro, rashford, eriksen, fernandes, varane, martinez etc? ETH has a considerably better squad then Ole’s.
throw into the hat that chelsea and liverpool have not been good this year then surely united should be in the top 4 with the squad that ETH has – I’m genuinely interested to see which teams/squads this writer thinks are better than uniteds and how it is an over achievement to be approaching LVG numbers.
its just completely false to say its an over achievement – if ETH doesn’t get top 4 this season, the easiest season in living memory to do so, then he will be under pressure next season – and he deserves to be too.
Its wishful thinking as per usual from the fanbase – ole was a disaster yet most fans just kept on believing cos they wanted it to be true that he was a good manager – he wasn’t and isn’t.
I’m not saying ETH is not a good manager, but i am saying atm he is definitely underachieving with such a squad – and i guarantee you the football world will not be impressed if he doesn’t deliver top 4 this season.
I think you are being unfair on EtH dixon.For starters, given the dismal performances of this team over the last few seasons, how many ppl would have anticipated these guyz winning a trophy & at some point even being given an outside chance of winning the championship in EtH’s first season?The players you mention there as top players are either EtH’s recruitments,something he should be credited for given our poor recruitment policy in the last few yrs,or had been performing poorly only to rebound thanks to the new manager.How many managers would have taken a chance on signing Martinez whom you laud for instance?
EtH inherited a dysfunctional team, a group of individuals who lacked confidence, cohesion & were embroiled in dressing room squabbles.Steadying the ship,shipping some of the bad apples out as well as bringing in good players who have the right attitude were top priorities in this context.EtH has done reasonably well in addressing that so far but a lot still needs to be done of course.Improving the players already there was also another priority area & he has done well in this area too.
He also had to adjust to the new environment & again he has done reasonably well.I believe he has learnt some lessons on the chasm btwn the demands & competitiveness of the Dutch league vs the EPL.The players are also adjusting to his new system.Winning a major trophy in one’s maiden season is a huge achievement in any situation & should EtH finish in the top 4 he would have done very well in our context.An FA Cup win will be another bonus & a loss in that final won’t be a huge disappointment should we finish in the top 4.
I do concur with you regarding Ole though.Sentiment rather than pure reason got the better of most fans.What appeared as progression was in actual fact a regression & very few noticed this until it was too late.
I hear you Welly and whilst I may be playing a little devil’s advocate – I will ask you – which teams have better squads than uniteds?
are united fans really surprised that united are challenging for top 4 this season? City, liverpool have clearly better squads and managers. which other teams have much better squads than uniteds?
arsenal probably – chelsea? possibly but they’re a basket case this season. spurs? no chance. newcastle? now there is a manager who IS overachieving with his squad.
You make caveats for ETH but that doesn’t relate to the fact that he has a very good squad (yes one that he strengthened) but he is on course, i reiterate to get similar numbers to LVG, a much ridiculed figure at united. he has the best united squad since ferguson left and the fanbase say he has overachieved?
my point is he hasn’t and it is a bit ridiculous to say he has.
qualifying for the CL next season will be a huge task for most teams except city and liverpool. thus this season was basically a gimme.
I also want to say i’m not saying sack the guy, just that some of the fanbase should be bit more balanced – ole arguably stayed in his position cos loads of fans were in support of him even though he was obviously a dud. he was only sacked when his position was untenable and even those fans turned on him.
I’m with you.Such hard core dispassionate analysis is needed at all times.yes in terms of squad depth Man U is better than Arsenal for instance.I’d even go as far as suggesting that on paper our midfield & defensive departments are better than Lvpl’s.But these are club’s that have been under the same manager for a relatively longer period than Man U & time plus the astuteness of the managers concerned have enabled them to mold TEAMS out of these players.For too long Man U has been as group of individual players who barely resemble a team.
Yeah the only thing that gripes me with strettynews and the paddock is this overachieving stuff. I think united have possibly 3-5 best squad in league and thus ETH isn’t over achieving. I do think however not qualifying for CL would be a failure with big ramifications for the club.
I think most of the football world would also agree. I think he’s been let down also by a lack of a competent sporting director who should have told him to focus on top four especially after the league cup was won. Instead ETH has shown a little naivety and misjudged the season.
Would love the writer of this piece to tell me who the 4-5 teams are that are better than united also!
Anyway have a good night mate and thanks for the chat!
Hi, Dixon! Thanks for reading and engaging.
The question is two-part here. I think Utd have overachieved this season because the majority didn’t predict that with three games to go, United’s top-four destiny would be in their own hands (as much as they’ve tried to mess it up). EtH pretty much inherited a dumpster fire from last season and after the first two games of this season, turned that dumpster fire into an actually likeable group who were worth rooting for again. Between the Ronaldo saga, a historic workload due to the Qatar WC, mounting injury issues and a lack of squad depth, I think it is fair to say that EtH has done a very good job this season.
About the 4-5 teams better than United, I don’t think it should be as simple as that. The more important question is, how many times are ahead in their development curve than United? If squad strength on paper alone were the main factor, Chelsea would be competing for titles right now. City, Arsenal, Liverpool, and even Newcastle have all been under their manager longer than United. Considering those facts, United’s fourth position actually makes sense. Obviously, Newcastle don’t have a better squad than Utd, but if we say EtH has overachieved in our context, Howe has performed literal miracles in theirs. Even Tottenham, whose transfer window was lauded, failed miserably because their good squad was just that- a good squad. They could never become a good team.
Having said that, I agree that there are glaring issues with this squad still and EtH is not blameless, especially with respect to his handling of the top-four race. If United manage another window this year like they had last year, a season similar to this will not be considered a success, let alone overachievement. If not a title challenge, United have to show that they are at least capable of going toe-to-toe with Manchester City next season, like Arsenal did this year. Anything less would be underachievement, and in harsher words, a step backwards.
Thanks Vatsal for the response – is much appreciated!
Whilst i get your point about what ETH inherited, there are mitigating circumstances for all of our rivals except arsenal and city. chelsea have far too many players and so it is no surprise they struggled, and liverpool are off the back of a pretty ridiculous season. Spurs don’t have a squad comparable to uniteds but have some very good players ofc. (i dont consider a newcastle side with that squad a rival). The world cup was for all the major teams not just united so it isn’t a fair excuse.
Had someone told united fans that liverpool would get 70 points and chelsea about 50 then i think we would all expect ETH to get this team into the top 4.
To my eyes i don’t see such a massive difference to ole’s days, better players make for prettier football but we are basically still a counter attacking team, we very rarely dominate teams and certainly not for anything approaching 90 mins. I would expect this to change next season.
I generally look at how many points a team get (not a flawless approach) but i think it is the best indicator of progress and ETH hasn’t really succeeded in this regard. Ole got 66 and 3rd i believe, and 74 and second – the fanbase seemed surprised when it all fell apart but it was no surprise at all really. the other teams were awful those seasons as were united. and 66/74 are pretty poor returns and this season is similar imo and my point is that some websites/fans see what they want to believe, not necessarily what is happening – it was certainly the case with Ole and to some degree is a bit with ETH already – i don’t think it benefits united really.
anyway mate i really appreciate your articles, they are a good read and thanks again for responding!