Why I loved Erik ten Hag having a go back at me

Erik ten Hag looks grumpy
Erik ten Hag was not impressed by Jamie Carragher's comments - Oli Scarff/AFP
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Manchester United can forget about knocking Manchester City off their perch while Pep Guardiola remains in English football.

United can change owners, headhunt the best chief executive and sporting director in the world, revamp their recruitment department, rebuild Old Trafford and appoint their best manager since Sir Alex Ferguson. It doesn’t matter. So long as Guardiola is around, City will lose no sleep.

United will never be the most dominant club in their city, let alone the rest of the country, until City are in the process of hiring a new coach.

This is how great football eras work. Legendary, world-class managers never get surpassed by their contemporaries while at their peak, and we are still in the midst of City’s dominance.

Obviously United can, should and probably will massively improve once the partial ‘takeover’ by Sir Jim Ratcliffe yields the necessary changes. But for United or anyone else to become top dogs in English and European football does not depend solely on what they do. They need a deterioration from their rivals as much as a radical shift in their own standards.

Welcome to Manchester poster
Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Ineos will improve Manchester United but Guardiola is simply too good to allow City to be usurped - Robbie Jay Barratt/Getty Images

The source of hope is that Guardiola will not be around forever. Everyone beyond the Etihad is praying he does not extend the contract that runs until 2025. When he has had enough the tide might turn, just as Jürgen Klopp’s imminent exit from Liverpool runs the possibility of his club falling back into the pack. The champagne corks will be popping in the Ineos offices on the day Guardiola goes because it will reduce the timescale by which United’s ambitions can realistically be realised.

The most transformative moments in English football are often a direct consequence of elite managers departing. United can recognise this better than any club having felt the negative impact when Sir Matt Busby stepped down in 1969, and then again Ferguson in 2013. What rivals did to fill the void was only half of the story. It was United failing to implement a successful succession plan that led to the barren years.

City would always have emerged as the force they have after their Abu Dhabi buy-out, but Ferguson’s departure is the single biggest reason why United fell off their ‘perch’ in the first place.

Despite the popularity of Ferguson’s famous quote, I am not sure any dominant manager has ever been ‘knocked off his perch’. United, like Liverpool when Kenny Dalglish left in 1991, contributed to their own downfall because their legendary manager left and the replacements were not as good. That made the task of everyone else easier.

While Ferguson was in charge, United were guaranteed to compete for the top honours. Yes, he was challenged and beaten by Arsène Wenger and Jose Mourinho among others during different periods, but he was never dethroned as the Premier League’s best manager during his reign. Everyone knew at the start of every season if you finished above United, you were probably going to be champions. That is now true of those fighting City. They are the standard by which everyone else is judged.

Sir Alex Ferguson leads Man Utd to the title in 2007
For 20 years from 1993 you knew if you finished above Sir Alex, you would almost certainly win the title - John Peters/Getty Images

Guardiola’s presence ensures that will not change. Like Ferguson, he is too good to be permanently overtaken.

Mourinho was ridiculed when he suggested finishing second to Pep’s City in 2018 was “one of his biggest achievements in football”. In retrospect, you can see where he was coming from.

Over the past few days I have led the tributes to Klopp, describing him as the new Bill Shankly. The chances are that his bid for another Premier League title will also be denied by the brilliance of Guardiola and his team. We are seeing one of the greatest managers of all time in his pomp.

Heading into this weekend’s Manchester derby, it is not intended to be disparaging to state this fixture is not currently a heavyweight clash. It is in terms of the stature of the clubs involved. United’s history still eclipses City’s. But when assessing the quality of teams, they are in a different class.

United can win only by playing ‘underdog football’

As has been the case for the past few years, United are rank outsiders. They can win the game, but only by playing ‘underdog football’ with men sitting deep behind the ball and hoping to counter-attack. Nine times out 10 that is not good enough against a team of City’s ability. There is always a chance in a one-off game the strategy will work. It will need a shock result.

United fans heading to the Etihad with trepidation understand that situation is unacceptable and the team can only truly be said to be heading in the right direction when they are capable of going toe-to-toe with title challengers, imposing front-footed football. They remain miles away from that.

My analysis on Sky’s Monday Night Football last week was intended to demonstrate why United are so inconsistent. Manager Erik ten Hag had a go back for what he perceived as unfair criticism. He felt I had been critical from day one. Actually it was from game two when his United team lost at Brentford – but it was directed at the players, not the manager.

But fair play to him for saying what he did. I have nothing but respect and admiration for managers who defend themselves and their teams. If creating a siege mentality at United leads to positive results and improved performances, it is the perfect response.

There is no tougher challenge in football than facing Guardiola’s City, though. As usual, the champions are purring at the right time, so much so it would be foolish to write off the possibility of another treble.

Reconnecting of Haaland and De Bruyne is frightening for everyone else

Like Ferguson, Guardiola is the master at fine-tuning his players for the run-in and the reconnecting of Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne is frightening for everyone else. De Bruyne is the Premier League’s best player and has barely played all season. His fitness and form will increase confidence City can win everything again. Few teams are capable of stopping them.

It is a long road back for United, but it is not all bad news. It will be much easier for Ratcliffe to have an instant impact and demonstrate the speed of improvement on the back of another season of underperformance. United were third last season with an impressive 75 points. If they had built on that with better signings last summer, they would have made significant strides forwards rather than limped back. Getting back to where they were a year ago as a platform for growth should not be difficult for a club of their size and with such resources.

Whether United have a good day on Sunday or not, catching and overtaking City can only be a long-term ambition. In the short term, the best United can hope for is steady improvement and becoming more of a nuisance challenging at the top of the Premier League table and for major honours.

Before United can even think about re-establishing their former position on their ‘perch’, they need to become ‘noisy neighbours’ giving their supporters something to shout about.

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