LONDON — Manchester United are ready to party like it’s 1999. After ending a six-year trophy drought by winning the Carabao Cup with a 2-0 Wembley victory against Newcastle, the next challenge is to emulate the club’s greatest team by lifting three cups in the same season.
That’s how it works at the biggest clubs: You win one trophy and move onto the next. For manager Erik ten Hag’s players, that means going all the way in the FA Cup and Europa League between now and the end of May.
“This trophy means something,” Ten Hag said Sunday. “That is the feeling I get. We have won something, we have to celebrate that. But after that, you have to keep going. This cup can be the inspiration to give even more. Don’t be satisfied.”
Winning all three cups this season wouldn’t match the ultimate achievement of winning the Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup as Sir Alex Ferguson’s team did in 1999, but after enduring the club’s longest barren run for 40 years, United can now make up for lost time in the weeks ahead. Overhauling Arsenal‘s eight-point lead at the top of the Premier League is perhaps a task too far, but the cups are certainly there to be won.
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Casemiro‘s headed goal, followed by a deflected Marcus Rashford shot that was recorded as a Sven Botman own goal, were enough to secure a comfortable win against Newcastle and get United back on the trophy trail. But United can’t linger on this success for too long. There are short-term and long-term objectives for Ten Hag to tick off as manager, and the Dutchman, appointed as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s permanent successor last summer, has already checked plenty of boxes.
Ten Hag has transformed the culture at the club and within the squad by instilling a winning mentality, something accelerated by his decisive handling of Cristiano Ronaldo, who left for Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr after having his United contract terminated last November. With that, Ten Hag has taken a team that recorded United’s worst-ever Premier League campaign last season to sitting in third position now, on course for Champions League qualification, and with a trophy added to the honours’ list.
Moving on without Ronaldo, removing captain Harry Maguire from the defence following too many poor performances, dropping star player Marcus Rashford for oversleeping and missing a team meeting on a matchday and making key signings — namely Casemiro, Lisandro Martinez, Christian Eriksen — this success has Ten Hag’s fingerprints all over it.
“The turnaround is transformational — the turnaround under Erik ten Hag is unbelievable,” former United captain Gary Neville told Sky Sports. “At the end of last season some of those players were part of a team labelled a disgrace by me and other Manchester United fans.”
Roy Keane, United’s most successful captain, echoed Neville’s comments about the job done by Ten Hag: “This is the catalyst for putting some belief into the squad. This squad will be dangerous with a medal around their neck because you’d like to think Erik ten Hag will improve them again.”
“What the manager has done in a short space of time is fantastic,” Keane added. “The players now have to use this as a springboard to get more trophies over the next few years, that’s what it is about playing for Manchester United.”
Winning that first trophy was perhaps the biggest requirement of all for Ten Hag. United had become so accustomed to winning during two decades of success under Ferguson that their fall from grace since his retirement in 2013 proved so much harder to bear. Only three trophies — the 2016 FA Cup under Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho’s Carabao Cup/Europa League double in 2017 — had been won by United in the post-Ferguson years, but the past six years in particular have been a bleak wilderness of failure, exacerbated by the successes of Manchester City and Liverpool.
So, Ten Hag simply had to make United winners again, and he has done that by winning the first trophy available to him. As a result, a line has been drawn under the recent past, and it is now time to start winning the really big trophies again. For a club of United’s stature, that means the Premier League and Champions League.
That will be the objective next season, but prior to that, Ten Hag has the chance to turn United into serial winners in the other two competitions in which they are still competing.
Thursday’s Europa League playoff win against Barcelona, the runaway leaders of LaLiga, marked United out as favourites to win that competition, despite a tricky round-of-16 tie against Real Betis, while they will be in the FA Cup quarterfinals if they overcome West Ham at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
A year ago, such bullish talk would have been unthinkable as United lurched from one humiliation to another under Solskjaer and then Ralf Rangnick, his uninspiring replacement as interim manager. But Ten Hag is a manager who carries the air of someone who is in full control of what is in front of him and who knows exactly how to achieve success. As such, he will now be eyeing further glory in the cups this season, using the Carabao Cup win as the platform on which to build a dynasty.
They all have to start somewhere. United’s FA Cup in 1990, which ended a five-year trophy drought, was Ferguson’s first success, and it propelled the club to their incredible run of glory. And in 2006, the former United boss cited the EFL Cup win against Wigan as being the one which provided the launchpad for the team of Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney to win three successive Premier Leagues (2007, 2008, 2009) and also the Champions League in 2008.
Ten Hag’s team are not primed to do that just yet — work still needs to be done — but there is now a clear pathway to making United great again.
This team unquestionably needs a reliable centre-forward to climb to the next level. They need a Harry Kane or Victor Osimhen to deliver 20-plus goals a season and ease the overreliance on Rashford, while greater depth would leave the team less vulnerable when key players such as Casemiro or Raphael Varane are unavailable.
But Ten Hag has brought such a clear structure, and improved so many players, that United now only need strategic additions of the very best players to make them challengers on all fronts. Yes, they need more consistency from Bruno Fernandes, Jadon Sancho and Antony and for goalkeeper David de Gea to eradicate the mistakes that continue to haunt his game, but Ten Hag has elevated standards. He will expect those players to rise to the challenge of meeting them.
The next challenge is to add two more trophies to the Carabao Cup this season. It is no longer an improbable dream. It is what this United team can deliver.