Monday 27 February 2023

Manchester United end trophy drought and scratch six year itch

Manchester United ended a trophy drought spanning six years and over 2,000 days with victory in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley.

Against a Newcastle side on an even longer run without success, Erik ten Hag's mentality monsters delivered the Dutchman's first piece of silverware at Old Trafford at the first opportunity, only nine months into the job. 
It rounded off a memorable week with the might of Barcelona sent packing from the Europa League on a thunderous Thursday at Old Trafford. Manchester United haven't had a few days as good as this for quite some while. 

ten Hag has the look and feel of a transformative manager and now has a trophy as tangible reward for the speed and manner in which he has turned United around. 

The erudite Dutchman's potent mix of discipline and tactical awareness makes this feel like a very different Manchester United to the one that stumbled blindly in the dark under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and then Ralf Rangnick. But those dark moments, some of the darkest we have ever known, make this slice of silverware all the more worthwhile. We've waited a long time for this. Not as long as valiantly vanquished Newcastle in fairness, but not since the late sixties and early seventies have United fans witnessed such a drought. 

But that monkey is off our backs now. The itch is well and truly scratched. Six months out from sinking without trace in that 4-0 defeat at Brentford, what odds would you have got on this? What would the odds have been of United sitting comfortably in the top four, winning the first trophy of the season as the only club in Europe still in with a chance of landing all four major competitions? 

It's true ten Hag's predecessors Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho also delivered silverware during their stints in the United hotseat, but neither felt sustainable. They were nice to win at the time, but we knew van Gaal was on his way out and Mourinho's short-termism meant it seemed like the end of the journey. 

This time, it feels different. This is only just the start. This League Cup victory is surely merely the first of many. You cannot help but make comparisons to the United vintage of 2006. Back then, the Reds were transitioning between eras as one great side ceded and another was created. A young team with early-twenty-somethings Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo and the new arrivals Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra won this very trophy with a 4-0 win over Wigan.
The following season, Sir Alex's finest surged to the first of a Premier League three peat, before the Double followed in 2008. In short, that League Cup success paved the way for a new era of dominance. That side needed a trophy and, once it got one, it could not stop winning. That League Cup win may have felt underwhelming at the time, but proved a catalyst for greater things, instilling confidence and a winning mentality into a young, ambitious group of players who would become serial winners. 

The League Cup was Pep Guardiola's first trophy in England and so it is fitting a man who learned his trade under the City boss, a disciple of the nuances of the Beautiful Game, has followed suit. His United forerunner but three, Jose Mourinho, also sparked his silver-plated managerial years on these shores with three three handled trophy. Ridicule and mock it if you want, call it the Mickey Mouse trophy is you want, but no one said that when City won it four years in a row, or indeed when Liverpool themselves did so last season. It is not top of the priority list but it's a start and better than nothing. 

Now of course it is probably a stretch to suggest history will repeat. Pre-eminence such as we enjoyed then is rare now, and the margins so fine. But it will give these players the belief that greater things like ahead. Spearheaded by serial winners Casemiro and Raphael Varane, the first taste of a trophy will leave the group wanting more. Of United's matchday squad for the final, only David de Gea and Marcus Rashford had won a trophy with the club. Others like Varane, Casemiro, Jadon Sancho, Bruno Fernandes, Antony and Fred had won elsewhere but not since coming to Old Trafford. For Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, Aaron Wan - Bissaka and Scott McTominay to name but four, all this was new. 

ten Hag himself will not stop here. There were no elaborate celebrations: the team returned to the North West at 10pm on Sunday to return to training ahead of West Ham's FA Cup visit on Wednesday. With the League Cup now safely stored in the cabinet, United will not rest on their laurels. There remains the chance of a quadruple. We are still in the FA Cup with only City left as one of the 'big' six and ten Hag's United are surely now favourites to win the Europa League. Something special is building at Old Trafford. 

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