Erik Ten Hag arrived at Manchester United this summer with the club at its lowest point since Alex Ferguson's departure.
Sixth in the league, no Champions League football, after a season that saw the club ship four goals to Liverpool (twice), Manchester City, Watford, and Brighton, had the mood at Old Trafford on the floor.
2021-22 was even worse than the sole season seen under David Moyes, with United spending big and not even merely failing to reap the rewards - they actively went backwards.
For Erik Ten Hag, the biggest job in English football, with the circus that comes with it, was going to come with even more pressure than anticipated.
Ten Hag's lack of experience outside of his native Netherlands had many doubting his ability to deal with the pressure of the Premier League, let alone its most successful club. The way in which the Dutchman has approached the opening weeks of the job have given an indication that he may well be what Manchester United have been crying out for since Ferguson retired in 2013.
Erik Ten Hag: United manager has stamped his authority at Old Trafford
Erik Ten Hag crafted one of the most popular and stylish teams in European football during his time at Ajax, with the 2018-19 Champions League semi-final run bringing him to the attention of the biggest clubs on the continent.
With Manchester United stuck in the worst of ruts by the end of last season, they turned to Ten Hag to arrest their dramatic slide. Though Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did some fantastic work in his first two full seasons with the club, United fell dramatically during his third, and that ultimately cost Solskjaer his job.
His replacement, Ralf Rangnick, failed to do anything meaningful to improve the side's fortunes on the pitch, and Ten Hag was left with a squad that looked completely void of confidence, who were misfiring their way to mediocrity.
The warnings came for Ten Hag. Major football personalities warned him that United would be the toughest job of his career (no shit), while some lasered in on the major issues presented by the attitude of the squad.
The opening to the season...could have gone better for the former Ajax boss. A home loss to Brighton was, perhaps, forgivable in the context. Coming off the back of a dreadful season, against a well-coached and exciting side, this could have been a flash in the pan. The panic button was firmly hit six days later when United found themselves 4-0 down away to Brentford at half-time.
⭕ "BRENTFORD ARE DEMOLISHING MAN UTD!" ⭕
Bryan Mbeumo adds a fourth, this is simply unbelievable! 🤯🤯🤯 pic.twitter.com/wcIKWHqnY9
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) August 13, 2022
But let's have a look at the predecessors of Erik Ten Hag, before we look at what has made his recovery from that setback so impressive.
In truth, there hasn't been any other Manchester United start to the season since Alex Ferguson's retirement quite like what Ten Hag endured this year. Even David Moyes claimed a win in his first game in charge, while Louis van Gaal managed to steady the ship after an opening loss.
And, at times, it looked like van Gaal might be the man at United. The football was often dire but, for a brief period at the end of 2014-15, it looked like he had cracked the code, and had the team playing dynamic football. That lasted for about four weeks.
In reality, the job always looked too big for Moyes, and he was doomed from the outset. Van Gaal and Manchester United had the strangest air to it, like it was the right job for the Dutchman, but at the wrong time. His football "philosophy" seemed muddled and outdated, at Old Trafford at least, and he appeared visibly erratic on the touchline, and in press conferences.
The two "success stories" - if we can call them that - of the post-Ferguson era were Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Both lasted longer in the job than either of their predecessors, with Mourinho taking the club to two trophies in the 2016-17 season and second place in the Premier League the following season.
Mourinho brought in big personalities. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba arrived in the summer of 2016, and were crucial in that trophy-winning opening season. But, as always with The Special One, it didn't take long for Mourinho to begin clashing with the big men in his squad, and his fallout with Pogba is now the stuff of infamy.
Throwback to Jose Mourinho explaining the difference between Paul Pogba at Man United and France after the last World Cup 👀 pic.twitter.com/s3JQucRExj
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) November 16, 2020
Jose is known for leaving jobs under a cloud, but his downfall at United was extraordinary, even by his standards. The 3-0 loss to Spurs at the opening of the 2018-19 season ranks close to some of United's worst ever Premier League performances, and an even worse one at Anfield that Christmas cost him his job. He looked like he had checked out months previously, with similarly erratic behaviour on the touchline to that seen from van Gaal.
Solskjaer is a far more divisive figure among Manchester United fans. His failure to win any trophies during his time at the club will be the long-term statistic that sticks out like a sore thumb. He did, however, bring in Bruno Fernandes to the club, implement a positive and forward-thinking style of play and, during the 2020-21 season, got the team clicking and, briefly, mounted a genuine title challenge.
His fall from grace was the most spectacular of all the above - he went from a league runner-up and unfortunate Europa League final loser to down and out in 7th place in the space of six months.
Erik Ten Hag is little over two and a half months into his competitive time as Manchester United manager. It will, of course, only be fair to judge his results against his predecessors' once he has been in the job a similar amount of time.
But what we can analyse is his approach - and he has been spot on so far, in a way we haven't seen at Old Trafford in some time.
As stated, Moyes was not cut out for the United job, and never looked comfortable in Manchester. Van Gaal appeared adamant on his "philosophy", despite it returning mixed (at best) results. His erratic contributions to the press included appearing to forget his vice captain's name, and his big-name signings completely failed (we've been over this here, but Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao are among the most forgettable big names ever to pass through Carrington).
"I didn’t give a f*** about the Manchester United no.7." 😳
No holding back from Ángel Di María here... pic.twitter.com/2oAdgzkA29
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) September 2, 2021
Mourinho constantly fell out with his squad in public, and his inability to effectively manage Paul Pogba was well-documented. His initial success on the pitch does earn him some credit here, but his approach left the dressing room in tatters on his departure.
Where Solskjaer deserves most credit is in his attempts to improve squad morale, something which reached its zenith during that 2020-21 season - but he cracked under the pressure of expectation when the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo meant a title challenge was to be expected. He also appeared unwilling to drop any "headliners", even if they were cripplingly out of form.
Erik Ten Hag has committed to his philosophy - but has been open about altering it slightly to suit specific opponents. He has made players fight for their place in the squad, with the likes of Fred and Scott McTominay putting in hugely improved performances as a result. His signings have, to a man, worked so far, with Casemiro and Christian Eriksen in particular looking like gamechangers in the problem area of midfield.
— Casemiro (@Casemiro) October 19, 2022
He has dealt with the media circus well, with the strongest example being the trust he has put in Lisandro Martinez. After two games, the Argentinean (who Ten Hag brought with him from Ajax) was being widely ridiculed for his perceived weaknesses at centre back. His height was frequently brought up as an example of why he would supposedly not cut it at Premier League level, particularly after the 4-0 Brentford loss.
There is an argument to be made that, since that Brentford game, Martinez has been United's best and most consistent player - a testament to Ten Hag's judgment. Martinez is also an example of the right type of signing for the club. He is not the "jersey seller" type of signing the club has so frequently gone after in recent years (Bastian Schweinsteiger comes to mind), but an efficient player who will not only get better at Manchester United, but improve those around him. He is not glamorous - but he is exactly what United need.
His much discussed decision to punish the team with a brutal extra training session post-Brentford (in which he took part) appears to have worked a treat.
The most impressive part of Erik Ten Hag's management so far, however, has been his handling of the Cristiano Ronaldo farce. Van Gaal could not get the best out of di Maria or Falcao, and resorted to playing Robin van Persie on the wing as a result. Mourinho fell out with Pogba and Anthony Martial, while Solskjaer seemed entirely incapable of dropping the likes of Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Ronaldo's stature is on another level to the players above - and Ten Hag has been confident and steadfast. He has started him just twice in the Premier League so far, using him more frequently in the Europa League. He has praised Ronaldo in public for his talents and work rate, despite persistent rumours to the contrary.
And, this week, he hit the nail on the head by suspending the Portuguese veteran for his petulant behaviour at the conclusion of Wednesday's win against Spurs.
🗣 "I set a warning at the start of the season, the next time it has to be a consequence."
Erik ten Hag says it's important for Manchester United as a team to fulfill certain standards pic.twitter.com/4s8j6maTNx
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) October 21, 2022
That Ronaldo's behaviour and the circus surrounding him has dominated the news cycle after the best performance not only of Ten Hag's reign so far, but perhaps the past three to four years for United, is sad. But there has been a marked change.
The discussion this week has not been about Ronaldo, but about Ten Hag, and how impressively he has handled the fall from grace of arguably the greatest player of all time. This had the potential to get ugly - can you really imagine Ole Gunnar Solskjaer being brave enough to drop Ronaldo consistently in favour of Marcus Rashford and the young talent of Antony and Jadon Sancho? And then having the confidence to admonish Ronaldo publicly?
Was the discussion of Jose Mourinho's relationship with Paul Pogba ever ardently in favour of Jose's treatment of the Frenchman? We needn't even go into how poorly David Moyes endeared himself to the players.
The situation with Ronaldo - and the ongoing steadfast decision to drop club captain Harry Maguire - were situations Erik Ten Hag inherited from Solskjaer (via interim boss Ralf Rangnick), and ones he has immediately handled with more authority than either of his predecessors did.
When Ronaldo threw a tantrum at being subsituted at Brentford in January, Rangnick started him in the very next game against West Ham United. The persistent selection of a woefully out of form Maguire was a perplexing plotline of both Solskjaer and Rangnick's time in charge last season - it took two games for Ten Hag to drop Maguire to the bench.
Ten Hag is also backing all of this up with results on the pitch. They have now beaten Arsenal, Liverpool, and Spurs so far this season, and a win on Saturday evening against Chelsea will put them in the top four, with a game in hand on Spurs in third.
It's early days yet, but the signs of an organised, ruthless manager arriving at Manchester United are here for the first time since 2012-13.
He's no Fergie, that's for sure. But Erik Ten Hag has made it clear he is the boss at Manchester United. And, for now, at least, the signs are good.