Manchester United are still some distance away from looking like the £1.3bn it cost to put them together – but Gary Neville is adamant there are signs of progress under Erik ten Hag.
The Dutchman took charge over the summer after a tired-looking United had laboured home in sixth place last season. And he has quickly put into motion his visions for the club, having been allowed to spend well over £200m.
Indeed, the six signings he has made have given Manchester United a fresh look and hope for a better campaign. And while two opening defeats saw early questions asked, the club then bounced back with five wins from their next six games.
That momentum was devastatingly crushed by Manchester City, who destroyed them 6-3 at the start of this month. And Sunday’s 0-0 stalemate with Newcastle, who could have leapfrogged them with a win, leaves United fifth in the Premier League table.
That means the Red Devils are already some 11 points behind league leaders Arsenal, on 27 points. But, perhaps more realistically, they are only three points behind Chelsea in fourth.
And securing a top-four berth has to be the main aim for Ten Hag in his first season in charge.
As such, Neville reckons the next block of fixtures will go a long way to showing what United are capable of.
Speaking to the Daily Mail, he said: “I think the team are putting some movements together that look promising.
“When you look at the £1.3billion that has been spent, I still think ‘I’m not looking at a £1.3bn team here’.
“But that’s not Ten Hag, that has happened over the course of five, six, seven seasons.
“We are still not anywhere near City, obviously, but we have beat Liverpool and Arsenal and there is promise there.”
Christian Eriksen fitness fears for Man Utd
“The next few weeks for United are tough. There are four to five tough games coming up that really will tell us where United are at in this first part of the season.
“The big thing for me is – we’ve talked about the ownership and that needs to change and be dealt with – but the manager has settled in pretty well and there looks to be a togetherness with the players and manager.”
Following the Newcastle draw, Man Utd face Tottenham and Chelsea this week. They also tackle West Ham before the month is out.
Meanwhile, United will continue to monitor Christian Eriksen as he looks to return to the side this week.
The 30-year-old Dane had been an ever-present under Ten Hag prior to Sunday’s match against Newcastle. His probing and passing range was evidentally missed against the Magpies in the frustrating stalemate.
Having missed out through illness, Ten Hag remains unsure what role he will play this week. To that end, he will be another big loss against Spurs and then Chelsea were he to miss out.
“We miss him when he’s not available,” Ten Hag told Danish station Viaplay at Old Trafford. “But we have a squad and another 11 players on the pitch. So then we have to construct another team and we can bring players from the bench, who are all good.
“I can’t tell [if he will face Spurs]. I know you’re from Denmark, and want to know, and I want to express he’s played fantastic, in this moment, for us. In our team, he really contributes to what we are at this moment.
“I don’t know if he will be available for Wednesday but I hope [so], of course.”
Acid test for Man Utd as games come thick and fast
While the next week will not make or break their season, the games against Spurs and Chelsea will go a long way to showing what this United side under Ten Hag are all about.
Were they to pick up maximum points, it will not only show they are capable of a top-four finish, it will also show how Ten Hag has managed to influence the side.
Realistically, United know they cannot catch Manchester City any time soon. But the top four has to be the aim – and beating fellow challengers Tottenham and Chelsea will illustrate that.
Neither game, though, will be easy. Tottenham are enjoying their best ever start to a Premier League season with 23 points from 10 games. Even when not playing well, Antonio Conte has engineered a Spurs side that is hard to beat.
Chelsea, meanwhile, look rejuvenated under new boss Graham Potter. They have won every Premier League game he’s had in charge. And they have only conceded two goals in the last six games he has taken charge in in all competitions.
As such, on the flip side, the team could find themselves a fair distance off looking like a top four side were they to lose both games.