Erik ten Hag admitted he took Manchester United to Manchester City’s school when they were beaten in October, but delivered his insistence that lessons were learned at a tumultuous Old Trafford on Saturday lunchtime.
Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham have all been beaten by United here this season, but victory over Premier League champions City, and the manner in which it was achieved, is by far the most powerful statement of Ten Hag’s tenure.
Manchester City will believe that this derby turned around with a controversial decision that ruled Marcus Rashford was not involved in the game when Bruno Fernandes equalized 12 minutes from time.
In the chaotic few minutes that followed, Rashford scored the winner to give United a 2-1 victory.
The celebration that followed the final whistle carried the belief that this giant club, which had lost so badly, might just be under Ten Hague again.
United have now lost just one of 19 games since that 6-3 humiliation at the Etihad Stadium, lending weight to Ten Hag’s belief that the harrowing experience will be used as a force for good.
The conclusion of this derby may have been highly contested, and one had to sympathize with City’s appeals, but United’s performance, character and unity justified the growing optimism around Old Trafford that replaced the despair of the opening days of the season when they lost at home to Brighton and then were humiliated at Brentford.
Casemiro has, to use Ten Haga’s words, put the cement between the bricks since his arrival from Real Madrid, but so many other factors are converging as United now sit just one point behind City – a state of affairs that would have laughed at anyone who would have said it from outside the city a few years ago months.
At the heart of it all is the tactically astute, disciplined Ten Hag, who makes a stronger mark on Manchester United each week, looking more at home and more suited to the task than many who have preceded him in recent years.
Ten Hag restored faith, instilled smart game management and also made it clear who was in charge when Cristiano Ronaldo was sent off for his insubordination.
Even the in-form Rashford didn’t escape when he was dropped from Wolverhampton Wanderers after turning up late for a meeting.
Is there a greater beneficiary of Ten Haga’s influence than Rashford?
The winner means Rashford has scored in each of his last seven games in all competitions, eight in total, and has been on target in each of his last nine appearances at Old Trafford, the first United player to do so since Teddy Sheringham in 2000 .
Rashford’s joy was in stark contrast to City’s goalscoring machine Erling Haaland, who had a rare off-day as he touched the ball just 19 times, with just five in United’s box.
It is far too early to get carried away talking about titles and measuring the gap to be closed by Manchester City, who have dominated not only United but almost everyone else at home in recent years.
What can be said without contradiction is that United are finally getting back in the right direction. It was seen on the field and witnessed in the stands of Old Trafford, which was in an ecstatic mood at the final whistle.
Ten Hag still has a lot of work to do after a barren year of underachievement, but to have United third in the Premier League and hot on City’s heels is an outcome that anyone with a connection to the club would be grabbing in August.
He also makes decisions that work, one of them being the deployment of Luke Shaw in central defence, a move that raised eyebrows given that he operated in the same areas as Haaland.
Shaw was outstanding, especially in stoppage time when the defender won several aerial duels during a prolonged game of tennis heads on the edge of the penalty area.
Ten Hag’s arrival and his measured approach meant this was always going to be a case of managerial evolution rather than revolution – but the best way to prove the chart is on an upward curve is to beat the champions, especially when those champions happen to be Manchester City.