Erik ten Hag exclusive: Man Utd have a plan for Arsenal, now we have to deliver

If you can gauge anything from Erik ten Hag 24 hours out from a huge Premier League showdown with Arsenal, then the Dutchman and his Manchester United team mean business.

He strode to our interview straight from a freezing training session, boots still on, managed a hello, a quick joke and then we were off.

Not the late Crystal Palace equaliser in midweek nor the loss of the influential Casemiro is going to derail the Manchester United manager on where he and the club want to go. It’s days like Sunday that Ten Hag lives for.

“In the Premier League, there are only big games. But there is a difference between big and big.”

This is one of the biggest and most anticipated meetings in years. Ten Hag tried to play down the significance but his eyes light up when he says ‘the rivalry is so good for football it lifts the game’.

Football fans – whoever you supported – were spoilt through the nineties and noughties with some epic, enthralling encounters, games you just couldn’t take your eyes off not for a second. At the heart of the rivalry two captains in Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira that embodied their teams that went head-to-head – quite literally at times.

Erik ten Hag sat down with Gail Davis ahead of Man Utd’s game against Arsenal on Super Sunday

At the Emirates on Sunday, live on Sky Sports, will be two men wearing the armband who might not have that same in your face physicality and fear factor but both are likely to exude the same influence on their teams and the result.

In Martin Odegaard and Bruno Fernandes, you have two players who are both in incredible form but, almost more importantly to both their managers, also possess the ability to drive the vision and standards of their clubs. They have both become the heartbeat of their sides.

“They are two great players,” says Ten Hag. “So skilful and they score goals. They symbolise the modern footballer in their attitudes.

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“They play good football and they know they have to work for the team, they are team players and use their abilities to make their team better so the individual skills are in the interests of the team. There is only one Messi, we saw that at the World Cup. The rest have to work and be part of a team.”

Harry Maguire remains the club captain but in his absence as a starter, Fernandes has flourished in the role.

“He brings so much energy fabulous in transition both ways,” Ten Hag says of the Portugal international.

Bruno Fernandes celebrates after scoring his Man Utd's second goal
Bruno Fernandes has worn the captain’s armband in place of Harry Maguire this season

“A couple of weeks ago he got some criticism as to why is he not scoring. He was disappointed too. I said ‘wait, be calm, be composed your goals will come, but do the things we want you to do, that you are good at. It means a lot for the team and that brings the team a result’, and now we see him scoring two goals in two games.

“I am confident when we keep this team process going, he will even score more. But the base is always the capabilities he has and there are not many players who are as skilful in transition as Bruno is.”

Fernandes is also not afraid to speak his mind. Earlier in the season, he called out Alejandro Garnacho for having a poor attitude in training and had a few choice words for his team mate Anthony at Selhurst Park on Wednesday night when an attack broke down.

But Ten Hag almost relished the flashpoint: “I think they are really OK with that. There is always emotion, so much is about brains, but also emotion too when the heart rules the head.

Sunday 22nd January 4:00pm

Kick off 4:30pm

“Those two, and there are others, when they bring that emotion to the game, it makes their performance better. Sometimes they cross the line with each other, but in the same minute, they are best friends again.”

Without Casemiro – who picked up his fifth yellow card and a suspension against Palace in midweek – and against the league leaders, I ask the Manchester United manager about the need for Fernandes to step up again, to set the tone of the game and get under the skin of his opponents.

“I have many leaders in De Gea, Varane, Eriksen and Shaw. He has shown so much progress in his personality and leading by example, I have no worries about leadership and with this team, we beat them the first time and in this team, we have confidence.

“It will be close, it is about detail and being good in the execution of the game plan. We are in good form and we have a good chance.”

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As far as replacing Casemiro as a player, he warned Arsenal: “We have a plan. I think we have a good plan, like against Manchester City, sometimes you have to surprise the opponent.

“We spoke about it, have given the instructions, trained it, now we have to deliver.”

A Manchester United win at the Emirates and they will be only five points behind Arsenal. Ten Hag refuses to talk about his side as title contenders, but he’s clearly proud of the progress the club has made this season and there is a teasing mention of silverware.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from the 1-1 draw between Crystal Palace and Manchester United

“You do the best you can. We had a good plan of what we wanted to do and had a huge investment from everyone at the club, especially the players. We are in a good position, we want to be here. In January, you can’t win anything but we have put ourselves in the position to win something and so we will go from game to game.”

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta has spoken this week about the impressive transformation taking place and the speed it has happened at Old Trafford. Praise indeed from someone who has been on a similar journey of rebuilding a club from the culture and environment up.

So where might Ten Hag and Manchester United be three years in, looking at where Arteta is now?

“We want to be the best. We have made no secret of that, so we will work and we know we have a lot to do and there is a lot of room for improvement,” he explains.

“In the Premier League, there are incredible managers at the moment. He is one of them and for what he is doing now, he is the best. He is overseeing really big performances, huge things managing his team.

“They are so consistent, the most consistent in the league and playing incredible football. They are fantastic, but we want to beat them and we are looking forward to it. We did it already once and we want to do it a second time and we know how to do it.”

After Manchester United spent over £200 last summer, Ten Hag has addressed the culture and environment at the club. There is no doubt he is the boss and he expects buy in from everyone.

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Paul Merson thinks Manchester United will struggle to beat Arsenal with Casemiro absent due to suspension

The foundations have been laid, so what does phase two look like as he moulds his squad to push on? The club have triggered one year extensions for Marcus Rashford, Luke Shaw, Diogo Dalot and Fred, but as yet, there is no new deal for David de Gea.

“Definitely, we are working on it. It is in the back of my head what we do next, but I don’t want to talk about it,” he says of any future plans.

“At this moment, we prepare and focus game to game. We have developed a team and the individuals in the last six or seven months have had huge development.

“People can surprise you. Some players have made so much progress, we don’t need other players. We have seen so much process and progress that we don’t need other players. We are going in the right direction with the team, but also individuals who can play a role in the long term for Manchester United.”

Quite how quickly Ten Hag and his side are moving in that direction will become a little more apparent come Sunday evening, as might the final destination of the Premier League trophy this season.

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