Erik ten Hag is the transformative manager the Red Devils have craved
As the giant Wembley scoreboard clicked over to 90 minutes, thousands of Manchester United scarves were raised to the skies in triumph as an old familiar feeling was finally experienced once again.
And standing motionless in his technical area was the man who is shaping a new era away from the wastelands Manchester United have been occupying since their last success in the 2017 Europa League Final.
The EFL Cup was won. The closing minutes were simply a formality, as indeed was this final after Manchester United struck twice inside six first-half minutes – a lead they protected in relative comfort despite a spirited second-half effort from a desperately shot-shy Newcastle United.
Erik ten Hag has the feel of a transformative manager, with his air of authority and tactical acumen, and now has a trophy to prove it. It is a success Manchester United have been craving for almost six years.
It is too early to make definitive judgements only months into the job but Ten Hag has won the first trophy he could , rounding off a week when Barcelona were also sent packing on a thunderous night at Old Trafford in the Europa League.
There is, however, a change in mood at the club and the work of Ten Hag has been central to the switch.
The opening weekend loss at home to Brighton seems an age away and the embarrassing 4-0 thrashing at Brentford in United’s second league game looks increasingly like a pivotal moment.
Ten Hag cancelled his players’ day off after that loss, in which United shipped four first-half goals, to order them on a 13.8km run – the distance by which Brentford had out-run his side the previous day.
The 53-year-old joined his players on the run, sending a clear message that, while the failings at Brentford would not be tolerated, this would also be a managerial reign in which responsibility would be collective and the team ethic would be key. Everyone was in it together, an instant correction to the flaws that had been allowed to grow before his arrival.
Ten Hag’s team won their next game against arch-rivals Liverpool – who had secured a humiliating 9-0 aggregate scoreline in their two Premier League wins against United last season – and have barely looked back since.
The Dutchman also took a page from the playbook of one of his Old Trafford predecessors Jose Mourinho, the manager responsible for those last successes, by making the League Cup a serious priority in an attempt to get the first trophy in the cabinet as quickly as possible.
United and their supporters now increasingly believe Ten Hag is the man to take them forward and back into the elite from which they have been lost for much of recent years.
The EFL Cup win will only strengthen his position and reputation further.
United seemed a club out of control at times over recent times but there is no doubt who is in charge now, as proved by the decisive action over Cristiano Ronaldo’s public insurrection, the punishment handed to Marcus Rashford after he overslept and missed a team meeting, and the marginalisation of club captain Harry Maguire from Ten Hag’s first-choice team after a lengthy run of poor form.
Ten Hag had dinner with Sir Alex Ferguson in the build-up to this final and now they will have Manchester United as trophy winners once more next time they meet.
After years of poor management and indifferent signings, two new arrivals this season have only strengthened the notion that United are back on track.
Casemiro may have arrived from Real Madrid in August for a fee that could rise to £70m – a hefty price tag for a then 30-year-old – but the midfielder also brought with him the class, street wisdom and experience forged by winning the Champions League five times.
The Brazilian knows what it takes to win and it was no surprise when he was named man of the match here. He not only headed the vital opening goal but spread his influence all over Wembley with his positioning, range of passing and his priceless ability to be in the right place at the right time.
He even acted as orchestrator of United’s fans in the second half as he fist-pumped towards them after winning a challenge in the penalty area.
And in Lisandro Martinez, United have a fierce defensive competitor who gives them an edge of steel. The Argentine is already a cult hero among United fans, a fiery figure who adapted swiftly to the demands of the Premier League after a shaky start in which his lack of height became a talking point. It does not look much of a problem now.
With the first trophy under his belt, Ten Hag can turn back to United’s chase for a return to the Champions League as they sit securely in the top four, while the Europa League and the FA Cup will also be right on his radar.