Manchester United need clean break from Erik ten Hag to end embarrassing adolescence

Steven Chicken
Erik ten Hag
Erik ten Hag's position feels untenable with such sweeping changes in the pipeline

We all did silly things when we were young and trying to work out who we were. Whether that be dyeing our hair every colour under the sun (me), cack-handedly applying make-up hoping to look like Placebo and ending up accidentally coming off all Alice Cooper (me), or a frankly unhealthy obsession with Tim Curry’s life and works (me), that transitional period is always…difficult and ultimately embarrassing for all connected.

Manchester United fans will know the feeling well. They have spent the past decade dressing in a long leather duster coat and banging on about Albert Camus, despite having done little more than read his Wikipedia page once after drinking too much wine quietly pilfered from their parents’ garage.

Manchester United identity crisis has held club back for years

United’s signs of maturity have been fleeting throughout this difficult post-Sir Alex Ferguson regression into footballing adolescence. More often, they have variously been stroppy, lazy, stupid, volatile, and insufferable to their family. “Is that your team over there?” “…no.”

More than anything, it has been impossible to pin down exactly what they are going to be when they grow up. Do they want to be like Real Madrid, assembling a team of Galacticos, as the signings of Cristiano Ronaldo, Casemiro and Raphael Varane suggested?

Do they want to attract the most talented youngsters in Europe, as with Rasmus Hojlund and Jadon Sancho? Are they going to pretend that trying to replicate the success of the class of 92 is any kind of sustainable strategy, pointing towards Kobbie Mainoo and Marcus Rashford as proof?

And having assembled these players (albeit at different stages of their development), what exactly is their strategy? Ruthless Jose Mourinho efficiency? Steady, disciplined Louis van Gaal tactical chess? Whatever Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was meant to be, we’re still not really sure?

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The reasons the vast majority of those signings and managers have failed is precisely because of that kind of indecision and lack of clarity. What are Manchester United? We just don’t know.

United enjoyed such sustained success under Sir Alex Ferguson because even if things were less than perfect off the pitch, and (much more difficult to pull off) even when trophies were being delivered in troves, they always had Ferguson’s sharp foresight about how they needed to evolve next to stay on top of a sport in a constant shape of flux.

Also money, of course. Loads and loads of money. But as United and Chelsea can both attest, that alone is not enough.

The past month have been United’s past ten years in a nutshell: a club that is capable, on its day, of pulling one over on Liverpool in the FA Cup, only follow it up by utterly blowing it late on against Brentford, Chelsea and Liverpool and having to stage a rescue mission (twice) against modest old Bournemouth.

Does Erik ten Hag fit in to ambitious new Manchester United regime?

There is hope, though, that United are now finally ready to enter adulthood again. Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s investment in the club has come with a sense of promise that things are going to be different.

Attempts are being made to assemble a whole new backroom team, purposefully and ambitiously head-hunted from the most high-achieving people they can possibly target. There has been no turning to second choices in their appointment of Manchester City exec Omar Berrada, or their efforts to bring Newcastle transfer impresario Dan Ashworth to Old Trafford.

That leaves Ten Hag in a near-untenable situation, standing as the most prominent example of their identity crisis. Whatever his talents and capabilities, it seems unlikely that the Dutchman just so happens to be ideal manager for a new regime that has signalled its desire to go after their top candidates for every role.

That project remains far from complete, leaving United fans waiting in the desperate hope that the club will pass those summer tests well enough to graduate and, in time, go on to become a grown-up club that their family can actually be proud, their stinky old duster replaced by a well-tailored bespoke suit. 

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