Ten Hag can fix Manchester United – but only if they let him

Date published: Thursday 14th April 2022 5:45 - Ian King

Erik ten Hag is likely to be the next manager of Manchester United

Manchester United seem set to appoint Erik ten Hag as their next coach, but can he tame a club that has been out of control in recent years?


No formal announcement has yet been made, but white smoke is starting to emerge from Old Trafford; Erik ten Hag will soon be confirmed as the next manager of Manchester United. It is a modish decision. Ten Hag could hardly be said to be a youthful appointment – he’s 52 years old – but he does represent a philosophy which represents a break with the past and will be expected to bring a clearly defined style to a team that has looked somewhat shapeless for several seasons.

But as with all managerial appointments, Ten Hag is something of a gamble. Louis van Gaal, one of his many recent predecessors, had already warned him away with the coruscating comment that “he must choose a football club and not a commercial club”. The truth remains that United need a rebuild that stretches beyond the appointment of a new head coach alone. This is, after all, a club that has looked distinctly unhappy all season despite having spent heavily in the transfer market, and at which the supporters are at the point of starting a fresh round of protests against the owners.

Ten Hag presumably believes, after five years with Ajax, he’s ready to take the next step in his career development. But it’s not quite true to say that he has no experience of being around a club with high expectations. At Ajax, the demand is always that they will be somewhere near the Eredivisie title, and with his team currently top and clear of PSV, it seems likely that he’ll leave having lifted the league championship three times in five years. And although he was managing the second team rather than the first, his two years at Bayern Munich from 2013 to 2015 gave him knowledge of the inner workings of a club on the scale of Manchester United.

As their recent witless capitulation to Everton demonstrated, Manchester United do still need considerable work to be carried out on their first-team squad. The near-intractable problem any club faces when this is required is that the cost of doing so can be astronomical – all the more so when players haven’t been successfully drip-fed through for some time and several simultaneous changes are needed. When the side looking to do so is the size of Manchester United, the costs can quickly start to look daunting. Anything more than three or four players and this may need to be counted in hundreds rather than tens of millions of pounds – and that’s before taking into account ongoing wage and bonus commitments.

There’s little doubt that Manchester United need some form of rebuild. A place in next year’s Champions League is already sliding from view and should the team’s form not pick up again soon they may be looking at starting next season in the Europa Conference League. This may have a knock-on effect in the summer transfer window; the calibre of player that Manchester United covet are unlikely to be particularly tempted by the prospect of playing next year in UEFA’s third-tier club competition, making attracting those players at best more expensive and at worst impossible.

Some United supporters have, for example, been making eyes in the direction of Harry Kane since his form picked up at the start of the year. But the likelihood of Kane being tempted by the Europa Conference League and Ten Hag – when it looks increasingly likely that Spurs may snatch that fourth Champions League place and keep hold of Antonio Conte for next season – seems remote. United could offer to make Kane richer than Croesus to try and persuade him, but with rumours of unhappiness on the part of players continuing to swirl around Old Trafford, going there would be a gamble at a point in his career when his leaving Spurs needs to come with something approaching a guarantee of career progress. There’s been little happening at Old Trafford for much of the last decade to suggest he’ll get it there.

To create the space for the players needed for any form of substantial rebuild, some of the current squad – players on very big contracts who may already be aware they may not command such a high wage again elsewhere – will have to be offloaded. But this isn’t necessarily straightforward. Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, is 37 years old and has another year on his contract. Breathless talk of him leaving this summer for PSG seems to have cooled, and while it remains a possibility that he could be tempted to MLS or elsewhere for a final payday, right now he is contracted to Manchester United for a further season. Will he expect to be accommodated into Ten Hag’s plans if he doesn’t leave and, if so, how can this be achieved? What would happen if he stays but isn’t part of those plans?

Erik ten Hag’s career progression has been notable for how well-planned it was, and this is his first managerial move that looks like a bit of a gamble. Considering this and his reputation for being a little spiky at times, perhaps we should all assume he has been given the assurances he needs that he will be able to remodel Manchester United in the coherent fashion they’ve been missing for the last decade, even if this means ripping the guts out of their current dysfunctional squad. But how quickly can he rebuild? Commercial pressures make the idea of a ‘transitional season’ seem like a flight of fancy; Ten Hag will be expected to hit the ground running. Manchester United will be demanded to challenge harder for a Champions League place than they have for much of this season.

He’s got his work cut out. The weight of history and the constant noise of background commentary, dysfunctional playing squad upon dysfunctional playing squad, a senior management apparently more concerned with numbers on a spreadsheet than silverware in the trophy room, and expectation levels that are sky-high regardless of the reality of the team’s position, have all made Manchester United look untameable for the bulk of the last ten years. Ten Hag has the skillset to be able to right this; perhaps the question now facing Manchester United is whether the structures of the club can let him succeed.

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