How can Ratcliffe and Manchester United trust a process Erik ten Hag has not proven actually exists?

Ryan Baldi
Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Erik ten Hag with the Manchester United badge
Is Erik ten Hag running out of time at Manchester United?

Erik ten Hag wants Sir Jim Ratcliffe to “follow the process” at Manchester United, but the manager is yet to actually prove such a thing exists under him.

 

Ahead of Manchester United’s trip to Stamford Bridge yesterday, Erik ten Hag was asked whether Chelsea’s continued struggles despite multiple managerial changes in recent years should act at as a warning to Manchester United part-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe and the INEOS group which has assumed control of the club.

“I think you need to follow the process,” Ten Hag said. “We have good young players coming through. They are developing very well in their progress.

We are in a good way, a good direction and we need to make the next steps. Don’t interrupt this process.

Even before United’s stoppage-time capitulation to lose 4-3 against Chelsea, the club’s new overlords could’ve been forgiven for scoffing: “What f***ing process?”.

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Almost two years into Ten Hag’s Old Trafford tenure, the Dutchman has overseen moments of promise. There was last season’s League Cup triumph and qualification for the Champions League, plus the emergence as first-team stars of academy-bred youngsters Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo.

There have been a handful of standout results, too: the 2-1 victory over Manchester City last season; knocking Barcelona out of the Europa League; and last month’s thrilling 4-3 FA Cup quarter-final defeat of Liverpool at Old Trafford.

But to plot United’s trajectory under the former Ajax manager on a graph would show a clear downward curve. They currently sit sixth in the Premier League table, with little hope of leaping up into the Champions League qualification places. And their performances in Europe’s top club competition this term – dumped out at the earliest stage after finishing bottom of their group following four losses from six games – suggests, aside from the financial rewards, further Champions League participation would only pile on more disappointment anyway.

United have lost 17 times in all competitions this season. Their 12 defeats in the league equals their highest-ever loss total for a Premier League campaign, and there are still eight games to play.

Chelsea manager Mauricio Pochettino with Man Utd coach Erik ten Hag
Mauricio Pochettino argues with Erik ten Hag on the touchline

It’s not just the results, either. United’s performances – and their underlying metrics – certainly don’t suggest that they have deserved to fare better.

At Ajax, where he won three titles and masterminded an odds-defying run to the Champions League semi-finals, Ten Hag was renowned for constructing youthful sides capable of sustaining possession and attacking with structured, percussive creativity. His United team, however, seldom are able to exact any modicum of control within games – case in point: their shambolic final minutes at Stamford Bridge last night.

Their 49.9% average share of possession in the Premier League this season ranks 10th, as does their 82.5% pass completion rate. They concede a staggering 17.5 shots per game, a category in which only bottom-placed Sheffield United are performing worse. The chances they have allowed opponents have been worth an expected goals total of 57.69, the fifth-highest in the league.

One of the biggest criticisms of Ten Hag’s management of United is that he has been unable to establish a coherent style of play, that there is little they do consistently well and no discernible philosophy underpinning their approach.

Their better results have been built around an ability to play quickly on the counter through pacy wide players like Marcus Rashford and Garnacho. That might not be in line with the counter-pressing or possession-dominant styles de rigueur at the top level, but it is a clear, defined idea nonetheless. However, it cannot be a successful one long term when United are too easily played through in the middle third and concede as many shots as they do.

As philosophies go, ‘hope the opposition can’t hit the broad side of a barn, then maybe we’ll catch them on the break’ is hardly one of Kantian complexity.

United have spent over £400 million in the transfer market since Ten Hag’s 2022 appointment with, at best, mixed results. Most of those signings bear the manager’s fingerprints, either through having worked with him previously (Andre Onana, Lisandro Martinez, Antony, Sofyan Amrabat), having played against him in the Eredivisie (Mason Mount, Tyrell Malacia), or sharing an agent with the United boss (Rasmus Hojlund). If Ten Hag has shaped the squad in his image, it is not a pretty picture.

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In defending United’s downturn this season, Teg Hag frequently points to terrible luck with injuries.

“In a competition that is so competitive and the teams are so close, you need the players to be available,” he said this week. “If you have to make compromises your levels will drop and you will drop points. If you play in a consistent team, your levels will go up. When you bring in the best players in your squad, you will collect more points and that is a fact.”

It is not an argument without merit. In March, Sky Sports calculated the total days missed through injury for players at each Premier League club this season. According to that report, United’s injury misfortune was the sixth-worst. There have been lengthy absences of key players such as Martinez, Casemiro and Luke Shaw.

Manchester United defender Lisandro Martinez reacts
Lisandro Martinez has been one of Manchester United’s many walking wounded

But injuries can’t excuse all of United’s ills. The gaps in midfield, the erratic passing and their glaring weakness when it comes to conceding goals from cut-backs – another case in point: Conor Gallagher’s opening goal in the Chelsea defeat – are failures of coaching.

INEOS are moving quickly in executing a structural overhaul at Old Trafford. The respected Omar Berrada has already been poached from Manchester City for the role of CEO, while United’s new chieftains have angered Newcastle and Southampton with aggressive moves for their respective sporting directors, Dan Ashworth and Jason Wilcox.

When it comes to the decision of whether to make a managerial change, there are external factors working in Ten Hag’s favour. With Liverpool, Barcelona and Bayern Munich already searching for a new manager for next season, and with uncertainty over the top jobs at Chelsea, Juventus and others, there is shaping up to be a demand for elite coaches this summer that the supply cannot meet.

But Ten Hag has to give Ratcliffe and co. reason to stick with him – and quickly. If he doesn’t want his process interrupted, he needs to provide some evidence that it actually exists.