Ten Hag sack may now be inevitable, but where Man Utd go next remains an insoluble puzzle

Dave Tickner
Man Utd co-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe with Erik ten Hag
Sir Jim Ratcliffe could replace Erik ten Hag with Thomas Tuchel.

Given the scale of the thing and the now, surely, inevitability of it, you really don’t hear an awful lot about who the next Manchester United manager might be.

So grave is this dearth, that we’re already right back to square one. Or Gareth Southgate as he’s also known.

Now it’s possible that this is simply down to Manchester United running a very tight ship with no leaks. But given every day brings new revelations from the squad WhatsApp chat or Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s giant business brain solving everything by going ‘These desks are untidy, we should have tidier desks’ we think it’s more likely to be the alternative: Manchester United themselves don’t have a f***ing clue who or what they want.

It’s not new, but worth stating again and not just because This is Manchester United Football Club We’re Talking About, but it’s a gigantic mess.

It feels reasonable to assume that Plan A was to muddle through with Erik Ten Hag until such time as all other senior football positions at the club were filled, from Sporting Director to Director of Sporting Operations and everything in between.

On the face of it, perfectly sane and perfectly rational. But football rarely does sane and almost never rational. Erik Ten Hag has unravelled to such an extent that even allowing him to finish this season feels like an act of enormous self-harm for the club given what’s at stake.

They have three remaining league games – absolutely none of which appear straightforward – from which to salvage a now unlikely European spot via that route or turn all attention to a Hail Mary FA Cup final against Manchester City.

It’s somehow itself become now a complicating factor, because United have managed to be both sufficiently terrible that allowing Ten Hag to continue a day longer feels like sabotage, yet not quite been terrible enough that there is nothing left to play for anyway so we might as well all limp pointlessly through the formalities of these last few defeats before getting on with our lives.

We’re in ‘Give it Brailsford until end of the season’ territory here. See if he can coax a marginal gain out of Antony.

But whether they make a temporary change now, what they do in the summer remains a complete mystery beyond the fact it surely – surely – cannot be ‘stick with what we’ve got’.

📣TO THE COMMENTS! Who should Man Utd bring in after Ten Hag? Join the debate here

However much it may give your Oliver Holts an attack of the vapours, West Ham have at least managed to sort their manager situation out. You can careful-what-you-wish-for about it all you like, but they’ve nabbed themselves a manager of obvious talent and big club pedigree who knows a bit about Our League and has won a bigger European pot than the one that supposedly entitles David Moyes to a job for life according to his media pals.

Liverpool have had their problems with their manager search, but it’s been clear throughout what they’re looking for. The odds-on favourites who have fallen by the wayside – Xabi Alonso and Ruben Amorim – make perfect sense as a pair of contenders for the same job.

Arne Slot may feel a touch underwhelming, but the logic behind it is totally sound as long as you can resist the temptation to note that he is both bald and Dutch and must therefore be Erik ten Hag Mk II. Or ‘Arne ten Slot’ as he was dubbed in a virtuoso slice of vintage Keysey.

Liverpool’s plan is not to rip up everything that is already in place, of course. They don’t need to start again, but rather try and stay on the course they’re already following. ‘We press a lot, who else does that?’ is a pretty good basic premise for the search, and it’s not that mad to find yourself alighting on Slot’s name if you don’t get your first choices through the door.

The point here is that succession planning has gone nowhere near as smoothly as they would have been liked for either West Ham or Liverpool, but both have had more clarity than United, a club neither committing itself to the current manager nor making a change nor apparently really knowing what that change should be if/when it arrives. That things have been brought to an even greater head by United’s capitulation to a team apparently transformed by the quiet efficient manner they brought in a manager of Oliver Glasner’s capability damns United yet further.

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Now we know betting odds aren’t gospel, but it’s unlikely they’re complete b*llocks either. It’s striking that there has been no clear favourite yet for a job so likely to be available. There is no sense here the Liverpool problem of working down a list of names. The top of the United market is a mess.

Despite the absence of a stand-out favourite, there are three names in a leading group of single-figure quotes, but they simply cannot be a list of names to work down. Thomas Tuchel, Gareth Southgate, Graham Potter. All have their qualities, but they are just so different that they simply cannot represent the top three choices for a club with a clear direction.

What that most looks like to us is the next three managers of Everton or even more likely Tottenham, each appointment a direct response and reaction to the last, lurching from one style to the next hoping something sticks. There’s even the right number of former Chelsea managers.

Now this is all from the outside looking in, of course, but it’s still revealing. There is from the outside absolutely no sense of what United are trying to achieve and how they intend to do it. A spiky, volatile proven winner who rarely lasts more than a couple of years anywhere before falling out with everyone in Tuchel; the solid company man, arm-round-the-shoulder man management of Southgate; or something else entirely. They could hardly have more different personalities, approaches, or to be entirely blunt, CVs at club level.

Whether they are actually United’s top choices doesn’t even really matter; the fact it’s impossible to make any educated guess at which of these paths even represents the likeliest direction of travel for their brave new world does.