How Ten Hag got United back on track anyway
“Don’t do it now,” Louis van Gaal still said. It’s not a soccer club anymore. Too commercial. But Erik ten Hag was stubborn enough and left anyway. Brutally, he simply drew his own plan in England. Exactly what Manchester United needed.
By late afternoon, Ten Hag will meet Newcastle United in the League Cup final. It could be the first prize for the Mancunians since 2017.
The past five years have been turbulent at Old Trafford. Four trainers sacked. Zero prizes grabbed. Little line in the game. No line in the purchases. Club legend Sir Alex Ferguson slapped his hands in front of his eyes every week. But with a 53-year-old Tukker in the dugout, things suddenly work out.
Dinner with ‘Fergie’
It began so dramatically still, after a defeat at home against Brighton and the defeat at Brentford. But after the somewhat fortunate win over Liverpool, much fell right for Ten Hag, with Thursday’s elimination of Barcelona in the Europa League according to Ten Hag as the “biggest victory this season.
Forty-eight hours before that game with Barcelona, Ten Hag still dined with United boss Ferguson himself. Soccer talk at the highest level. Ten Hag was impressed by the Scot’s knowledge. “He is willing to share that with me. He wants to help.”
With the support of “Fergie,” a United head coach can make a lot. Moreover, the fans pretty much carry Ten Hag on a shield through the streets of Manchester. There are wins again and, perhaps more importantly, the fans see ‘EtH’ as a beacon of calm and steadfastness in the troubled managerial period United is in.
The Manchester United Supporters Trust (M.U.S.T.), an umbrella supporters’ association with 200,000 members that seeks to influence club policy, drew up a list of preferences that the new owners must meet. One item is a rock-hard, non-negotiable requirement: whoever the new owner becomes, Ten Hag must stay.
“Everyone can see the progression the team is making under Erik ten Hag. After a frustrating decade, it is clear that huge strides have been made. Any potential bidder should express explicit support for Ten Hag and his plans to restore United’s glory.”
That new glory is approaching miraculously fast. How Ten Hag managed that so quickly? Players and some club legends agree: Ten Hag brought back discipline. Already during the first training camp, captain Bruno Fernandes recalled recently.
‘Hook up or get out’
“He demanded a lot from us at training sessions. He indicated we had to hook up or get out.” But would their new coach also appeal to a big name if it let up? Without question. “He did it consistently every time. With Cristiano Ronaldo, with Jadon Sancho and with Marcus Rashford.”
Top striker Rashford arrived late and could leave his kicks in his bag. “Marcus was in form, but did something wrong. The manager passed him immediately. Everyone thought, wow,” Fernandes told me. Since then, Rashford has been playing better than he ever did for United.
“In recent years this dressing room, United’s, has needed toughness and discipline. That wasn’t there and now it is,” observed former player Rio Ferdinand in early January.
Rashford’s disciplinary benching fits into a series of decisions that worked out perfectly for Ten Hag. Sancho was removed from the starting lineup and Ten Hag took Harry Maguire off the captain’s armband early on, making it clear that even the position of the most expensive United defender ever is not sacrosanct.
Ronaldo noticed the same a short time later, when the superstar refused a substitution and left the stadium early. Ten Hag left him out of the squad for the next game. Three days later, the Portuguese left for good, after a high-profile interview. United chose Ten Hag’s side.
Since Ronaldo’s departure, the atmosphere seems to have improved even further and fresh energy has emerged within the club, Ferdinand noted.
Prominent names who previously voiced strong criticism of Ten Hag, such as Paul Scholes (“courageous manager”), Gary Lineker (“very impressive”) and Peter Schmeichel (“vintage version of Ferguson”) speak highly of the man from Haaksbergen.
Even often cutting club icon Roy Keane has admiration: “You feel the energy level is different. The ‘feel good’ factor is back.”
What suits Ten Hag is that some remarkable tactical choices have worked out well. Getting Wout Weghorst and using him as a trailing number 10 behind Rashford, for example. Or drafting back Luke Shaw as a left-center defender. It all adds to Ten Hag’s authority.
It also strengthens him in setting clear rules, which apply to everyone, and enforcing them mercilessly hard without fear. They also apply to himself, by the way, as the penalty training after the defeat against Brentford showed. Ten Hag ran the 13.6 kilometers along.
Ten Hag has the respect of the players. And the blessing of the club management. “The Dutchman has single-handedly tilted the club’s situation,” wrote the BBC. And, “Ten Hag has 100 percent freedom to handle team perils as he sees fit.” The Tukker is the boss in Manchester. “Ten Hag is reminiscent of the Ferguson era.”