Has Erik ten Hag become part of the problem at Manchester United?

Oliver Kay

“It’s not switching a light switch. It’s not just about a new coach. It’s not a simple fix or a short-term fix. We have to walk to the right solution, not run to the wrong one.”

Those were wise words from Sir Jim Ratcliffe in February, shortly after his 25 per cent investment in Manchester United was finalised.

It was not the unequivocal vote of confidence Erik ten Hag might have wanted, but it was an acknowledgement of the size of the challenge that any coach would face at a club that has drifted for 11 years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired and the Glazer family’s influence took hold.

Ratcliffe spoke about the “challenge to get the organisation and environment right” rather than imagining the club’s fortunes would immediately be transformed by a change of manager. It was time to appraise and evaluate everything. Walk to the right solution, don’t run to the wrong one.

But football doesn’t always allow you to take your time. Sometimes the pressure to act becomes overwhelming. Sometimes a problem arrives on your doorstep and the very appealing notion of walking to a solution — on your own terms, in your own time — disappears.

Have United reached that point with Ten Hag? It has begun to feel that way. A creditable first year in the job — finishing third in the Premier League, winning the Carabao Cup, reaching the FA Cup final and Europa League quarter-final — has been followed by a dreadful second, raising doubts about whether anyone at Old Trafford, including Ten Hag himself, has the appetite and energy for a third.

Appetite and energy are important factors here. Does Ten Hag have the energy to reinvigorate a group of players who look as demotivated as they did two years ago before he arrived? Do Ratcliffe and his staff have the energy to spend the coming weeks looking for a new manager when there is a shortage of obvious, available alternatives?

Ratcliffe’s words on the matter reflect a recognition that there has been far more wrong at United over the past decade than the identity of the man in the dugout.

Like David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and even Ralf Rangnick before him, Ten Hag could reasonably claim to have been hampered by a culture of complacency and mediocrity in dressing room and boardroom alike.

That is what Ratcliffe has set about changing with a series of appointments, such as luring Omar Berrada from Manchester City to start work as chief executive this summer and Jason Wilcox from Southampton as technical director.

Dan Ashworth’s planned appointment as director of football has been held up by a compensation wrangle with Newcastle United but, as Ratcliffe has put it, that is another fundamental part of the drive to “get all the right people in the right boxes doing the right things with that sporting elite environment”.

This season, Ten Hag said he felt enthused by the wind of change blowing through Old Trafford and what he called “very positive” conversations with Ratcliffe and INEOS director of sport Sir Dave Brailsford.

Their initial impression, from the outside looking in, was that many of the issues Ten Hag and his predecessors have faced relate to structural and cultural deficiencies within the club rather than outright failures of management and coaching.

That default position has been reflected, to a large degree, within the United fanbase and the media.

But the longer this miserable campaign has dragged on, the less tenable that position has become.

Nobody should imagine that Ten Hag is the source of United’s problems, but he might be reaching the point — one that Van Gaal reached within two years and Mourinho and Solskjaer very soon afterwards — where he ceases to be a viable solution.


The many problems of Manchester United

When United were sleepwalking towards the end of the season under Rangnick two years ago — finishing sixth in the Premier League with just 58 points, conceding as many goals (57) as they scored — it felt like rock-bottom, just about as far as a club of their size and financial resources could realistically sink in the modern era.

Last season, Ten Hag’s first, brought a clear improvement: more spirited performances and a far more solid defensive structure. There wasn’t much of the “proactive, brave, adventurous” playing style he had promised on arrival from Ajax, but foundation stones seemed to have been laid. The expectation was that stylistic improvement would follow and the goals would flow in year two.

Year two has been dismal. A chaotic Champions League campaign, in which they finished bottom of their group, has been accompanied by struggles on the domestic front. They lie eighth in the Premier League with just 54 points from 35 games. They need another five points to equal the apparent nadir of two seasons ago. That shocking 4-0 defeat at Crystal Palace on Monday took them into negative goal-difference territory. Even more than in Van Gaal’s stultifying second season, a run to the FA Cup final has come against the backdrop of severe regression.

Manchester United were embarrassed at Crystal Palace on Monday (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

As worrying as the results have been, performances have frequently been worse. A result as chastening as Monday’s at Selhurst Park had been coming; in the previous five weeks, United had drawn games against Brentford, Liverpool and Bournemouth when they were comprehensively outplayed on each occasion.

They have faced 611 shots in this season’s Premier League, an average of 17.4 per game. (For context, only relegated Sheffield United have faced more per 90 minutes.) Opta’s expected goals (xG) data suggests that, based on the quality of chances created and conceded, Ten Hag’s team should be 15th with 42 points and a goal difference of minus 11. While goalkeeper Andre Onana has made a few glaring errors since arriving from Inter Milan, he can justifiably claim to have saved Ten Hag’s team from even greater ignominy this season. Might he even have a claim to be their player of the season?



Onana’s team-mates were losing patience with him, but he is turning things around

Even worse than the results, even worse than the data, is the eye test. They are overrun in midfield with alarming regularity. It happened at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers on the opening weekend of the season and it has barely stopped happening since. The ease and the regularity with which one opponent after another has carved a way through United’s midfield and defence has been startling.

Midfield is a serious concern. This is a coach who, on arrival, wanted to build his United team around the elegant playmaking talent of Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong. It isn’t his fault they missed out on that deal in the summer of 2022, but from the moment they turned to Casemiro as a fall-back option, Ten Hag’s initial vision for the team seemed to be abandoned.

What emerged last season was a pragmatic, functional team rather than the “proactive, brave, adventurous” side he had talked about. What has emerged this season, with an enormous gap where the midfield should be, is a shapeless mess. Counter-pressing? To offer a twist on that Ratcliffe quote, they have some players who will walk to the right opponent while others run to the wrong one.

The lack of work ethic in this team is one of the things that makes Jadon Sancho’s exile so hard to accept. Ten Hag said he dropped the winger from the squad based on his “performance in training” before a game against Arsenal in early September — and then exiled him for lashing out on social media and refusing to apologise.

The feeling persists that a club with the right structure and the right people in place would not have allowed a manager-player dispute to escalate so far out of control, but, whatever the rights and wrongs, Sancho’s resurgence since joining Borussia Dortmund on loan in January is, at best, uncomfortable for Ten Hag. It also underlines a lot of what Ratcliffe said about the need to establish the right “environment”.



Inside Jadon Sancho’s exile and exit: What went wrong for him at Manchester United

Injuries have clearly been a factor in United’s struggles this season, particularly in recent weeks with so many defenders missing and with Casemiro looking even more out of sorts in a makeshift central-defensive role alongside a 36-year-old Jonny Evans.

The same issues, however, have arisen almost regardless of the personnel. The most lamented absence is that of Lisandro Martinez, who has been restricted to just 758 minutes of action across all competitions this season — but even in his limited playing time, United have conceded 17 goals.

Lisandro Martinez

Lisandro Martinez has been injured for much of the season (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

There has been a desire in some quarters to portray this United team as freewheeling entertainers, but that label flatters them. The seven teams above them in the Premier League have all scored at least 69 goals. United have scored 52. Another three teams (Bournemouth, Brentford and Everton) rank higher than United when it comes to xG. It is not exactly a thrill-a-minute every week.

There have been some wild, unpredictable, basketball-type matches (4-3 defeats against Bayern Munich, Copenhagen and Chelsea, 3-3 draws against Galatasaray and Coventry City, a 3-2 win against Aston Villa, 4-3 wins against Wolves and Liverpool, a 2-2 draw against Liverpool) but others have been more like a game of chess — and between enthusiastic amateurs rather than grandmasters.

The concern is that Ten Hag’s United do not know what they are or what they are meant to be. In his second season, when he was expected to put a clearer tactical and technical imprint on the team, their identity became almost impossible to discern. “The best transition team in the world,” as he said in pre-season? Clearly not. “One of the most dynamic and entertaining teams in the league,” as he said last week? Again, no.

Last week, Ten Hag said his favourite goal this season was the one Scott McTominay scored away to Galatasaray in the Champions League, racing onto Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s cutback to finish a sweeping counter-attack. He told the club’s official website it was a “really good, simple (move) that showed how we want to play” — a remark that is all the more striking when you consider how rare it is for United to attack in numbers like that, with a full-back and a midfielder racing beyond the front four.

Why has it been so difficult for Ten Hag to implement the type of football he wants to see? Is it a lack of clarity on his part? A disconnect between his philosophy and the club’s transfer policy? An incompatibility between his ideas and some of the players he has inherited? A struggle to communicate his ideas in a secondary language? A lack of authority? Resistance from the players? A rotten culture in the dressing room?

Whatever it is, the case for Ten Hag is being weakened almost by the game.

More on United’s future under INEOS…

In an ideal world, the sweeping changes that have commenced at Old Trafford would not include a new manager. It is a headache any new regime can do without, particularly when the new chief executive is yet to start work, the prospective director of football has been put on gardening leave by Newcastle and when other clubs — notably Liverpool and Bayern — have had a headstart when it comes to scouring the managerial market.

Some have gleefully observed that Liverpool’s move for Arne Slot means turning to another bald Dutchman unproven outside of the Eredivisie. But far more significant, as far as United’s position is concerned, is the fact Bayern spoke to Rangnick (who has been enjoying life in charge of the Austria national team since that chastening interim spell in Manchester) and have also given serious consideration to Ten Hag, who spent two years in charge of Bayern’s B team before moving on to Utrecht, Ajax and eventually United.

The flip side of this equation is that Thomas Tuchel — whose end-of-season departure Bayern announced in February, even though he could yet lead them to the Champions League final — will be among those in contention for the United job if a vacancy arises. What this tells us is either that the pool of top-class coaches has never been smaller or that, in this age of analytics and blue-sky thinking, the imagination in the boardrooms of the biggest European clubs has somehow become narrower.

Thomas Tuchel

Bayern have said Tuchel will leave at the end of the season (Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

But perhaps the biggest takeaway from Bayern’s interest in Rangnick and Ten Hag is what it says about United: ‘You might have failed there, but that doesn’t make you a bad coach’. It suggests United are a basketcase, either unmanageable or close to it — and in some ways, it probably reflects exactly what Ratcliffe, Brailsford, Berrada and Ashworth feel about the challenge which, for their varying reasons in their varying roles, they have all found impossible to resist.

That is the culture they are desperate to change. Ratcliffe and Brailsford told Ten Hag as much when they met in January. They talk a lot about an “elite sporting environment”. In their view, based on the impression gained from the outside and reinforced over the past few months on the inside, the modern Manchester United has been far from that.

If they had arrived 12 months earlier, it is almost certain they would have concluded that Ten Hag was someone who shared their ambition, their ideas, their ethos, their energy — someone to rally around, allowing him to set out his ideas and giving him the freedom to implement them.

But it is not so easy to make that case by the end of his second season. Even if they were somehow to beat Manchester City in the FA Cup final on May 25, it might have the feeling of a happy ending rather than a new beginning.

Yet another manager seems to have been afflicted and dragged down by the malaise that has taken hold of the club under the Glazer family’s ownership. New energy and new ideas never seem to endure.

That has to change. Ten Hag will hope this transformation happens in time to save him and reinvigorate what has become a troubled tenure.

The concern will be that, like his predecessors, he might already have been worn down and beaten by the very culture Ratcliffe is so determined to change. Because there really is no short-term fix here, no simple flick of the switch to restore Manchester United to their former glories.

Ten Hag’s struggles this season underline everything Ratcliffe said about the need to walk to the right solution rather than run to the wrong one.

But they also highlight the difficulties faced by any manager at any club where disharmony, disconnect and dysfunction reign. He can arrive with solutions in his head, but there is only so long before he becomes encumbered by problems. Before long, he ends up consumed by problems. Then he becomes part of the problem. That, more than anything, is what has to change.

(Top photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside via Getty Images)

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