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Erik ten Hag believes he can fix Manchester United and that should not come as a surprise to anyone. In fact, you would hope that is a prerequisite of accepting what is arguably the most difficult job in football management. There were four other men who succeeded Sir Alex Ferguson on a permanent basis before him plus an interim manager too, though, and they all believed the same.
Ten Hag knows one of his predecessors relatively well. During his unveiling at Old Trafford on Monday lunchtime, he revealed he had spoken with Louis van Gaal at the premiere of a documentary on the Netherlands head coach’s life in Amsterdam last month. A couple of weeks earlier, Van Gaal had publicly advised him to spurn United’s advances and “join a football club, not a commercial club”.
You imagine a similar message was relayed at the premiere, and knowing Van Gaal, in even stronger terms. But it clearly did not influence Ten Hag’s thinking. “I heard [Van Gaal’s comments], but I draw my own line. I’m convinced this will not be the case,” the new United manager said. “I spoke with the directors about it… Every club needs it, needs the revenues to be at the top. To do it is necessary but football is one, two, three at this club.”
Over the coming days, Ten Hag is also expected to speak with the man most recently in his position and discover what Ralf Rangnick learned over the last six months as interim manager. Both agreed to wait until the end of the season to talk. Ten Hag will have an opportunity to pick his brains further as Rangnick moves into his two-year consultancy role. Yet something about his answers on that subject suggested he will hardly have his predecessor on speed dial.
“It’s part of my analysis. I analyse by myself and I speak with a lot of people,” he said of his impending talks with Rangnick, before repeating: “I will draw my own line… I spoke with more people who have experience with this club, with experts, but I will draw my own line.” As for the breadth, influence and extent of Rangnick’s consultancy role, that will be “on the club”. In other words, don’t ask him.
Ten Hag gave the first impression of a manager who is ready to come to his own conclusions and make his own decisions. He has every reason to be sure of his own ability. A record of three Eredivisie titles in three full seasons – that would likely be four in four if not for the pandemic – and the run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2019 demonstrate that much.
The 52-year-old arrives in Manchester with just about as strong a reputation as a coach with his level of experience can have. He would rightly have been a frontrunner for any top vacancy in European football. Until recently, that vacancy has just so happened to be at United. But going by recent history, he is joining a club that could light up that hard-earned reputation in half a season if things do not go well.
“I don’t see it as a risk,” Ten Hag insisted, certain he has made the right choice. “I think this club has a great history and now, let’s make a future. I’m really excited to do that with the people around who are in the club. We’ll bring some new people in on the staff, we’ll go and analyse the squad, we’ll go from game to game. Work hard, [be] 100 per cent committed and I’m sure we will have success.”
There is enough reason to believe he is right, even beyond his own impressive credentials. In both his sit-down interview with MUTV and his unveiling, Ten Hag pointed to the fact that this United squad secured a second-place finish under Solskjaer only a year ago. Despite the misery of the past nine months, which ended with the club’s lowest-ever Premier League points total, this group of players were a competitive team not too long ago.
But there are a few differences between now and last year, even when putting the nature of a season spent behind closed doors to one side. Cristiano Ronaldo is a big one, for starters. Ten Hag was asked whether Ronaldo will be part of his project. “Of course,” he replied. What will he bring? “Goals,” was his not-inaccurate answer. But whether Ronaldo has brought much else since his return is a point of contention.
Rangnick concluded that playing the type of aggressive, front-foot pressing style he desired was impossible with Ronaldo, who is still a great goalscorer at 37 years of age but one trained in a style of centre-forward play that does not sit easily with his new manager’s tactical principles. Ronaldo also carries such influence, within the dressing room and beyond, that he is difficult to drop.
Harry Maguire’s captaincy was not a talking point this time last year but is another conundrum for United’s new manager. Ten Hag was non-committal on that subject at his unveiling, praising Maguire as a “great player” who is looking forward to working with, while noting that “next season is a different season”. That is a phrase that can be read in a number of ways.
Then there are the wider changes behind the scenes, particularly in the recruitment department. They represent a step into the unknown for United in many respects but a necessary one. Those who have worked under Ten Hag in the past believe that a fully functioning internal structure was vital to his success, not just at Ajax but also at his first job in management with Go Ahead Eagles. His new employers may finally be putting such a structure in place but it will need to produce immediate results.
Whatever happens between now and the start of the new season, however Ten Hag decides to tackle the multitude of issues that he faces, he gave the impression at his unveiling that he will be doing it his own way, “drawing his own line”. He is not the first post-Ferguson manager to believe he can fix United. But if he is right, he should be the last for a long while. He has the necessary confidence in his own judgement. Time will tell if it is well-founded.