Erik ten Hag on trial as Jason Wilcox launches Manchester United audit

Erik ten Hag on the touchline at Wembley during Man Utd's FA Cup semi-final against Coventry
Erik ten Hag's long-term future as Manchester United remains uncertain - Reuters/Andrew Couldridge

Erik ten Hag will effectively be on trial over the next month as Manchester United’s new technical director Jason Wilcox conducts an audit of the manager’s credentials and dressing room relations before the club makes a final decision on the Dutchman’s future.

United’s near fatal collapse against Coventry City in the FA Cup semi-final on Sunday, when the Championship side almost completed an extraordinary comeback from 3-0 down only to lose on penalties, raised fresh doubts about Ten Hag’s suitability for the job.

But Telegraph Sport understands United have tasked Wilcox with providing a detailed assessment of Ten Hag’s strengths and weaknesses and relationship with the squad to better determine whether his approach can fit with the overarching style of play and philosophy they intend to pursue - or if a change of manager is necessary.

One complicating factor is the feeling that there is no stand-out candidate available to replace Ten Hag should they decide a change is needed.

Sunday’s implosion in front of United’s new kingpin Sir Jim Ratcliffe did Ten Hag no favours and there is an acceptance the situation could become unsustainable should United miss out on Europe entirely.

But the starting point has been a desire to explore whether the manager can realistically operate within the so-called “game model” Wilcox and impending sporting director Dan Ashworth seek to implement.

Wilcox - who was formally appointed as the club’s new technical director on Friday and at Wembley to watch United narrowly survive a huge scare to set up a rematch of last year’s Cup final with Manchester City - is expected to closely appraise Ten Hag’s training sessions over the coming weeks. He will also hold extensive talks with the manager, staff and players during his analysis.

Part of his remit will be to establish if there has been a breakdown in Ten Hag’s relationship with the dressing room. Several players, including Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and most recently Alejandro Garnacho, have fallen foul of the Dutchman this term.

Wilcox will also be asked to assess whether United’s struggles this season have predominantly been down to a dreadful run of injuries and personnel factors - or whether there are deeper issues, such as players ignoring instructions and/or inflexibility and intransigence on the manager’s part.

Jason Wilcox at Wembley during Man Utd's FA Cup semi-final against Coventry City
Wilcox at Wembley where he watched United survive an almighty scare against Coventry City - Getty Images/Richard Heathcote

If it is the latter, United would want to know whether Ten Hag was simply too inflexible or could be open to and capable of implementing and communicating any changes required to his approach.

United, albeit decimated by injury, conceded three times in the space of 24 second half minutes against Coventry and only won the shoot-out after the VAR had ruled out a dramatic 122nd minute winner for offside. Ten Hag admitted his side “got away with it”.

The Old Trafford hierarchy recognise a decision on Ten Hag’s future must be made by the end of the season so Wilcox does not have long to provide his review. United’s final Premier League game is away to Brighton on May 19, with the Cup final against City due to take place at Wembley six days later.

United are still waiting to strike a compensation agreement with Newcastle for Ashworth, whose task at Old Trafford will be to shape a cohesive football structure around the manager/head coach, technical director and scouting, data analytics, performance and medical teams. In effect, the overall management of the entire football operation.

What is increasingly apparent, though, is that it is Wilcox who will determine and drive the move to a clear “game model” - effectively a cohesive playing style and identity United intend to replicate across all age groups. That extends beyond just settling on a formation but rather how that system should look in practice.

Identifying and recruiting the players who best fit that methodology will then be critical as United move to bring an end to the scattergun transfer approach of the past decade under managers with wildly contrasting styles and approaches.

Antony during Man Utd's FA Cup semi-final against Coventry City

Manchester City’s academy director until he left the club to take over as director of football at Southampton in January last year, Wilcox - a Premier League winner with Blackburn Rovers in 1995 - is highly regarded within the game.

The 53-year-old’s appointment was driven by Omar Berrada, with whom he worked at City and who is due to formally take over as United’s new influential chief executive in July, and is considered absolutely integral to the club’s short and long-term plans.

Ten Hag’s position may already have become untenable had there been an outstanding managerial candidate out there to replace him. But, apart from the former Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso - who has now committed his future to Bayer Leverkusen - there is a feeling within United circles that any new manager would come with a certain degree of risk.

United believe there are some very interesting and talented young coaches working in Europe, such as Bologna’s Thiago Motta, Michel at Girona, Brighton’s Roberto De Zerbi and Liverpool target Ruben Amorim of Sporting Lisbon.

But the challenge is to ensure any new coach would have the character, personality and temperament to handle the pressure of managing such a huge club and be able to work within a new, evolving structure, particularly as there is an awareness that there is not yet the robust ecosystem in place that the likes of City, Liverpool and Arsenal enjoy.

Other managers such as Gareth Southgate and Graham Potter, both of whom have been linked with United, are recognised as fantastic characters and team players but the questions there would revolve, among other things, around whether they had the personality to command that credibility with the dressing room.

Thomas Tuchel, who is due to leave Bayern Munich at the end of the season, is openly accepted to be a top level coach. But recent experiences at Chelsea and Bayern have shown he can be a difficult character and, while there is an acceptance that all the best managers are and should be challenging, United are keen to ensure that whatever happens next does not unsettle things even more.