Jim Ratcliffe sets United’s stakes high for first Manchester derby test

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Erling Haaland;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Erling Haaland</a> on the ball as <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Manchester City;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Manchester City</a> bossed the derby at Old Trafford in October, demonstrating the gap between the sides.</span><span>Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images</span>

Welcome to the new world. Which looks, at first glance, a bit like the old world. There may be a new and exceptionally wealthy sheriff in town. But even with a midweek FA Cup win in the bag Manchester United have taken the chance over the past few days to return to a more familiar state of disorder.

Erik ten Hag is talking about TikTok videos, with all the easy command of your uncle who teaches Latin trying to understand grime music. The new Marcus Rashford has dropped (themes: pain and longing; mentions of trying hard or backing the manager: zero).

Related: ‘How nice’: Pep Guardiola relishing title-defining trio of fixtures for City

A visit to the Etihad, also known now as The Perch, is looming on Sunday afternoon and for all the joined-up messaging there is still the sense of an institution in the habit of feasting on its own insides.

At which point it will be tempting to look away from the everyday, and towards the medium-term future. Sir Jim Ratcliffe made one thing abundantly clear during his round of unveiling interviews last week. He is, above all, very, very good at giving unveiling interviews. So good that his skills extend to an amazing ability to say exactly the same thing to diffident people in different rooms.

So Manchester United’s new minority owner told the BBC “it’s not switching a light switch. We have to walk to the right solution not run to the wrong one.” Later, Ratcliffe would inform the national press that “it’s not a light switch. We don’t want to run to the wrong solution rather than walk to the correct solution.” Finally, he could be heard reassuring the in-house media channel, perhaps still in a state of anxiety on this point, that “it’s not a light switch, we can’t just switch a switch”.

The script was comprehensive on all points, from the word-for-word United origins story, to the stadium-related politicking on north-south cultural bias, repeated verbatim, and of course the keynote of these briefings, the issue of perches.

“There is nothing I would like better than to knock both of them off their perch,” was followed by the BBC mix – “I want to knock them all off their perch” – and the club website’s “of course we’d like to knock them off their perch”.

This isn’t in any sense a criticism. Being across your brief at the unveiling of a £1bn investment: this is a good thing. It was all solid homespun stuff too, hot buttons, key notes, Ferguson mnemonics, Stone Roses guitar jangle. After decades of silence and cranky official comms, it seems like super-slick public relations is also part of the new deal.

It does leave a trail. Given these lines are planned, they also demand that we take them at face value, that the boilerplate is also telling us something. Decoding Sir Jim’s corporate messaging: there are two key points of interest with that derby game in mind.

First up, what is that pre-moderated script actually telling us about the position of Ten Hag? Not very good things, is the obvious answer. Asked to give a verdict on Ten Hag, Ratcliffe gave the triplicate answer that it would be “inappropriate” to comment, which – imagine for a second this is your own ruthlessly hard-nosed boss speaking – seems a tell in itself.

It doesn’t take any great insight to see this is an organisation whose key skill is inserting its own people and finding margins in recruitment. That choosing a new head coach is the most obvious lever to improve performance, almost a part of the corporate mission statement. But Ratcliffe still talked about Ten Hag between the lines, setting out a very clear structure for retention or dismissal.

There were repeated mentions of Manchester United needing to qualify for the Champions League this season; set, for the avoidance of doubt, between talk of the need to hire the best people. The message is simple. Make the top four, top five coefficient permitting, and Ten Hag may keep his job. Look like falling short and there was also some brusque talk about the key ability to take “brutal” decisions.

It still may not be enough. The style of play was a big topic of discussion, along with the idea – klaxon alert! – of a romping, gambolling spring lamb style as part of the marketing plan. Also on the negative part of the ledger was a dim view of recent recruitment. Was this the manager’s fault? “I’m thinking more about getting recruitment in a good place in the future.” Hence perhaps the sound of defensive positions being taken, of Ten Hag speaking in midweek about the “unstoppable” Antony, a leap of faith that even the Unstoppable Antony himself might find a little hard to bridge.

The message seems clear. United must chase down Tottenham and Aston Villa to offer any hope of keeping the current coaching setup in place. Three of their final 12 league games are against Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal. Defeat at the Etihad could leave them 11 points behind Villa in fourth.

None of which is made any easier by the fact the Perch stuff came loaded with surprisingly strong language about enemies, and the phrase – look away, please Erik – “I just want to smash them on the football field”.

Again this is playing the hits for the fans, purging the Glazer indifference. But it is hardly ideal pre-match noise against opponents who have beaten United five times in the past six (aggregate score 18-7). Pep Guardiola will not be pinning Sir Big Jim’s video message to the dressing-room wall before kick-off. He will, instead, be giving a very detailed data-driven briefing on half-spaces. But that gap is so large even the three-season timeframe appears hopeful.

Of course, the plinth itself is more a distant plateau, mountain fortress of a boundlessly ambitious sovereign wealth fund. Is this actually possible? Fenway Sports Group took eight years at Liverpool to catch up, and three with Jürgen Klopp, the absolute perfect appointment, to make that leap. Abu Dhabi did it in five years of heavy spending, then two with Pep to go fully nuclear. Manchester United took six years under Alex Ferguson, bolstered by a significant surge in income.

On the plus side there are plans to address the three very obvious problems. The presence of so-so in-house appointments in important positions. A terrible transfer record. And the underperforming stadium, a vital component of financial fair play. The rivalry talk is also cover for a very sensible attempt at imitation. The hard detail of the Ratcliffe tapes suggests an attempt to mimic the City model, from part-public-funded stadium, to best people in right jobs, to style of play, to low-key regeneration talk.

There are other obstacles. Most notably Guardiola himself, who remains the absolute managerial alpha, operating now in an arena of total clarity. The window for every other team in the Premier League remains the same: whenever Guardiola leaves the set.

The other issue is about scale. Ratcliffe is the perfect frontman. He also owns 27.7% of the club, and is basing his ability to bring the Glazers with him on “a fair amount of trust, I think, between those two parties”. In one of his rare unscripted moments Ratcliffe disclosed that he had only actually met Joel and Avram Glazer. “As long as we’re doing the right things then I’m certain that relationship is going to go very well.” Onward, to The Perch.