Even some of those close to Erik ten Hag were unsure whether it would work out for him at Manchester United. No one doubted Ten Hag’s coaching ability but, despite having been in charge of a giant such as Ajax, this was a step up.
It was also a step into the relative unknown. The key questions that needed to be answered were not just could Ten Hag cope, did he have the language and man-management skills but – far more crucially – whether there was sufficient support and a strong enough structure in place at United to give him the chance to succeed?
Was there enough experience and leadership in the boardroom, with a new chief executive Richard Arnold, and the football department under football director John Murtough?
A year down the line and Ten Hag has, emphatically, taken United in the right direction. Indeed they are arguably further down the road than they expected to be under the 53-year-old Dutchman but, ahead of the FA Cup final against Manchester City, there is a fork ahead.
There is a crossroads and it is how United react this summer which may well determine whether Ten Hag has simply made them relevant again or is able to be a more significant part of the conversation when it comes to the big prizes: the Premier League and Champions League.
The question for United is do they have the ambition and resources to push on or do they regard what they have achieved so far as success?
‘You have to invest or you don’t have a chance’
Of course preventing City from emulating United’s unique achievement of winning the Treble in 1999, with the 142nd but first ever FA Cup final between the two neighbours, will write Ten Hag’s name into folklore forever, whether he wins another football match or not.
‘This is the One’, as the Stone Roses wrote, and as is played at Old Trafford prior to kick-off, and it will cut to the quick for United and their fans if they are unable to halt the City juggernaut. In fact, they may take more delight in stopping City than winning the trophy.
But there is a bigger picture and the most revealing comments in recent months from Ten Hag came after the league season ended last Sunday. “The club knows if you want to play top four, compete for trophies in this tough league. then you have to invest, otherwise you don’t have a chance because other clubs will do,” he said. “We’ve seen it in the winter: all the clubs around us made huge investments, we didn’t, but we still made it.”
It pointed to a simmering frustration, especially over the failure to sign Cody Gakpo, who he wanted and who was bought by Liverpool as they tried to chase United down in the race for a Champions League place.
Instead Ten Hag was told he had to make do with loan signings in January – Wout Weghorst and Marcel Sabitzer – although in fairness United had spent far more last summer to back the manager than they expected.
The club did not budget to commit £210 million and, certainly, they had to push the boat out for Casemiro, for £60 million, having failed to persuade Frenkie de Jong and been close to signing Adrien Rabiot – who could become an option again as his contract runs out at Juventus. They also ended up paying far more for Antony (at £85.5 million) than they or anyone else expected. But Ten Hag demanded him.
Ten Hag is beginning to push again and also wants the deals done early. Last year Casemiro only signed on August 27 and Antony as the window closed. Hence United lead the pursuit of Chelsea’s Mason Mount. Personal terms are not an issue but a fee is yet to be agreed and if United miss out it will be interesting to see how the manager reacts.
Similarly he wants a goalkeeper and a top-line striker, and potentially another forward, and although the dream signing of Harry Kane may prove impossible, Ten Hag is asking for United to show the ambition in chasing the England captain.
There is an even bigger picture and that is the takeover – or sale of a controlling stake in United – which has also muddied the waters and not least for the manager. Publicly, of course, he will choose his words carefully, as would any sensible employee, but privately there must be irritation that the process has now stretched out beyond six months and the lack of information.
A resolution will hopefully come quickly, and maybe the Glazer family have been delaying for the FA Cup final to be played. Even so there is little logic in that – they put the club up for sale mid-season, after all – and so the world waits to see if it is the Qataris and Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani or, more probably, Sir Jim Ratcliffe who risks angering the fans by allowing the Glazers to stay on for at least another three years as shareholders.
It is a multi-billion pound transaction but it has to be questioned whether the Glazers, or the Raine Group, who are handling the sale, are giving the club the best chance to be competitive with the way they have gone about it.
The longer it takes, the greater the uncertainty and the transfer window opens on June 14. Of course United and Ten Hag are already working to a budget and player sales are crucial to that if he is to reinforce the squad the way he wants to.
He has brought belief and identity back to club
United still owe £307 million in transfer fee instalments and have to be mindful of Uefa’s new financial sustainability rules but Ten Hag will believe he has delivered his side of the bargain by qualifying for the Champions League, and unlocking that revenue, and will want evidence that he is being backed.
The ledger is emphatically in his favour: Finishing third, winning the League Cup, the FA Cup final and bringing back belief and identity to a club that has been lost since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013.
Ten Hag has been assured and impressive in the way he has gone about the job on and off the pitch. He is both direct and fair and there is no side to him, which is a blessed relief after, most recently, Jose Mourinho and, also, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who, for contrasting reasons, were never the right fit.
Ten Hag superbly handled Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure and that has been the highest profile example of how well he has done. Similarly there have been no attempts to humiliate Harry Maguire, even though he is not wanted, or be anything but straight with David de Gea and Anthony Martial. Marcus Rashford is transformed, Luke Shaw has been outstanding and the way Victor Lindelof was brought back in is, in some ways, the best example of all of Ten Hag’s fair and cogent management and coaching.
Ten Hag believes in having one-to-one conversations and clarity and so he stood by Bruno Fernandes, when his behaviour was questioned, but has also called him into his office on several occasions to tell him what he thinks. But he has not disclosed that in public.
There have been bumps, big bumps, and not least a worryingly poor away record that spiked with the embarrassing 7-0 loss at Anfield and the Europa League exit to Sevilla. United were victorious in the last derby, a ninth win in a row, and it took them to within a point of City and potentially in the title race, but they then immediately fell away.
Their fans will fear what might happen at Wembley against City – not just if their team losses, and Pep Guardiola takes another step towards the Treble, but the manner of it. If United win, then Ten Hag’s hand will be strengthened even more. If they lose it should not be weakened.
Either way the club needs to make the right choices as it approaches that crossroads.