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Player rows, secret meetings and help from Pacino – how Erik ten Hag survived Man Utd trial

How Erik ten Hag survived his six-month Man Utd trial – by the skin of his teeth

Erik ten Hag was probably unaware that, on the same day he would board a train to London with his players for an FA Cup final the bookmakers and few others gave Manchester United much of a chance of winning, there were club officials meeting representatives of the Brentford manager Thomas Frank.

It was not a scenario anyone of a United persuasion would have chosen but Mauricio Pochettino’s exit from Chelsea a few days earlier had forced their hand to some extent.

Frank, like the Ipswich Town manager Kieran McKenna with whom United had also been in contact, was of interest to the west London club at the time as well and United – unsure if they would stick with Ten Hag – needed to sound out potential replacements.

McKenna and Frank were not alone. Thomas Tuchel, Roberto De Zerbi, Gareth Southgate and Pochettino himself had also attracted varying degrees of interest from Sir Jim Ratcliffe and his Ineos team.

Nor had there been any reassuring calls to Ten Hag’s agent, Kees Vos, when reports emerged on that Friday afternoon that the Dutchman would definitely be sacked, regardless of the outcome of the Cup final at Wembley that his side – 8-1 outsiders – would go on to win with a famous 2-1 victory over serial Premier League champions Manchester City.

Erik ten Hag with his agent, Kees Vos - How Erik ten Hag survived his six-month Man Utd trial – by skin of his teeth
Ten Hag departs from United's office in London with his agent, Kees Vos - Shutterstock

For all the conversations with – and about – potential successors, though, it was clear that United did not feel there was an outstanding candidate out there to replace Ten Hag, or at least one who was readily available to them. Had there been, there are serious doubts the former Ajax coach would now be gearing up for what seems certain to be an intriguing third season in charge, and one it is clear many fans believe he at least deserved a stab at.

Indeed, the manner of United’s victory over City as much as the result itself had strengthened support among the fanbase for a manager who had just delivered a second trophy in as many seasons, a week after leading the club to their lowest league finish for 34 years. That may have been a less persuasive factor for Old Trafford’s top brass than the absence of the right alternative but they ultimately resolved that a change under such circumstances might have come attached with more risks than the decision to stick with Ten Hag.

A contract extension should now follow but, having courted so many other managers and deliberated for so long before opting to keep Ten Hag, Ineos have demonstrated that they do have their doubts and misgivings about the Dutchman and any new deal alone cannot mask that, even if it will help him in the short-term at least.

So it is a dramatic reprieve for the Dutchman, who had defiantly warned his employers that he would “go somewhere else to win trophies” if necessary in the wake of a superb Wembley win that ensured a happy end to an otherwise miserable and messy season.

Ineos’ arrival cast a shadow over Ten Hag

Whereas the shadow of his successor in waiting Jose Mourinho hung over the final half season of Louis van Gaal’s doomed Old Trafford reign in 2016, the elephant in the room for Ten Hag was the arrival of Ratcliffe and Ineos.

During the international break last October, senior figures at United had bristled at what they perceived to be the negative rhetoric forming around the manager in the wake of a dismal start that had already yielded six defeats, despite a promising first season that had delivered the club’s first trophy for six years. “We’re only part way in and already the knives are out,” one said. “The first time we come across some bumps everyone is going ‘Chaos, crisis’. We said this was a two to three year project. How long did it take Mikel Arteta to get to where he’s got at Arsenal? Three and a half years?”

And yet, as Ratcliffe neared a deal with the Glazers for a minority stake in the club and, with it, complete control of football operations, and a troubling autumn gave way to a torrid winter and elimination from the Champions League at the group stage, Ten Hag steadily began to see the allies who had brought him to the club stripped away and the mood music change.

In mid-November, it was announced chief executive Richard Arnold would leave at the end of the year and, by early April, the man who had championed his appointment, football director John Murtough, had followed suit. Publicly, Ten Hag put on a brave face but, privately, he could have been forgiven for feeling more isolated and it did not feel like a coincidence that, as the pressure grew and results worsened, Ten Hag took increasingly to defending his record, decrying a crippling injury list – with ample justification – and cutting a much more animated and vocal presence on the touchline.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe (left to right), Erik ten Hag and Sir Dave Brailsford - How Erik ten Hag survived his six-month Man Utd trial – by skin of his teeth
Ten Hag meets Sir Jim Ratcliffe (left) and Sir Dave Brailsford at the club's Carrington training ground in January - Getty Images

During interviews in February after finally sealing a deal for a 27.7 per cent stake in the club, Ratcliffe talked about knocking Manchester City “off their perch” within three years. But there was no public declaration of support for Ten Hag, beyond an acknowledgement that the environment in which successive managers had been asked to work was not geared for success. Recognition, yes, of the difficulties of managing at a club with long-standing structural issues but hardly a ringing endorsement of the current manager. Ineos, it was clear, were keeping all options open.

By the end of a campaign in which United had finished eighth, their lowest league position since 1990, only bottom club Sheffield United had faced more shots than United’s 667 over 38 games. Ten Hag’s critics might argue the slide had started not this season and with all those injuries but in the aftermath of the Carabao Cup final win over Newcastle in February last year, which was soon followed by that extraordinary 7-0 surrender against Liverpool at Anfield and a sharp downturn in results and performances.

Yet it would be wrong to say there was not a wish among the Ineos crowd to at least explore a future next season with Ten Hag still in it – and that has now been borne out. The working premise had been to stick with Ten Hag until the end of the season, to see if they could work with him and where a difficult campaign ultimately took them and review it all in detail, from which they could make a final decision.

It would take them two and a half weeks in the end, via conversations with half a dozen other managers, and the waiting cannot have been welcome for Ten Hag, even from the comfort of a sun lounger in Ibiza. No one should look too far beyond the absence of a Pep Guardiola type figure to recruit and the huge bearing that had on a decision laden with caveats but some weight was given to other factors in the review.

On the one hand, there was admiration for the work Ten Hag has done developing young talents like Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo, even if both ended up being overplayed because of the injuries that the club’s decision-makers also accepted provided significant mitigation for last season’s dreadful underperformance in the Premier League and Champions League. They can see that Ten Hag knows how to get over the line hence those two trophies and, even in the face of adversity with his authority being questioned, he carried himself with decorum throughout. Equally, there is interest in seeing “what more he is capable of” within a new – and fans will hope – greatly improved sporting structure.

Kobbie Mainoo (left to right), Erik ten Hag and Alejandro Garnacho - How Erik ten Hag survived his six-month Man Utd trial – by skin of his teeth
Kobbie Mainoo (left) and Alejandro Garnacho receive a hug from Ten Hag following their Cup win over City - Getty Images/Eddie Keogh

There is a sense, too, that the best from signings such as striker Rasmus Hojlund and goalkeeper André Onana is still to come and that last summer’s other big recruit, Mason Mount, spent the majority of the campaign on the sidelines.

Not that the decision instantly sweeps away all concerns and questions. Even with Ten Hag sticking around, there are likely to be some changes, not least around the control the manager has exerted, often with calamitous effects, over transfer policy. Equally, will he keep the title of manager or become “head coach” and might there be additions or tweaks to his backroom team? And what about the playing style given Ineos’ insistence on the establishment of a very clear “game model” and coherent identity as they move to end an era of pinball managerial philosophies and scattergun spending? From Ten Hag’s end, there may be some trust issues to address although the fact both parties have held constructive conversations with a view to the manager extending his contract would suggest they are unlikely to prove an immediate barrier going forward.

Some had wondered internally during the season if Ten Hag might benefit from a different voice among his backroom staff.

With all the injuries, was a more pragmatic approach needed? One or two players even went in to see the manager and put forward some observations. Ten Hag would admit later in the season that he had discussed a change of tactics with his assistants, Mitchell van der Gaag and Steve McClaren, but that ultimately he had decided against it. Was that down to ego or intransigence? Ten Hag was intent on United playing out from the back, despite being unable to name a regular back four, as well as becoming the best transition team in the world. But, fundamentally, that necessitates being compact out of possession and yet the wide open spaces in his team were being exposed for fun by opponents – and routinely highlighted by the pugnacious television pundits who would so annoy the manager.

Four defeats and 15 goals conceded in a chaotic Champions League campaign that saw United finish bottom of Group A was a case in point.

Ten Hag took umbrage with the critiques of a litany of United old boys, from Gary Neville and Roy Keane to Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes, arguing their assessments were divorced from the reality of where United now were and that their own heydays were not all sweetness and light. Ten Hag would have a laugh at Keane’s expense after the Cup final, jokingly reminding the Irishman “you had trouble to manage a team” in reference to the former United captain’s own managerial career. Ten Hag took most exception to Keane’s Sky Sports colleague Jamie Carragher, the former Liverpool defender whom he felt had it in for him from the start.

After an exhilarating 4-3 FA Cup win over Liverpool in extra-time at Old Trafford there was belief within the club that Ten Hag could be part of the new structure. But the eight day period between near humiliation to Coventry in the Cup semi-final at Wembley and a dismal draw at home to Burnley revealed new tensions.

After Telegraph Sport reported that Ten Hag would effectively be on trial over the remaining five weeks of the campaign, with new technical director Jason Wilcox tasked with auditing his approach and relations with the dressing room at the same time as establishing a clear playing style and identity – or so-called “game model” – the manager came out swinging.

In a shot across Ineos’ bows, Ten Hag used his programme notes against Burnley to pointedly insist he was developing a “shared game model, with consistent training methods and playing styles”.

There had been indications that Ten Hag would have been open to operating under the title of “head coach” rather than manager from the summer but it was clear that he was more resistant to the idea of a playing style being imposed upon him or his work to date in some way being devalued. An uneasiness hung in the air, and that was evident in other areas.

Take Ten Hag’s occasionally awkward press conferences and assessment of games in which United – with gaping holes between the defence and midfield – had been outplayed or deservedly beaten or both, often facing an avalanche of shots in the process. “It’s like a dental appointment you can’t wait to be over,” a source said of those media engagements.

By the time United capitulated 4-0 at Crystal Palace in early May, albeit with midfielder Casemiro and Jonny Evans – who had trained for just two days after five weeks out injured – at centre-back, it was clear the mounting uncertainty over Ten Hag’s future was eroding his authority in the dressing room.

It is important to note here that, for all Ten Hag’s clashes with Jadon Sancho, the repeat reprimands he has had to give Marcus Rashford and strained relations earlier in the campaign with Raphaël Varane, the dressing room never descended into the sort of toxicity that corroded the place during Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s final season and Ralf Rangnick’s interim spell, or the end days of Mourinho. Ten Hag even banned four media outlets in December for not giving United the right of reply to stories alleging there was dressing room unrest.

While it was clear that the hardline stance Ten Hag had successfully adopted in getting rid of a renegade Cristiano Ronaldo 12 months earlier was now backfiring with another perceived rebel in Sancho, and there was a period when Ten Hag and Varane were squarely at odds, things never spiralled to the point of ruination.

The outstanding performance against City, and celebrations that followed that Cup triumph, underlined as much. As Ten Hag’s most trusted lieutenant Lisandro Martínez hoisted his manager in the air at the final whistle, the Dutchman looked anything but a man who had been abandoned by his players.

Lisandro Martínez - Player rows, secret meetings and help from Pacino – how Erik ten Hag survived Man Utd ordeal
Lisandro Martínez lifts Ten Hag in celebration after United won the Cup - Getty Images

When the squad had arrived at the Marriott hotel in London’s Mayfair on that eventful Friday, they got to their rooms to find a letter written by their partners or loved ones left on the bed. Each then received a video on their phone via WhatsApp with more goodwill messages. That was not all. A video shown at the hotel at the final team meeting on the Saturday morning before they left for Wembley had a particularly rousing effect. It featured a female member of United’s security team who had previously worked for the British military and whose story had moved Ten Hag reliving the day in Afghanistan she became trapped in a village with her platoon. Outnumbered and in grave danger, she explained how they worked together to escape. Not all of her colleagues were so lucky and ended up sacrificing their own lives to save villagers. The video was interspersed with images of United players winning individual duels during games as Ten Hag attempted to convince his squad they could also overcome the odds.

It was not the only emotive video the players would watch. The previous afternoon they had been shown an edit from the hit US sports movie Any Given Sunday and the iconic motivational speech given by Al Pacino’s character, Tony D’Amato, coach of the fictional Miami Sharks (watch here). In it, D’Amato urges his players to “heal as a team” rather than “dying as individuals” and Ten Hag had footage of Pacino’s voiceover and the U2 hit song One cut with footage of every one of his United players in action. This was not a manager running away from the fight but one impressively corralling his troops in the face of adversity. “Erik never hid during the season, not once,” said a well-placed source.

Dutchman’s U-turn over Shaw row showed flexibility

Indeed, a heated altercation with Luke Shaw around the time of the Palace debacle could have festered if the mood had been toxic. Shaw had asked if he could continue his rehabilitation from a long-term injury overseas for a short period but, when the manager refused, a row broke out, with Shaw angrily pointing out that other players had been granted similar wishes. As it happened, Shaw’s request would subsequently be given the greenlight after he suffered a setback in his recovery, proof the manager was not always as inflexible as sometimes characterised.

The problem was the lack of public support for Ten Hag from on high became deafening, the players picked up on it and it is never a great place for a manager to be when the squad think change could be coming in the dugout. A dire run of 10 points from 33 up to and including a record 14th defeat of the Premier League campaign, against Arsenal in mid-May, was humiliating, even if Ten Hag was at pains to point out time and again that anyone would have struggled faced with an injury crisis that had left him without a functioning defence for months.

Given the long deliberations over Ten Hag over the past fortnight, it is almost easy to forget now that, this time last year, the Dutchman was being viewed as someone to build around by Ineos. The sound of champagne corks popping at the Monaco Grand Prix in May 2023 were not in celebration of Max Verstappen taking the chequered flag but Ratcliffe and his close allies thinking they had finally clinched a deal with the Glazers for United. We will never know, had the Oldham-born billionaire taken control then, whether Ten Hag’s second season might have panned out more straight-forwardly.

Power wielded by manager in transfer market shocked Ineos

Ratcliffe’s team were slightly horrified by the power Ten Hag was able to exert over transfers and the damage done had far reaching consequences. Would the squad have been in quite the same state had someone more proficient ruled over signings and Ten Hag’s influence been suitably curbed?

No serious organisation, for example, would have allowed a manager to insist on a 14-week pursuit of Frenkie de Jong in his first summer when it should have been abundantly clear from the outset that the Netherlands midfielder had no interest in leaving Barcelona for Old Trafford. Had such a position been taken, United might not then have found themselves panicking in August after embarrassing defeats to Brighton and Brentford in Ten Hag’s first two games by splashing £70 million on a 30-year-old Casemiro, a price tag that even took the Brazilian aback and a player they may now struggle to shift this summer.

No transfer has come to symbolise the warped logic – and failure to stand up to Ten Hag when it mattered – or had such damaging repercussions quite like the £85.5 million signing of Antony from Ajax, though. How United could come to pay £30 million above their upper price limit for the Brazil winger, which was already twice what the scouting department valued him during Solskjaer’s tenure, was troubling in the extreme.

That Antony has failed to get anywhere close to justifying that exorbitant outlay, spent part of this season on paid leave because of assault allegations levelled at him by a former girlfriend (all denied) and has since become increasingly peripheral – he did not even get off the bench at Wembley – tells only half the story. But for that grotesque overspend, United might have had the funds to bid for Harry Kane last summer.

Equally, if United had elected to sign Onana 12 months earlier when the goalkeeper was available on a free transfer rather than forking out a £47 million fee there would have been ample money to land Kane. Or, for that matter, if Ten Hag had resolved that there were more pressing requirements than spending £60 million on Mount, who has spent almost the entirety of his first season on the treatment table.

André Onana - Player rows, secret meetings and help from Pacino – how Erik ten Hag survived Man Utd ordeal
Not signing goalkeeper André Onana when he was available for free – and then spending £47 million on him – may not have been the wisest business decision - Getty Images/Matthew Peters

Instead, United finished the campaign with a negative goal difference and the joint fewest goals scored of the Premier League’s top 10 having ignored all the warning signs that were present the previous season. Kane, for the record, instead joined Bayern Munich and scored 44 goals in 45 appearances.

Even the deal for the striker they did sign, Hojlund – by now under the same representation as Ten Hag – raised eyebrows. Only a fortnight after senior sources were insisting they would not go over £50-£60 million for the young Denmark striker,  which was already a considerable hike on his valuation earlier in the year, a deal was announced for an initial £64 million rising to £72 million with add-ons.

Ten Hag’s thirst for control of transfers was somewhat understandable given the club’s prior record, even if it is hard to see that continuing under Ineos this summer when a striker, centre-back and defensive midfielder are being prioritised. He was, naturally, desperate to avoid a repeat of past mistakes. But it served only to exacerbate existing problems while the growing presence of Vos, the manager’s agent, around the training ground became a source of discomfort for many staff, and concern among rival intermediaries.

At one point, United even found themselves fielding questions about whether Vos had his own office at Carrington, which the club strenuously denied. Telegraph Sport were briefly barred from asking questions at Ten Hag’s press conferences after the manager had taken umbrage at his name and picture being used in an article detailing Vos’s court battle with former client Stefan de Vrij, the Inter Milan and Netherlands defender.

Greenwood backlash set tone for chaotic season

United also seemed overly swayed by Ten Hag’s steadfast determination to bring Mason Greenwood back into the first-team squad, which blurred their judgment and hope of a more objective approach to the investigation that followed. The situation would blow up in United’s face, with the club ultimately abandoning plans to reintegrate the striker after a fierce internal and public backlash from which they later admitted there were lessons to learn. It would, in many ways, set the tone for the chaotic, controversial campaign that followed.

Ten Hag was not wrong when he says he inherited a “mess” at United and wasted no time imposing new standards but his grip on the squad loosened this season, some of it of his own doing clearly, plenty not.

Sancho initially presented the greatest challenge to his authority. When Ten Hag – who had become increasingly exasperated over a period with Sancho – revealed that the player had been dropped against Arsenal because his performances in training were not up to scratch, the England forward took to social media, accusing his manager of making him a “scapegoat” and effectively lying over the reasons for his absence.

Ten Hag was as angry as he was disappointed, not least given the efforts he had made to help Sancho get his career back on track by giving him time away from the first team squad the previous season, and it was made clear that, without a public and private apology, there would be no way back. Sancho, feeling he was a victim of double standards and that there were notable inconsistencies in the way Ten Hag applied certain rules in relation to him compared to team-mates, refused to back down.

Jadon Sancho - Player rows, secret meetings and help from Pacino – how Erik ten Hag survived Man Utd trial

An ugly and uneasy stand-off ensued. Sancho, now persona non grata in the first team building, was forced to eat food from a lunchbox on his own and change alone in the academy dressing room. Conscious Sancho’s time away last season had been in part so he could work on the mental side of his game as well as his physical conditioning, the situation caused unease among some staff.

On top of those personal considerations was concern about how a £73 million asset was being systematically devalued, with some inside the club citing it as an example of Ten Hag’s tunnel vision and struggles to tailor a perennially hard line stance with players he finds incorrigible. A loan to Borussia Dortmund was arranged in January and Sancho’s involvement in the Champions League final against Real Madrid at Wembley this month did not reflect overly well on Ten Hag. Nonetheless, a sale this summer is still recognised as being in the best interests of all parties.

Predominantly, though, Ten Hag avoided throwing players under the bus in public, often defending them at times when the fans did not feel they deserved to be. Wayne Rooney claimed he was “100 per cent” certain some United players were overstating their injuries at the back end of the season and ducking out of league games in order to protect themselves for the Cup final or Euros. Ten Hag dismissed Rooney’s claims in public but, privately, there were staff who shared the former captain’s opinion.

Not everyone who encountered Ten Hag’s cold shoulder or perceived lack of empathy rebelled, it must be said. Harry Maguire and Scott McTominay could easily have been sold last summer but, from being on the outside looking in, the pair ended up being among the players on whom Ten Hag leant to get him out of trouble as injuries bit hard. McTominay would finish as joint third top scorer with 10 goals.

Player rows, secret meetings and help from Pacino – how Erik ten Hag survived Man Utd ordeal
United beat City to win their 13th FA Cup, despite few giving them a chance - EPA/Andy Rain

Similar was true of Varane. Relations were strained to the point where conversations between the pair became fairly muted amid the manager’s apparent concerns that the French defender had “checked out”, as one source put it. But an impressive performance from Varane on his first start for seven weeks in the Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich in December was a spectacular riposte to such suggestions and, thereafter, tensions subsided. Indeed, Varane’s issue was predominantly that his body could not really withstand a game every three or four days. He has now been released following the expiry of his contract.

There were, of course, much bigger concerns over where Rashford’s head was at. Top scorer last season with 30 goals, the England striker was in a trough on the pitch, his work rate questioned, and with growing worries about his lifestyle away from it. When Ten Hag reprimanded Rashford for going out until the early hours after a 3-0 defeat derby by City in late October when he had training that morning and drew an apology from the player, the manager felt a corner would be turned. And yet, by January, after a drunken night out in Belfast that ended with Rashford phoning in sick for training and being dropped for a FA Cup game against Newport County, it was clear that whatever message Ten Hag had delivered months earlier had not sunk in. Rashford’s poor form has had a derailing effect on the season given the general lack of goals elsewhere in the team, albeit still less damaging than the loss of Martínez and Shaw for long periods and the decimation to the left side of the defence.

Ten Hag had famously won the admiration of his players for joining them on a 13.8km run the day after a 4-0 defeat at Brentford in only his second game in charge - punishment for the distance United had been collectively outrun by their opponents. It helped to foster a sense of togetherness. But, as the treatment room began to fill up this season, enthusiasm for even short punishment runs for being on the losing side in training exercises waned and some in the squad began to wonder if there was a correlation between the intensity of sessions during crowded schedules and the team’s high number of injuries. Concerns could actually be traced as far back as the club’s pre-season tour of the US, with Christian Eriksen complaining publicly about the amount of travelling they had to do so soon after a marathon 62-game season just gone.

That stance, in fairness, did soften markedly as the season progressed, with increasingly greater emphasis on recovery between matches. But the volume of injuries that at one stage robbed Ten Hag of 16 senior players would form part of an internal probe to establish whether any patterns existed that warranted changes to their approach to improve injury prevention in the future. There was also recognition from up top that there were not the players available to play a high defensive line, albeit bemusement that did not then trigger readjustments elsewhere on the pitch.

So Ten Hag, after months of uncertainty over his future, has been given another chance to show his worth. Time will tell whether it proves a marriage of convenience with Ineos or the start of a fruitful relationship after challenging beginnings.