Revealed: Secrets of Manchester United leadership group that has changed club’s fortunes

Erik ten Hag - Revealed: Secrets of Manchester United leadership group that has changed club’s fortunes - GETTY IMAGES
Erik ten Hag - Revealed: Secrets of Manchester United leadership group that has changed club’s fortunes - GETTY IMAGES

The challenge facing Manchester United on Sunday afternoon may be no less sizeable than it was at the Etihad Stadium in early March and there are no guarantees Erik ten Hag’s side will prevail where Ralf Rangnick’s team failed.

But the collective will and mood at United could not be much different to seven months ago, when a rudderless, fractured, demotivated group pitched up at the home of their bitter rivals Manchester City and was duly sent packing 4-1.

Cristiano Ronaldo was nowhere to be seen, the injured striker having flown home to Portugal without Rangnick’s permission after discovering he was not going to start. Anthony Martial had been shipped off on loan to Sevilla. Edinson Cavani declared himself “unfit” despite training for three full days before the game. Marcus Rashford was marooned on the bench and the next day reports would surface that the disenchanted England striker was considering his Old Trafford future.

In Ronaldo’s absence, Rangnick had enlisted the wantaway Paul Pogba to lead the line alongside another midfielder struggling for form, Bruno Fernandes. Alex Telles, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire made up a fragile looking back four. It was, to all intents and purposes, a mess: faith in the manager, and each other, simply not there.

Sustained change at Old Trafford is going to have to be hard won but one of Ten Hag’s early gains has been to get players pulling together behind a cause and what is gradually emerging is a stronger, more united dressing room, albeit one with much to prove. An injection of new blood with the character and attitude Ten Hag demands has aided the process and the leaders already at the club, who often found themselves fighting losing battles amid the toxicity and dysfunction last season, have new allies. A four-man leadership group comprising Fernandes, Maguire and the goalkeepers David de Gea and Tom Heaton, whose influence should not be underestimated, has extra support in the trenches.

An edict about “no d---heads” being recruited during the summer window briefly seemed at risk of being undermined during that perverse fortnight when United pursued Marko Arnautovic. But new signings Lisandro Martínez, Christian Eriksen, Casemiro, Antony and Tyrell Malacia have made a strong early impression and their arrivals have emboldened and encouraged like-minded characters such as Scott McTominay and Raphaël Varane.

Fernandes and Heaton, often the glue trying to hold things together last season, can see an improving culture and, while stopping a free-scoring City and their prolific striker Erling Haaland will be Ten Hag’s toughest task yet after notable home wins against Liverpool and Arsenal, the champions will face reinvigorated opponents largely unrecognisable from seven months ago.

‘The manager is tough, serious, driven, detail-oriented and unforgiving of unprofessionalism or lack of effort’

Rashford, for example, comes into the City game as the Premier League player of the month for September, no longer a lost soul albeit still one with a lot to do to show his career is turning a corner. A re-engaged Martial, having returned to training after a frustrating run of injuries, is champing at the bit to play. Fernandes has his mojo back. Ronaldo – who has cast aside the disappointment of failing to get a move away in the summer – appears to have fallen into line despite finding himself out of the team. The make-up of the defence has completely changed. No one is being indulged and there is competition for places.

“The manager is seen as a genuine and fundamentally decent person but he’s tough, serious, driven, detail-oriented and unforgiving of unprofessionalism, sloppiness or lack of effort,” said a source close to the dressing room. “So you have a dynamic where he is genuinely liked and admired but he has everyone on their toes and there’s an edge about the place in a positive sense.”

‘WiFi was switched off to encourage players to interact’

Pep Guardiola will be the first to recognise the importance of what Ten Hag is trying to do. It would be wrong to compare the chaos Ten Hag inherited at United to what Guardiola walked into at City in 2016. But a stale malaise had spread during Manuel Pellegrini’s final season in charge and, for all the bewitching tactical changes Guardiola would bring about, the Catalan felt the need to forge a stronger bond between the players and club was just as pressing.

The WiFi was switched off in parts of the first-team building to encourage players to interact rather than disappear into their phones. Players were urged to all celebrate goals together. The squad were instructed to dine together after games and often before training. Foreign imports were told to learn English. Small details in pursuit of the end game of a unified, self-policing dressing room who would drive and demand the highest standards.

United have a long way to go to get there but Ten Hag, who coached the second team at Bayern Munich for a couple of seasons while Guardiola was in charge at the German giants and is also a disciple of Johan Cruyff, has set about the job in a similar way. Mobile phones were banned at meal times, which are now taken together at the stadium before matches, with a large area of lucrative premium hospitality at Old Trafford cleared to accommodate Ten Hag’s wish. All non-playing squad members must attend games together in the directors’ box and stay until the end. Tardiness is punished.

‘Players see a leader at the helm, with meticulous attention to detail on and off the pitch’

United’s players see a leader at the helm, with meticulous attention to detail on and off the pitch, to rally around and are responding. Martínez is a very vocal and positive, if composed, voice in the dressing room who straddles all the different groups and interacts readily with young academy players. Cliques are harder to form with individuals like that. Casemiro, like Eriksen and Varane, carries a quiet but significant authority.

Eriksen has become very close with Fernandes and is said to be excellent around team-mates and club staff. The Dane completed his move only a week before the end of United’s pre-season tour of Australia and was desperate to travel to the other side of the world to join in, if only for a few days. The club felt his preparations for the new campaign would be better spent training for that short time in Manchester but admired his attitude. Malacia is one of the last people left in the building every day. Antony has brought an extra intensity and edge to training and is revelling at being at a club he was desperate to join.

Fernandes and Heaton are regarded as two of the most emotionally intelligent and balanced individuals in the squad who understand the value of carrot and stick and are not afraid to stand up or back team-mates, or the manager, where necessary. Heaton is currently enrolled on one of Uefa’s management courses and those who have observed the former Burnley and Aston Villa goalkeeper during his career would not be surprised if he went down the sporting director or executive route in time. One source describes Heaton as the “keel on the boat” and points to the way he helped manage the awkward dynamic between De Gea and Dean Henderson last season as evidence of his personal touch.

There remains a long road back to the top for United but they are in a much better place than the misery of that early March.