Ten Hag deserves shielding from blame for as long as Man Utd demand he makes do

·5-min read
Erik ten Hag watches Man Utd lose at West Ham. Credit: Alamy
Erik ten Hag watches Man Utd lose at West Ham. Credit: Alamy

There’s enough blame at Manchester United again for the manager to take some of it. But Erik ten Hag ought to be absolved until he can say his squad is truly his own…

With Erik ten Hag finally able to pause for breath, just as he feels Jurgen Klopp’s on the back of his neck, the Manchester United manager might reflect on some of his decisions during a frantic, manic second half of the season that has opened the door for Liverpool.

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Ten Hag has made mistakes. Just recently, the second halves of Sevilla at home and Tottenham away; the whole sorry trip to Newcastle. It happens. Even Sir Alex Ferguson dropped the odd bollock, sometimes when a season’s finish line came into view.

So when Ten Hag sits down in the peace and quiet of Carrington while his squad enjoys two days off during their first clear midweek since September, the manager will doubtless calmly and rationally assess his own mis-steps amid the many of his players.

Ten Hag is fortunate to be the first manager since Fergie for whom the players have been held accountable before the boss. Some of the individuals who’ve represented United in the last decade, and the cliques that formed between them, have got away with murder, but often it was the boss who carried the can. For too long the question was ‘what can the manager do for the players?’ while more often than not, nothing was being offered in return.

Eventually – belatedly – those players were identified as the common denominator and those who remain have faced rather more intense, entirely reasonable levels of scrutiny and expectation this season. Some, like Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford, have stepped up and passed their tests. Many of their team-mates, however, are still death dropping on wafer-thin ice.

It has to be remembered that Ten Hag is still managing a deeply flawed group. The Dutchman has made changes and, given the opportunity, he would doubtless have made many more. And even the changes he did make, he would likely do differently if he wasn’t working under the conditions that come as a consequence of Glazernomics.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and Manchester United cannot be rebuilt in a year. Ten Hag is making good progress on the job, though. Gone are some of the individuals he nor any other serious coach could trust. The obvious one being Cristiano Ronaldo.

In the wake of two defeats in which United’s attack once again showed all the ruthlessness of a pack of Care Bears, some are suggesting Ten Hag was wrong to allow Ronaldo to leave. What’s key here: Ronaldo wanted to go. And he’d have burned the place down until he could strut away from the ruins.

Man Utd striker Cristiano Ronaldo walks down the Old Trafford tunnel Credit: Alamy
Man Utd striker Cristiano Ronaldo walks down the Old Trafford tunnel Credit: Alamy

No amount of revisionism could make Ronaldo the wronged party there, even knowing now how woeful the alternatives are. The only thing Ten Hag could be blamed for is not demanding a fit-for-purpose striker as a replacement.

Instead he has had to make do with Anthony Martial and Wout Weghorst. Ten Hag has tried to offer Martial as many chances as he thinks he might need to finally come good but the manager, like everyone else, would surely have seen that the Frenchman is never going to be the striker United need him to be. Neither his mind nor body will facilitate that.

Ten Hag, like Ralf Rangnick, asked for a striker, and at least the current manager was given one. Just not a goalscorer. If United had a centre-forward who knew where the goal was – not even a Harry Kane or a Victor Osimhen – a Champions League place would be sewn up long before now. Instead, they face being caught by Liverpool.

It doesn’t help when your keeper is chucking them in. Ten Hag must be feeling deja-vu with David De Gea because, again, he faces having to scrape by and make do because the current owners won’t furnish him with the proper tools for his job. De Gea has his strengths (and his weaknesses, – the same ones he’s always had and never seen fit to work on) but he is very obviously not a Ten Hag keeper. But the manager will almost certainly have to persist because of the cost of finding a replacement. Ten Hag appears resigned to that already.

Read more: Ten Hag’s next No.1? The contenders to replace David De Gea as next Man Utd goalkeeper

Ten Hag’s to-do list was so long when he arrived at Old Trafford that he had no choice but to prioritise. Rightly, United’s soft centre, in midfield and defence, had to be addressed immediately. Under Ten Hag, United now have one of the best defensive partnerships around – when either or both are fit, which they aren’t – and a wonderfully balanced midfield with Casemiro and Christian Eriksen. But again, injuries and the Brazilian’s indiscipline have deprived Ten Hag of his most important players.

Injuries and suspensions happen. That’s why any team fighting on the fronts United wish to needs strength in depth. United have a lot of players, but not enough that the manager feels able to fully trust.

That being true, Ten Hag has done extremely well to restore some credibility where no remained, all while winning some silverware along the way. If United recover their composure and get over the line ahead of Liverpool for fourth place, the manager should receive great credit and the faith and resources he requires to build a squad he can trust. If not, then patience, certainly not yet blame.

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