Erik ten Hag is the last roll of the dice for Manchester United and their owners, the Glazer family. It will be 10 years next May since the club last won the Premier League title and, if Ten Hag becomes the fifth permanent manager to fail to re-create the glory days enjoyed under Sir Alex Ferguson, United and the Glazers will have nowhere left to turn.
United and the Glazers are banking everything on Ten Hag being the right man and, with their Premier League season set to start with a home game against Brighton & Hove Albion on Sunday, we are about to discover whether he is the real deal or just another overhyped appointment who will suffer the same unhappy fate as his predecessors.
Sources have told ESPN that, having interviewed both Ajax coach Ten Hag and then-Paris Saint-Germain boss Mauricio Pochettino as the final two contenders for the job earlier this year, the sense that Ten Hag had a “buzz about him” and a sense of being a man in the ascendancy persuaded the Glazers to appoint the 52-year-old as manager.
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And having made their choice, the Glazers and chief executive Richard Arnold have given Ten Hag the green light to rip it up and start again as United, once again, attempt to reboot the Old Trafford machine.
He has been allowed to pursue his transfer targets ahead of players higher up the club’s list of potential signings — Feyenoord left-back Tyrell Malacia and Ajax defender Lisandro Martinez were on United’s radar, but not targets until Ten Hag arrived — and the new boss quickly won his battle to have Ferguson’s former assistant, and later the senior England manager, Steve McClaren, added to his backroom staff, despite resistance from some senior figures at the club.
Ten Hag has also been backed in his determination to instill a greater sense of discipline within the playing squad, and his outspoken comments about Cristiano Ronaldo’s “unacceptable” decision to leave Old Trafford before the end of last Sunday’s friendly against Rayo Vallecano point to the Dutchman being given the authority by his bosses to get tough with any player who fails to meet his demanding standards.
But we have seen and heard all of this before with United in the post-Ferguson era. Every new manager has been presented as a saviour, only to find himself burned out by the experience of managing the club.
United have tried every possible route back to the top since Ferguson retired after winning his 13th, and the club’s 20th, title at the end of the 2012-13 season, but a combination of bad choices, dismal recruitment and a lack of experience and vision in the boardroom has conspired to leave them in the situation they are now in, of desperately hoping that Ten Hag really is the right appointment.
David Moyes, Ferguson’s successor, was the continuity candidate — the Scotsman, cut from the same cloth as Ferguson, with a reputation for team-building at Everton. But Moyes, dubbed the “Chosen One,” had never won a major trophy or worked for a club of United’s stature, and he soon looked more like the Frozen One before being sacked after less than a season, with the team going from champions to finishing seventh.
Louis van Gaal was hired in 2014, despite being out of club management since being sacked by Bayern Munich in 2011, and he was billed as the man to bring authority, leadership and a winning mentality to the team. But United, driven by executive vice chairman Ed Woodward, gave Van Gaal free rein in the transfer market and a series of disastrous signings, including Bastian Schweinsteiger, Angel Di Maria and Memphis Depay, defined his time in charge, which ended after two years with players and fans complaining about his boring and outdated football.
Serial winner Jose Mourinho was supposed to be the catalyst for United’s rebirth in 2016, but after being sacked by Chelsea and Real Madrid in his previous jobs, he lacked the charisma and aura of his earlier career and, after spending vast sums on the likes of Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku, plus the free transfer flop of Alexis Sanchez, he left in December 2018 with the playing squad having lost all faith in the onetime “Special One.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, described to ESPN by one United source as the “anti-venom” to Mourinho, was underqualified as a coach, having previously been sacked by Cardiff City following relegation from the Premier League, but his status as a United legend ensured instant respect from the fans and his nice-guy approach won the players over quickly.
But Solskjaer was out of his depth, lacking the tactical acumen or personality to take United back to the top, and he was sacked last November after a run of humiliating results that included a 5-0 home defeat against Liverpool.
The former Manchester United star hopes to see his former teammate for club and country remain at Old Trafford after the Red Devils’ promising summer.
Moyes, Van Gaal, Mourinho and Solskjaer — they all had question marks over them when they were hired, but United went and appointed them anyway.
Ten Hag also has questions to answer. Is he ready for the pressure that comes with managing the biggest club in the most high-profile league in the world? Can success with Ajax in the Eredivisie persuade his current squad that he has the tactical qualities that will enable the team, and players, to improve sufficiently to challenge Manchester City and Liverpool?
The early signs in preseason have been promising. Ten Hag looks to have quickly imposed his authority and won over any doubters thanks to the clarity of his demands on the squad and, crucially, he has the supporters on his side. But preseason has always been an unreliable guide to what lies ahead. Van Gaal won all five of his first preseason games, but then lost the Premier League opener at home to Swansea and struggled to regain momentum.
Ten Hag can’t afford a similar false start this weekend. Mood and momentum are so important in a game that has become dominated by social media reaction, and a defeat will open the floodgates to instant criticism and fault-finding. But that’s the price that comes with managing Manchester United. It can be an unforgiving job, but Ferguson showed that the rewards can be immense.
Ten Hag just needs to be everything that Moyes, Van Gaal, Mourinho and Solskjaer should have been, but weren’t — a manager capable of dominating a dressing room and the boardroom. But most importantly, he needs to show he is a winner.