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The Case for Erik ten Hag

With the announcement of INEOS’ purchase of 25% of Manchester United, there seems to be a fair amount of optimism amongst fans about what the future may hold. They are seizing control of the footballing operations and are, by all accounts, looking to implement a proper footballing structure at the club – something the fans have been crying out for some time. However, this, along with recent performances and results, has inevitably led to questions being raised over Erik ten Hag’s long-term future at the club. We all saw what happened at Chelsea: new owners come in with their vision of the future, the manager has opposing views, and the manager gets sacked. But amidst all the talk of his replacement, is there a case to be made for Erik ten Hag being part of the revolution?

Owners and Directors Test

It would be remiss of me to continue without noting two important details in this story:

1. The deal with INEOS is still yet to be ratified by the Premier League, and this could take up to 6 weeks from now;

2. there are a good number of fans who are not happy about the deal for partial investment and were, instead, adamant about a full sale only.

Erik ten Hag Manchester United 2023 24 5

When it comes to the deal being ratified, there’s a high degree of confidence from all parties that there will be no issues in the Premier League’s Owners and Directors test. This ‘test’ aims to discover any reason that might prohibit a person or persons from becoming an owner or director of a club, such as criminal and/or professional offences. As stated on the Premier League’s website, ‘the test is applied to prospective owners and directors, who are then subject to a review on a seasonal basis’. A lot of work was done so that they were as compliant as possible to make this more of a formality than anything else. I expect that INEOS will be confirmed with no issues in the coming weeks.

Glazers Out:

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Glazers and Ed Woodard by Getty Images via TNTSports.co.uk

The second point is somewhat more contentious. The Glazers have been driving Manchester United into the ground for 18 years, bleeding the club dry to line their pockets and leave the club on its knees. An outdated and unkept stadium, second-rate training facilities, a laughingstock in recruitment, more managers than trophies in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, but don’t worry, they’ve been able to pull off some eye-watering commercial deals! The incompetence is astounding when you dive into how the club has been run. So I get it; I understand why people were so vehemently against anything other than a full sale. Ultimately, though, this is the Glazers. If there’s an opportunity for them to make a little bit more money, then they’ll do it.

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When you take a step back and look at this objectively and free of emotion, this may have been the most likely and best outcome from the start. There is an appetite, outwardly at least, for INEOS to obtain full control of Manchester United ultimately, but in the meantime, taking the footballing operations away from the Glazers is a positive step.

INEOS’ Plans

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Jean-Claude Blanc, Sir Dave Brailsford & Sir Jim Ratcliffe by Getty Images/Jean Catuffe via telegraph.co.uk

Richard Arnold has already left his post, which leaves a gaping hole at CEO, and if rumours are to be believed, it’s expected that ex-PSG and Juventus man Jean-Claude Blanc will fill that particular gap. Sir Dave Brailsford will also be heavily involved as Director of Sport at INEOS. He’s also expected to take a seat on the board at Manchester United.

John Murtough, Manchester United’s Football Director, will likely move into a new role within the club, and, with that, there’s been a lot of talk about bringing in Dan Ashworth (of Brighton fame and currently under Newcastle’s employ) and Paul Mitchell, who previously worked at Southampton and Tottenham with Mauricio Pochettino. In the event INEOS can obtain one, or even both, of these names, it would mark a significant improvement on United’s haphazard approach. Both of these names are known for finding talent and building teams for a certain style of play, something long been absent from United since Ferguson’s retirement.

Erik ten Hag’s Ajax Team

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Erik ten Hag by Pro Shots via si.com

I think it’s fair to say that most of the fanbase was happy when Erik ten Hag was appointed. He presided over an Ajax team that had fans drooling at the mouth throughout his tenure, epitomised by their impressive and unexpected Champions League run in 2018/19. Having won three league titles as the Ajax manager, it wasn’t unheard of to hear his name in conversations about Pep Guardiola’s replacement. This is a man who turned Dusasn Tadic into Captain Marvel and had Donny van de Beek in the Ballon d’Or conversation.

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Nearly two years on from his appointment, some corners of the Old Trafford faithful are calling for yet another change of manager – performances have been wildly inconsistent and results have been just as unpredictable. That, however, doesn’t tell us the whole story. Erik ten Hag, while not completely faultless, can feel somewhat aggrieved at the criticism and build a pretty strong case for the INEOS team to stick with him for the foreseeable.

A Drama is Only as Good as its Structure

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Erik ten Hag and Ronaldo via teamtalk.com

During his 20-month tenure, Erik ten Hag has had to oversee the Ronaldo fiasco, the Greenwood saga, the Antony allegations, and deal with the Sancho situation. It’s unlikely you’d find that sort of drama within the same league at that time, let alone the same club. More often than not, ten Hag was left to face the media alone on these issues, with the incompetent powers that be remaining faceless in the background, trying to stay out of harm’s way.

Drama aside, Erik ten Hag came from a club that was set up perfectly for him to succeed. He had Edwin van der Sar as his CEO and Marc Overmars as his Technical Director, someone who seemed to be gaining praise for his work until his resignation following his inappropriate behaviour. In this setup, Overmars and van der Sar took care of the recruitment, and Erik ten Hag was responsible for the coaching. What does this mean? He was given players who all had the technique and ability to play the way he wanted his team to play. All he had to do was coach and implement the fundamentals and tactics. This is not to downplay Erik ten Hag’s role at Ajax, merely to provide some wider context into the vastly different environments he’s been required to work in.

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Marc Overmars, Edwin van der Sar & Erik ten Hag via english.ajax.nl

Fast forward to the present day, Erik ten Hag is a judge, jury, and executioner. He’s tasked with finding, deciding, and signing his transfer targets. Yes, Manchester United have a scouting network, but understandably, how much trust ten Hag has in them is up for debate. With a proper structure around him, Erik ten Hag can get back to what he does best with players best suited to the task. Sometimes, you need to protect managers from themselves. Give him a team of players all bought for the right style of play, and you might see an upturn in form and results. With the likes of Dan Ashworth and Paul Mitchell putting together a purpose-built team around him and his ethos, it’s not outlandish to see a future where Erik ten Hag has Manchester United playing the way we all expected when he arrived.

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“An Era Can Come to an End”

Time may be a healer, but it’s a commodity often in rare supply in the world of Premier League managers. Before the Dutchman’s appointment, many were calling for the fanbase to be patient. A rebuild was needed, and that would inevitably take time. Yet here we are, not even two years in, and some have had enough. Within that time, we’ve seen the likes of Arteta and Klopp build and rebuild their teams into title contenders. From the day they were appointed, it took both Klopp and Arteta three full seasons to get their teams in the title conversation, so it seems a little premature to be claiming the rebuild at Manchester United has failed under ten Hag’s stewardship just yet. After all, he’s had just one full season.

Ultimately, it will come down to whether there is joined-up thinking on the future vision for the club and the team. A meeting of minds on the style of play and identity will be important between the manager and the sporting directors. As ten Hag said himself, “An era can come to an end”. Will it be his era coming to an end soon, or will INEOS stick with him to steer the ship into the promised land? Only time will tell, but either way, Erik was right.

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