Erik Ten Hag has a huge job when he takes over at Manchester United. Fans will welcome his appointment and the optimists hope for an improvement after a very disappointing season, but United are a long way behind Manchester City, Liverpool, and Chelsea and the Dutchman will need time and patience.
Not every issue is about the manager, but the focus will be. United are one of the biggest football clubs in the world and the pressure is intense, but the Ajax manager can look to do the following to get players, fans and staff onside.
Implement playing style
United have been listless and Ten Hag has to implement his own style of play – or ‘philosophy’ to borrow the term often used by his compatriot and former United manager, Louis van Gaal.
That was meant to be what Ralf Rangnick did. Watch any Rangnick coaching session or seminar and his ideas are very clear – as they were in the first half of his first game at home to Crystal Palace when he played a 4-2-2-2 system, but not since. He’s careful what he says publicly, but he doesn’t command his own style because he doesn’t think he has the players to deliver it.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did have his own strong style of play for which he deserved more credit. United enjoyed some fine results against the biggest teams and were even defensively excellent with a high pressing performance in the 2021 Europa League final against Villarreal, but that was forgotten since the team couldn’t get a second goal to win a game which went to penalties.
Solskjaer was also about the collective from a coaching perspective. When he received his first manager of the month award, he insisted that he was pictured with all his coaching staff. That was admirable, but United also insisted that he was manager and the buck stopped with him.
Throughout almost three years in charge, the coaches helped deliver Solskjaer’s style. When things went bad, they looked to Solskjaer for answers and if he had a weakness then it was his leadership skills when things turned negatively. And when it went very badly in the autumn of 2021, he couldn’t arrest the slump and lost his job. Critics said United just needed a more technically proficient or experienced coach to get the best out of those players – something Rangnick was meant to be. He’s yet to show that with conviction at Old Trafford.
Liverpool v Man United player ratings
Build bond with players and fans
All the leading managers have a clearly defined style of football. It’s obvious when you watch a team of Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel or Pep Guardiola, but it’s not as simple as saying, “you should be doing this”. Rangnick tempered his vision, as did Van Gaal since he didn’t think he had the players to carry out his very detailed instructions.
But it should be more than mere instructions and order. Van Gaal had many qualities and he’s managed at the biggest clubs in the world, but too often he failed to read the room at United and left the players baffled and bemused with meetings about meetings. Players turning up a minute late for meetings were castigated and felt humiliated. More than one simply thought ‘I’m a good professional footballer with a very good reputation but I can’t play for that man’.
If Ten Hag can get a better tune from his players then success breads confidence and personalities develop from it. Klopp is a leader adored by Liverpool fans, Tuchel by Chelsea fans, Guardiola by City fans. They’re all intense and have elements of the mad professor about them, but they’ve built up a bank of credit which allows them to relax and for their humour to come through when needed – with players and the media.
Ten Hag needs to read the room and look at what he has. A squad full of big names, one which picks up too many injuries, where confidence is shattered after defeats like Tuesday’s hammering at Anfield.
He will be able to bring in some players he wants and move some on, but at the start he’ll be working with the majority of players who are already at the club. They need to believe in him as much as he needs to believe in them. He’ll need to have the personal and social skills, plus the charisma, to deliver these ideas to the squad, to inspire them. United’s players need this. They don’t want a pundit telling them where they are going wrong, that’s the job of the coaches and analysts.
Ten Hag also needs to demand from the players. Jose Mourinho demanded from his players, but was lacking in man-management skills. Criticising his players publicly went down badly in the dressing room.
Solskjaer was a good man manager who was popular with his players, but didn’t demand from them like Mourinho did. Alex Ferguson was feared by his players and times have changed since then, but standards were high. Ferguson was also adored by his staff, from the tea ladies to the coaches.
Rangnick hasn’t had the time to develop such relationships but he neither demands like Mourinho did, nor has the man management skills of Solskjaer. When you are dealing with 25 young men of varying ages, nationalities and intelligence levels, there’s no one size fits all.
Sort the captaincy
Harry Maguire is Manchester United’s captain but doesn’t feel like the leader of the dressing room. He’s got leadership skills – better than most of his teammates – but he’s not handled this season well. He’s had that much going on with his own game that he can’t give sufficient focus on the other players.
This season may be a write off for Maguire and he may come good again next season since he has previously been a mainstay, but whether that’s as United’s captain is on his new manager. Or does Ten Hag look at others with obvious leadership skills: Bruno Fernandes and Scott McTominay? Is the wholehearted but technically inferior McTominay, one deeply admired by Mourinho and Solskjaer, even good enough to be Manchester United captain? Fernandes cares deeply about United. He’s a moaner, sometimes too much, but he’s also a multi-lingual leader the players look up to.
The collective over the individual
Former captain Nemanja Vidic said the following recently: “They (the United players) are good boys but the way to win is in the collective and team spirit in a world which is becoming increasingly individualised. Players have individual social media accounts, but football is not an individual sport – like most sports are. Respect, trust and help for your teammates is so important.”
Players have staff working for them briefing from their perspective – that is the individual over the team, since they are employed by the individual. This isn’t good for the team. Players protecting their own egos by slandering others. This has to change and the leaders need to lead by example on the pitch.
Everyone is going to be nice to the new manager and try and make a good first impression, but the team, football department and support staff around it is a combination of layer after layer of staff brought in under various managers. Some earn a fortune for roles that are no longer as meaningful as they were. Weak management has led to staff staying on.
That can cause disillusionment from other staff. Some decisions are being made and not all need to be made by the manager, but United can be leaner (financially, too), fitter and hopefully more productive. There will be changes, but most of them will not be driven by Ten Hag, but John Murtough, who has been assessing where United have been for a number of years but now has the power to make tough decisions.
Set an aim for next season
If there’s no European football then a smaller squad will suffice. The Europa League rather than the Champions League, where United struggle if they get out the group stage, is probably more realistic right now.
United have a big squad and one which needs European football in terms of squad managements. Europa League football will give the manager a chance to experiment with different players and systems. Brandon Williams received opportunities in the 2019-20 Europa League that he wouldn’t have got in the Champions League. There are emerging youngsters like James Garner, currently on loan thriving at Nottingham Forest, who deserves a chance sooner or later.
A season without European football would be cleaner from a fixtures perspective, with big runs into league games, but United are built to compete on multiple fronts, players need games and fans want games. The club want games too, to fill Old Trafford, to get TV revenues from European football. And the Europa League is well worth winning, as the 30,000 United fans in Stockholm in 2017 will testify.
United went out of all cup competitions at home this season. That wasn’t good enough. Mourinho was very specific in his aims during his first season: cups. Any cups, even the Community Shield. Winning the League Cup and Europa League – a tactical masterclass against Ajax, saw him and fans celebrate three trophies in his first season. None were the biggest ones, but they felt great at the time.
They were also the last trophies United lifted. That must change.