Before the final match of their pre-season tour of the United States on Sunday, Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag sat down with journalists in San Diego, California on Saturday for a wide-ranging interview.
United signed off their pre-season tour of the United States with a 3-2 defeat to Borussia Dortmund in Las Vegas on Sunday.
Ten Hag talked about the progress United have made under him, the challenges the team faces and the reason for stripping Harry Maguire of the captaincy, among other things.
United looked panicked in some games last season: Liverpool, Man City, Brentford – is that your biggest challenge, improving game management when it goes wrong?
I think there were also games where we bounced back. But it’s true, we proved we can beat anyone, all of the big teams in the world. But also we had our bad days and we have to be more consistent.
Your bad days can be pretty bad though, 7-0 at Liverpool?
It’s the truth, but we have to learn from that, but still it’s only three points and if the team’s character is strong, and every time we bounce back, after such a bad result, not just a bad result but also a bad performance, and also this season I’m sure there will be bad results coming and we have to deal with it. But, of course, avoid it but, when it happens, we can then do damage control for a period and to stay in the game and deal with difficult moments in the game, then, in a later stage of the game, find a way back. That is definitely also one of our challenges we have to do this season.
The gap with Manchester City when you arrived was 35 points. Last season it was down to 14. With the signings you have made how confident are you that you can close that gap further and maybe push for the title?
I think in pre-season we shouldn't talk about that [talk of winning the title]. I think no one in the PL [Premier League] can do that, maybe City, they can do that because for the last six years they won the title five times. So they can talk about that, but any other club must first compete for the first four positions, and make sure you are getting in the first four and then after the first two and then maybe you can see about getting yourself into such a position, but don’t talk about that achievement.
You’ve made some big calls this summer, Maguire (taking the captaincy off him) and De Gea (letting him go). How hard was that?
It’s the difference between a manager and a human being. In the end, top football is about getting results and then you have to make decisions, but you have to do it in an honest and transparent way. The club appointed me to take such decisions in these moments, but to also communicate those decisions and do it in a straight and honest way. That is what I’m always looking to do. I always try to do it in that way.
Was it simply that Harry Maguire wasn’t guaranteed to be first-choice, or a deeper meaning?
It’s nothing against Harry, it was in advantage of the team. Then you make the decision. But I will not say that Harry isn’t part of this group. He has to fight for his position. He is a very good centre-back, and I believe in the potential of Harry Maguire. It’s just that he has to prove himself and fight his way into the team. It’s up to him, and I think he can do it.
What kind of football can we expect from United next season?
I think it’s not so much different from last season but we want to do it better. In every moment of the game we have to improve. What fits this team is transition, both ways. When you want to have a good attacking transition, you need very good pressing. That’s key and so we work a lot on that, on moments where we are compact. From compactness, we press the opponent and that can be in different levels on the pitch. But we have to play proactive defending, and once we have the ball we have to keep the ball, or go on a transition.
Was that in your mind when you look at the price of Harry Kane or other strikers?
I don’t talk about players in other clubs. I have to respect the club and respect the player. I think especially Harry Kane, I have huge respect because he is a great striker, one of the best ever. Maybe he can even be the best striker ever in the Premier League.
You’ve mentioned Marcus Rashford having the right mentality ... is there some concern about him?
No, it’s in general. For all the players, you have to live the right life. Professional football is tough, so in general our players can’t match the sensational life playing top football. Top football is tough nowadays, 60 games a year in club football, 10 international games. Seventy games means that every third or fourth day you have to match the highest physical levels. When you’re not living the right life, you get killed. What is important? Sleep, recovery, nutrition. Three key areas and when you don’t do this right, you have a problem. You can’t perform. So when you ask me about Rashford, the same counts for Rapha Varane and every player. You will not reach the levels when you don’t do the things right.
I think in general when I came in at Man United the standards were not right. That’s true. I demand the highest standards in sleep, recovery and nutrition because that makes the difference if you can perform every third or fourth day. That is the demand for every top football player, so at Man United we are demanding the highest standards.
On Maguire again. He doesn’t play. You say you believe in him but the evidence suggests otherwise. Does Harry need to move on to play regularly?
Didn’t I play him? See his competition. It’s tough when you’re competing with Rapha Varane and Victor Lindelof. It’s huge competition. That has nothing to do with the belief. I have often chosen a player ahead of Harry, that’s true. But that says nothing about me not believing in him. He has to show he is better for the team than Rapha or Victor. I think that’s a normal situation in top football.
So the decision rests with Harry: to decide am I prepared to fight or do I need to leave?
Exactly. When you are at Man United you have to fight for your position and bring your skills in and prove you are the best for the team, and contribute the most.
Jadon Sancho has been here two seasons now. You obviously believe in him but is this almost a make-or-break season for him?
He has the skills so also for him it’s the same. He has to show consistently that he can make a huge contribution. When you are a front player that end product is the key. So make sure you are making the key actions, the final pass and get your goals in, because that’s why he is here. The rest has to be good as well. That is your foundation and then you meet all the other standards that we expect from a player. On a high level every third or fourth day.
Do you think Sancho has overcome the problems that led to him taking some time out last season?
In this moment he is in a very good vibe. He decides how he is, how his mood and vibe is. I hope and expect. He has a lot of energy, we have all seen that from the moment he came back. He wants to enjoy football and be successful.
He looks a very different player to the one we saw at Borussia Dortmund in terms of taking players on and the skills. Is it a confidence issue or just because he’s playing at a higher level?
It’s the development. The Bundesliga is perfect preparation for the Premier League. (PL) It’s tougher. I think your vision is a little bit grey. I saw many games at Dortmund and Jadon is not such a different player in Dortmund as he is here. But also for him, he has to get more consistency in his performance but he has to do it at a higher level.
How much influence do you have on player sales?
I’m totally involved but you have seen all the investments which other clubs are making and you can't compete in the Premier League for the top positions when you don't invest in your squad. You see the market, but I can do nothing for it or anyone else at United. It's a choice, if you want to compete you have to invest.
Is your new goalkeeper Onana the best in the world with the ball?
I think he proved it over the last seasons but now he’s coming to a new club and he has to prove it here. He has the potential and the skills in that aspect to improve our game and that will definitely help our team.
You said eras come to an end. Are you still confident?
I think we have proven we can beat them (Man City) but you have to do it every day and in this moment we have a way to go. City is also winning their games much more easily than we did so I see the facts. But I don’t want to talk about them because it sounds negative and it's not the way I meant it. I want to talk about our project. I want to talk about how we improve and I think the improvements last year and the results were quite obvious, but also in the performance it was quite obvious that we could beat the big opponents, and also City. In the three games you saw absolutely that we increased the levels against them. We are looking for ourselves and not looking at other teams. We have a competition with seven, eight clubs in the Premier League, across Europe even more teams, so we have to work on our way of play and improve our performance. It has to be optimum.
Does the money spent increase the pressure on you and the team?
It can’t be because all the teams are investing huge money, such huge amounts. In comparison with the others we are not doing more or less. They all invested a lot in their teams. I'm not focusing on this issue because it's totally, for me, unattractive. I have to think about my way of play and how I improve my team. I will fight for players who I want to have in and I will demand from the club to get the right players in and when we have that, we have to get results.
Do you feel you’ve had enough financial and other support to make this team champions?
I think we are unified in this club. We all work for the same objectives. Everyone is supporting each other to meet the high expectations from the fans from this club and all the shareholders from this club.
You have said the club signed too many average players in the past and paid the price for it. Will there be more outgoings in next few weeks and the squad shaped more as you want it?
I don’t want to make that comparison. Football evolves. A club evolves and there come moments where you renew your squad but you have to do it in a strategic way. It doesn’t say that the players didn’t contribute to Man United because it would be really disrespectful if you approach it in that way.
Was that the biggest challenge in the first year overhauling the whole culture and the way the players do their jobs?
The biggest is to get the results in but to get that you need the right culture, you need the right players, you need the right way of playing so you have to get a lot of things right and not only one.
We hear about changes to things behind the scenes. It feels like clubs such as City, Liverpool, Ajax, etc have been doing that. Do you feel like you’re playing catch up and that the club before you was maybe a bit complacent?
I don’t know what Liverpool or Man City are doing but Ajax I knew. There are also many conditions that are very well organised at Manchester United but, yes, in certain areas we were short. But in other things, for instance Carrington, is great accommodation and when you have the opportunity to get around Carrington it’s absolutely top facilities the club constructed. So there are also many things that are very right.
You said wanted to improve squad depth – are there other areas that could be strengthened before the window closes?
We are always looking for better quality. So if you want to be at United you have to match a really high standard and when we find the opportunities to get better we have to do it because everyone is expecting the best from us. So we also have to raise the bar there but it’s also very important that the players understand we believe in them – believe in their potential, believe in their personalities because team spirit, togetherness, the fight together, the social connection, the relationships have to be really good among footballers. It’s a team sport and when we are unified we are stronger.
What was biggest thing you learned from first season in charge?
As a manager you always have to reflect and from thereon you make your improvements. To tell you in a split second what was the important thing – we are taking a thousand decisions a day and I always do my best to find a construction that is based on a [strong] argument. In that perspective you think a lot before you take a decision.