Erik ten Hag’s to-do list will be as long as his arm when he eventually arrives at Manchester United this summer. The Dutch boss is still focused o
Erik ten Hag’s to-do list will be as long as his arm when he eventually arrives at Manchester United this summer. The Dutch boss is still focused on securing the Eredivisie title with Ajax, so he can be forgiven for relegating United to a secondary concern for now. But he should be under no illusions just how difficult a task he has signed up for at Old Trafford.
Ten Hag is not the first United manager to arrive with the media declaring the need for a complete overhaul, revival or rebuild; all of his predecessors since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in May 2013 have had similar preludes.
Yet this time it really does feel different – and not just because of the dire run of recent results. United have been mediocre, or worse, for several years – five successive seasons without silverware tells you that much – but there are more factors at work this summer.
Ten Hag’s predecessor has only been in the hot seat for six months and has overseen a transitional period defined by inertia. The United hierarchy has been reshuffled too, with Ed Woodward leaving in February to be replaced by Richard Arnold as chief executive, while football director John Murtough has seen his influence grow.
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Finally, the playing squad is about to undergo a period of change. Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Edinson Cavani, Juan Mata and Lee Grant are all primed to leave on free transfers; Nemanja Matic has announced his intention to leave and doubts are swirling around Cristiano Ronaldo, Alex Telles, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Marcus Rashford, Dean Henderson and Anthony Martial.
This is the context of Ten Hag’s takeover as manager. David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have all failed before him. Their spells in charge have all left behind traces of their failure, which the 52-year-old, who is taking on his first major job outside of his home country, must sweep away.
Just one of those lingering elements which is holding the club back is something Moyes is deemed to be responsible for. Rio Ferdinand was there for the good times at Old Trafford under Ferguson and stayed for the bad ones under his successor. He believes the team’s tendency to think negatively – to focus on the opposition’s strengths, rather than their own – began with Moyes.
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“Even the mindset in one of the training sessions, I hope I’m not speaking out of line here towards David Moyes but our mindset [under Ferguson], we never worried about the opposition,” Ferdinand on BT Sport in 2018. “We never set ourselves up and said, ‘oh we need to make sure we contain this and contain that’. We’re going to try and win this game based on what we’re good at.”
He added: “I remember the first couple of games, we played against Liverpool and Chelsea, and we were talking more about [Eden] Hazard and [Philippe] Coutinho than we were about our own attacking tactics. So there’s doubt. Players then look at each other. “This ain’t us. We’re not used to this’.”
United spokespeople often speak about the “United way”. They believe in the self-mythologising status of the club, that just wearing the famous red shirt should intimidate opponents. If that ever existed, then it is now long gone. Ten Hag would be wise to try and restore it. It will take some time – Ferdinand said in February he thinks the club has to “write off the next year or two in terms of trophies” – but it will be worthwhile.
The summer will be absolutely crucial in shaping any success Ten Hag has. Recruitment is key, while shifting the dead wood – of which there is a lot – is equally important. Once that task is completed, Ten Hag must begin to instil his players with the confidence of United players from past eras. The age of negativity needs to be drawn to a close.