When it was announced that Erik ten Hag would be Manchester United’s fifth permanent manager since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, those making the decision were said to be in agreement that he was “the outstanding candidate”.
It was tempting to think that this was a bad sign. Manchester United as currently constructed need a manager who Manchester United would not wish to appoint.
Manchester United, like George Costanza in Seinfeld, might be better off adopting a different approach – “if every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right”, Costanza said as he embraced a new counter-intuitive philosophy of doing the opposite. Manchester United need that philosophy now. When interviewing a prospective new manager, if a deep sense of unease comes over them, a feeling that this candidate could make their lives uncomfortable, then all things considered, that might be the candidate for them.
Erik ten Hag may well make life uncomfortable for those he is reporting to at Manchester United. He has had to fight for things which no new manager should have to fight so hard for, such as the composition of his coaching team (United were said to be resistant to the idea of Steve McClaren being part of his staff) and a decisive input on signings.
For United to be reportedly resistant to these first principles suggests a lack of understanding of what is required. The podcast that accompanies this piece with Paul Flynn and Sean Keyes explores this further, examining the numbers driving Manchester United.
It may be that the next manager doesn’t matter that much in terms of their earnings, but there may come a time when the club have to face a reality about their appointments. As the saying goes, if you run in to an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.
Certainly the Manchester United job is making assholes of a broad and diverse range of candidates, all of whom enter the job looking plausible to different degrees and leave a short time later appearing to be a broken and obvious dud, somebody nobody in their right mind could ever have considered appointing.
When Ralf Rangnick was appointed interim manager, even within the limitations of that role, he was seen as somebody who could make a difference.
“Ralf is one of the most respected coaches and innovators in European football,” John Murtough, United’s football director said in November. “He was our number one candidate for interim manager, reflecting the invaluable leadership and technical skills he will bring from almost four decades of experience in management and coaching. Everyone at the club is looking forward to working with him during the season ahead, and then for a further two years in his advisory role.”
Anybody who watched Manchester United’s 4-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield would have wondered what happened to Rangnick’s “invaluable leadership and technical skills” as it seems to have made no impression on the players.
This was a defeat that pointed to a rotting club. Before Liverpool’s second goal, Manchester United managed to make two consecutive passes once in the preceding eight minutes. They were a team and a club that had surrendered.
Rangnick’s failure to make an impression may be partly his fault, but it also points most strongly to the failures of a squad which, in being assembled without any discernible plan, has fragmented into a collection of incompatible elements.
There is, of course, talk of how many players will leave and who will arrive, while an emphasis is put on the long term dimension to this appointment.
United may have persuaded themselves once again that they are committed to a long term project but Ten Hag should know better. Whatever the promises, United cannot commit to them. Sooner or later, the club will look for a patsy and the most convenient is always the manager. In fact, there comes a point when it is in everyone else’s best interests if the manager is the stumbling block. Manchester United keep arriving at this point and they will again unless Ten Hag and whoever he forms alliances with manages to change the club
So Ten Hag will need to be successful or give a strong indication of progress in a relatively quick period or he will face the same pressures as all those who preceded him and had equally high hopes.
Progress can be demonstrated quickly, as Jurgen Klopp showed at Liverpool, but whether it can be done with Manchester United as it is currently constructed is more debatable.
There is a counter factual to the past decade and it involves Manchester United appointing managers who would have offered greater chances of success, rather than sidestepping them. Manchester City have demonstrated how to spend money and to allow a manager a platform that he can work effectively, while Liverpool’s transformation under Klopp has made sense of all the plans FSG had for the club but couldn’t implement until he came along.
It says something for United that, in this golden age of coaches, two of the greatest have ended up at their fiercest rivals while at Old Trafford they continue to hope everything turns out for the best. The club have also sidestepped Antonio Conte and, most recently, Mauricio Pochettino in pursuit of something the club believes feels right.
When Ten Hag’s appointment was announced, a number of reports stated that United decided that Ten Hag was the candidate “most closely aligned with the club’s identity and strategy”.
And this is where Ten Hag is fighting the system. If he is to succeed, he needs to negotiate and possibly overthrow the system which has malfunctioned so badly for the past nine years.
Jurgen Klopp has shown how a club’s identity can be altered quickly but then Klopp is a once-in-a-generation figure who has electrified every element of the club.
“During the past four years at Ajax, Erik has proved himself to be one of the most exciting and successful coaches in Europe, renowned for his team’s attractive, attacking football and commitment to youth,” Murtough announced this time. These are the values Manchester United like to believe are their own. They are nothing to do with the modern Manchester United.
United’s identity at the moment isn’t worth saving. If Erik ten Hag is to succeed at Manchester United, he will need to subvert the broken institution that appointed him.