Erik Ten Hag – Red Devils Go Dutch

Erik ten Hag

Manchester United Confirm Coveted Dutchman Erik Ten Hag As Their New Coach With A Brief To Restore The Club To Greatness

Muhren, Cruyff, Van der Gouw, Jaap Stam, Van Nistelrooy, Van der Sar, Van Persie a magnificent seven of the twelve Dutch players who have pulled on the famous red shirt of Manchester United. Of the other five, most, like Memphis Depay, Alexander Buttner, and Timothy Fosu-Mensah lasted a season in the first team, or as in the case of Tahith Chong, have yet to prove their worth to the club.

Having signed a contract for the next three years with an option for a fourth it is hoped that Erik ten Hag, the fifth manager United have hired in the nine years since Alex Ferguson’s departure, will make an immediate and lasting effect on the team and playing philosophy at the club. To do so, he will have to succeed where managers of the calibre of David Moyes, his fellow countryman, Louis Van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, United legend and fan-favourite, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and interim manager-influential German coach, Ralf Rangnick have conspicuously failed.

It is a tough task; of that everyone is agreed. Ralph Rangnick spoke this week of the need for ‘open heart surgery’ at the football club. Vociferous pundit and ex-Red, Gary Neville, has called Manchester United ‘broken.’ Former captain Roy Keane said ‘this is not the Manchester United I played for.’

Indeed, United have drifted alarmingly since the Scottish great left with a Premier League title win back in 2013. In the interim period they have won an FA Cup and a Europa League final (against Ten Hag’s Ajax side) but have fallen very far behind domestic rivals Liverpool and Manchester City in the League, and more worryingly, well below European elite level. Not to mention the standard demanded by the legacy of the club and the vast legions of support: great players, flair players, and fast-flowing, attacking football played with a voracious appetite and will to compete and win.

Ten Hag then will be tasked with an enormous root and branch overhaul of the team and playing philosophy at the club and to do so he will require unstinting backing by the owners, the unswerving support of the club and footballing infrastructure, and the personal bravery to perform the surgery that all those who hold Manchester United dear have been calling for: An end to a catastrophic recruitment process that has seen very mediocre players don the red shirt who simply do not have the skill set or mindset to play the ‘United way.’

Erik ten Hag would do well to learn a fundamental lesson from United’s history: it is not their local or European rivals they should be judged by, but by the great sides put together by Ferguson and Busby. That is the benchmark for the club.

Who among the current team would get into this former side: Schmeichel, Irwin, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Beckham, Scholes, Keane, Giggs, Ronaldo mark 1, Van Nistelrooy? I think you would be hard pushed to name one. Bruno Fernandes, a divisive and irritating character guilty of blaming his colleagues for his own failings, is hailed by some as a saviour. He would be lucky, very lucky, to make the bench of that squad. He shines in the current side solely by dint of the surrounding paucity.

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A straw poll of pundits from the world of football and sports journalism reveals that most agree that as many as 15 players could and should leave the club this summer.

Matic, Mata, Lingaard, Cavani, Lee Grant are all out of contract and are primed to depart. Paul Pogba will not sign a new one and will leave on a free transfer. Phil Jones cannot continue to get one game a season and be substituted at half-time. The unfancied and unused, Eric Bailly needs to play football elsewhere. Of the rest, there is a strong case to dispense with the services of Maguire, Lindelof, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who are frankly, simply not good enough to play for Manchester United. Raphael Varane appears out of his depth in the Premier League. And a line must be drawn under Anthony Martial and filed as the one that got away.

There are serious question marks, too, over Marcus Rashford, who has lost all his early verve, spark, and goal-scoring ability. What could cause such a calamitous reversal of fortune and lack of confidence? Could he be revived under Ten Hag?

Jose Mourinho, Solskjaer, and Ralf Rangnick have all been unable to call upon Rashford regularly, or trust him implicitly. His off-field activities have had a clear impact on his form on the pitch. To keep him at the club is up for considered debate. Club icon Cristiano Ronaldo is currently Manchester United’s most effective player. At 38 years old, that is remarkable, but he represents the past, albeit a glorious one, and not the future.

The Ajax method

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Former Manchester United and latterly Ajax defender, Daley Blind said of ten Hag, “Johan Cruyff’s philosophy and spirit still flows around in this club. Erik ten Hag is doing very well now. He wants us to play attacking football, but most of all without any fear.” 

This statement should be welcome music to the ears of Manchester United fans, echoing Sir Alex Ferguson’s pre-match mantra to ‘express yourself without fear.’ And what is more, Ten Hag has ‘done it with kids.’ The Ajax conveyor belt of superstar youngsters that now grace football fields across the world is testimony to the Ajax way, of a commitment to training youth in the way the club plays from top to bottom, producing elegant, attack-minded, skillful footballers who are both tactically aware, sure of their roles in the team. And then giving them the platform to express themselves confidently.

At Ajax, Ten Hag has blended youth with some grafted-in nous in the form of experienced players spotted in other clubs and moulded into the system. Scholes and Neville, Beckham and Giggs needed Keane, Stam and Vidic behind them and Van Nistelrooy, Cantona et al in front of them. Youth and experience can take you far. Ten Hag has a similar modus operandi with the aforementioned Daley Blind, Nicola Tagliafico, Maarten Stekelenburg, Dusan Tadic, Davy Klassen, Sebastian Haller all supporting and augmenting such vivacious talents as Anthony, Jurien Timber, and Ryan Gravenberch to name but a few.

United going forward

It will be interesting to imagine the conversation between Ralph Rangnick and Erik Ten Hag as one gives way to the other. For Rangnick, looking more despondent by the day, the problems are ‘crystal clear.’ For those of us who watch Manchester United regularly, we can but echo that summation of the way forward for the club now that the disastrous reign of Ed Woodward has finally come to an end.

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Ten Hag will now have to address Woodward’s painful legacy. It will take some doing; it will not happen overnight. But it must be far-reaching, and brutal even, if it is going to succeed.

In the Manchester United youth academy, he has at his disposal an even greater potential pool of talent than he enjoyed at Ajax. Let us hope he makes better use of it than his predecessors. Blooding one or two is not enough. Ferguson had 5 or 6 as standard in his team and introduced many more to see if they could make the grade along the way. Otherwise, why have an academy in the first place? United have been usurping and gazumping home and European teams in the quest for the finest youth talent in the world. Well, here you have the man that knows how to make use of them.

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Erik ten Hag has intimated that his first appointment could be Steve McClaren the former United coach and the Dutchman’s boss at Twente Enschede, who may join him as part of his backroom staff. If it comes to pass, that would represent a shrewd move from the incoming manager, and one that could pay dividends for his integration into the club. Certainly, a strong staff is needed now, going forward, and the removal of Darren Fletcher, a source of irritation to Rangnick, from the bench to his position upstairs is also a priority.

Manchester United needs to blow new energy into the club, and it must begin now. Erik ten Hag will inherit a bloated, dysfunctional squad that, on its present trajectory, will not qualify for any European competition next season. This may be a blessing in disguise, for the new coach has a prodigious amount of work to do. And without the distraction of minor European league cup qualification, his career as Manchester United’s new coach can begin with the fundamental and radical change it so badly needs, as he begins his first season at the club. The very thing their arch-rivals Liverpool did when they appointed Jurgen Klopp to end a thirty-year wait for success. They did so when they recruited wisely, economically, and well, to produce an exciting, attacking team that can win the Premier League, and the European cup. A team of balance and flair who are feared everywhere they play.

Much like, in fact, the Manchester United of yesteryear.

Time will tell whether this respected and likeable Dutch coach who educated himself at major clubs around Europe, learning from Guardiola, Klopp, Ancelotti, will be able to replicate the success he has had in Holland with his exciting Ajax side at Manchester United.

But if Manchester United want to rise from the ashes of their current malaise, they have to follow a philosophy and blueprint for new success, support it, back it and implement it.

Erik ten Hag. We wish you well.

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