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Erik ten Hag: Will Manchester United stick or twist with manager?

Man Utd boss Erik ten Hag is facing fresh questions about his future at Old Trafford; United lost the Manchester derby 3-1 at Man City on Sunday; the likes of Roberto De Zerbi, Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann are all reportedly being considered for the role should the Dutchman leave

Erik ten Hag

Do Manchester United stick or twist with Erik ten Hag? Can they even afford to replace him? And is there an 'ideal' candidate out there in a summer of managerial change? Sky Sports News examines the situation...

Erik ten Hag has been subscribed to the analysis, the cutting criticisms, the endless loop of discussion over whether he will retain his job as United manager beyond the end of the season.

The only guarantee he has at present, given the unavailability of players meshed with the inconsistency of performances, is that the noise will continue.

He will like the soundbites to be accompanied by context; a concept too often missing in modern football discourse.

It would explain why every media appearance now feels like Ten Hag is making the case for himself, reminding the audience of the wider situation and planting an overly-positive lens in post-match talk.

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Erik ten Hag said Manchester United's performance was brilliant despite their 3-1 loss to Manchester City in the derby, and they executed their plan brilliantly

This seems less of an attempt to soften detractors and more of a reframing of the narrative to United's decision-makers.

INEOS too have been subscribed to the analysis, the cutting criticisms, the endless loop of discussion. They, however, do have context, in the form of Sir Dave Brailsford's audit of the club's football operations.

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It is why Sir Jim Ratcliffe emphasised the most significant factor INEOS can fix at the club is "the environment" because over the past decade United have had "a whole series of coaches, some of which were very good. And none of them were successful or survived for very long. And you can't blame all the coaches."

Erik ten Hag watches his side in FA Cup action
Image: Ten Hag did well to deliver a trophy and Champions League football in his first season at United

In his debut season, Ten Hag did well to deliver a trophy and Champions League football despite walking into a structural and cultural mess of great magnitude, which was worsened by him effectively running recruitment.

Now he is fighting for patience, for time, for his job. INEOS have not only been assessing what preceded the Dutchman, along with the intricacies of his tenure, they have to scan the reality of the state of play this summer.

The last element is an important place to start because it drives home the crucial point that United are not operating in isolation, and have a mountain of work to do without a new structure in place yet.

The managerial landscape

Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Barcelona are already in the market for a new manager, while there is growing feeling that Chelsea, Newcastle and AC Milan could enter that equation.

National teams are also priming for a summer of change, with conversations around the England, USA and Germany jobs taking place.

Every organisation hunting for a new man in the dugout at the end of the season has to contend with significant competition for a small pool of quality options.

And the in-demand tacticians, like Bayer Leverkusen's Xabi Alonso, can be surgical in their choice and properly scan the health of a club to help deliver sustainable success.

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Bayer Leverkusen head coach Xabi Alonso reflects on his story so far as he discusses following in his father's footsteps, coaching idols and what drew him to the Bundesliga side

United know they are at a disadvantage in this regard, despite INEOS already making power moves to remedy their organisational flaws. The poaching of Omar Berrada from Manchester City to be the new CEO, and the impending arrival of Dan Ashworth as sporting director, has been viewed favourably around Europe.

However, that is only a small fraction of the restructuring that needs to be done by the club, and until the new football set-up is in full function, no one can be sure of how well it will work.

There are also mega costs to consider in firing and hiring a manager. Estimations of around £15m in compensation would be due to Ten Hag and his coaching staff if they were to be relieved of coaching duties at the end of the season.

Unless United plump for someone out of work like Thomas Tuchel or Julian Nagelsmann (when his contract with Germany is up), there will be a significant fee to bring in a fresh backroom group.

Given Profit and Sustainability Rules, with a squad overhaul required this summer and the necessity to sell really well being circled, is there financial room to move on this front for United - especially if they do not secure the revenue from ensuring Champions League football?

History suggests new ownerships want to source a leader of their choosing, and if there is huge confidence in the managerial change, any cost would be considered worth it.

The question then is: what do United want out of a manager?

The well-worn line is a figure with more magnetism than Ten Hag and greater man-management evidence.

The irony there is United passed on Mauricio Pochettino, who ticks that box, because they believed the discipline-first approach of the former Ajax manager was more suited to erasing historic bad habits.

Brighton and Hove Albion manager Roberto De Zerbi during the Emirates FA Cup Third Round match at the Bet365 Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent. Picture date: Saturday January 6, 2024.
Image: Brighton manager Roberto De Zerbi is reportedly one of the candidates to replace Ten Hag at Man Utd next season

Neither Tuchel nor Nagelsmann are exactly esteemed for their warmth and personality. Both can be taxing to work with in different ways, but are brilliant tactical minds.

Roberto De Zerbi, in the conversation for several top jobs this summer, is adored by his players and produces some of the most fascinating tactics in European football - but there are question marks over his temperament and how he would acclimatise to a greater glare, demands and expectations.

Is there an ideal manager out there for United? As close to a banker as possible?

And could they land him above the other clubs in the mix?

Social media has been awash with pleas for Zinedine Zidane, but sources in France say that is mere fantasy. He is geared for an already well-functioning unit of players that are conditioned to winning, not a transformation task.

There is slight apprehension in candidates from lesser leagues given the spike in physical, mental, emotional, media and reputational requirements at United.

There is also an acknowledgement that an allure to some managers - as was the case with selecting Ten Hag over Pochettino - is that you are not privy to their shortcomings without watching them every matchday and being a witness to much of their career.

So, who do United turn to?

INEOS have shown vast ambition in their off-pitch appointments because they know if the structure sings, recruiting the right personnel at the right cost becomes a formality.

As Ratcliffe says: "You don't want to run to the wrong solution rather than walk to the correct solution."

It's a make-or-break period for Ten Hag?

In conversation with Sky Sports News ahead of United's 3-1 derby defeat, Gary Neville said INEOS would have their minds made up about the manager by mid-April.

"In Ole and David Moyes' periods at the club, they had games against Man City and Liverpool in very quick succession," Neville said.

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Gary Neville and Roy Keane debate whether or not Ten Hag is the right fit for Manchester United, and say that the next few months will be very important for him as manager of the club

"Erik ten Hag has a game against City and then two against Liverpool in the next month. He will be judged on these matches. INEOS aren't going to wait until the end of the season to make a decision.

"This is a massive month for these players and the manager.

"I am worried. The performance levels need to be better. They need to put together a coordinated consistency that makes you look like a team."

United's approach in the Manchester derby was understandable given their injuries. The first 50 minutes saw a committed defensive performance through sustained City pressure, with Raphael Varane and Jonny Evans strong in duels while Andre Onana saved well, relieved pressure via his long, accurate kicking before shifting to shorter passes after the break.

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Watch highlights from Manchester City's match against Manchester United in the Premier League

Marcus Rashford scored a blinder, but should have done better on the volley and when breaking clean through before stumbling. The "opposite movement" tactic Ten Hag spoke about pre-game brought the opening goal through Bruno Fernandes' outmanoeuvring of Ruben Dias, and created an opportunity for Rashford through Scott McTominay.

United, though, were unable to progress the ball up the pitch, and despite them throwing the kitchen sink behind it, City consistently worked dangerous positions through the sea of red shirts.

The difference in quality between the teams ultimately told and City tattooed their superiority on the scoreboard.

Will more underdog football from United be tolerated in the pivotal period ahead?

Man Utd's next six fixtures - Ten Hag's 'moment of truth'?

March 9: Everton (H) - Premier League, kick-off 12.30pm

March 17: Liverpool (H) - FA Cup quarter-final, kick-off 3.30pm

March 30: Brentford (A) - Premier League, kick-off 8pm, live on Sky Sports

April 4: Chelsea (A) - Premier League, kick-off 8.15pm

April 7: Liverpool (H) - Premier League, kick-off 3.30pm, live on Sky Sports

April 14: Bournemouth (A) - Premier League, kick-off 4.30pm, live on Sky Sports

In Ten Hag's defence

The nature of the managerial landscape and finances may see INEOS bide their time and trust Ten Hag for the immediate future, especially if there is an upturn in results again.

The victories over Barcelona, Liverpool, City and Arsenal last season seem a trick of the mind, but he proved capable of overseeing them.

There is a willingness to stomach 'meh' performances in the injury-hit present if wins are delivered. While it is not a sustainable long-term approach, there is merit in a team still getting over the line in bad moments.

When Ten Hag was asked recently by Sky Sports News if he could understand the critical pieces he had highlighted around United's form before the turn of this year, he offered a "no" because "you can see the problems we are facing, you saw the history of how we played last year with not only the right results but the right performances".

He wants to be judged by the entirety of what has happened since taking charge at the club, not purely on this season.

Every manager expects to deal with injuries, especially on the back of a heavily loaded campaign after a mid-season World Cup.

A source close to Ten Hag posed an important question this weekend: 'Is there another manager in Europe who has had to deal with the number of problem situations as Erik?'
Melissa Reddy, Sky Sports News Senior Reporter

But a source close to Ten Hag posed an important question this weekend: 'Is there another manager in Europe who has had to deal with the number of problem situations as Erik?'

There were the constant challenges to his authority by Cristiano Ronaldo, the very public fallout with Jadon Sancho, the two reported partying misdemeanours by Rashford, a PR campaign to get him the sack, and the destabilisation of a year-long strategic review undertaken by the Glazers that culminated in Ratcliffe finally becoming a co-owner.

The legal situations of Mason Greenwood and Antony were also damaging.

The number of off-field issues at United and the range in severity of them speaks to a rotten culture, which Ten Hag has tried to cure.

His discipline and the elevation in expected standards of behaviour was initially welcomed by the majority of the squad, but there was a wonder of how long it would last at a place where, as one employee put it, "players, even the s**** ones, have had it too easy getting rid of managers".

In September, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer told The Athletic some members of the squad "weren't as good as their own perception of themselves. I won't name names, but I was very disappointed when a couple turned down the chance to be captain".

Then in December, another former United manager offered a zinger. Jose Mourinho told John Obi Mikel's podcast: "There are still people in that club, and when I say people I mean some players but also some other people that are not players, that are still there when I told United after two months: with these people, you are never going to do it [be successful]. And they are still there."

INEOS' analysis of the environment has deduced exactly this. One of the areas they have been most bemused by is Ten Hag pretty much dictating the club's recruitment.

Manchester United's Antony has struggled this term
Image: Manchester United splashed out £86m to sign Antony from Ajax

The manager has rightly been pulled on his recruitment - a reminder that Antony cost £86m and Sofyan Amrabat is not a permanent signing only as the funds were not available - but he should never have enjoyed such power and responsibility for transfers in the first place.

United have insisted every major buy was on their scouting radar separately from Ten Hag's desire to recruit them, but it is unthinkable the club would have spent around £310m on the same players under a different manager. The majority of signings had worked under him previously and have an Eredivisie background.

The waste of money in the window is viewed more of a failing of football operations than on Ten Hag's shoulders. Not all support is the right and intelligent support.

INEOS' repeated reference to how City operate is a big clue here: Txiki Begiristain sources players that profile well for Pep Guardiola, and he is taxed with maximising their gifts. The greatest manager of a generation does not shape transfer policy, nor should he.

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The Sun reported that Manchester United's incoming sporting director Dan Ashworth wants to bring Graham Potter to Old Trafford

There is also a belief that "United-level ambition" was not at play in some respects. The non-move for Harry Kane was spotlighted as an example - INEOS, as they have already shown with Berrada and Ashworth, would not shy away from the battle of poaching from a rival.

Would Ten Hag be better under a smarter recruitment operation like he enjoyed at Ajax?

Separately, the manager's coaching of young talents, specifically Kobbie Mainoo, Rasmus Hojlund and Alejandro Garnacho has been noted as a plus point.

The case for twisting

Supporters of a club - especially one as storied as United - do not want a sense of trepidation rather than anticipation heading into games.

They want to buy into and believe in a bigger picture, they want to feel a connection with their manager, they want to be able to understand and utterly lose themselves in the journey.

Beyond the black and white of results and performances, Ten Hag has not truly created a strong bond with the fanbase, but he would perhaps argue he has not had enough time to do that.

In terms of the football, well… Heading into Sunday's derby, only Sheffield United (447), West Ham (434) and Luton Town (428) had faced more shots than United (417) in the Premier League this season per Opta.

Harry Maguire and his Man Utd team-mates cut frustrated figures during the 2-1 defeat to Fulham
Image: Only Sheffield United (447), West Ham (434) and Luton Town (428) have faced more shots than United (417) in the Premier League this season per Opta

Ten Hag's side have conceded at least 16 shots in more than half of their games (15), while Arsenal by contrast have not faced more than 15 shots in a single match this term.

In the FA Cup, League Two Newport racked up 17 against United. The Champions League was an almighty embarrassment: bottom of a poor group, having shipped in 15 goals in six games.

And in the top flight, it is highly likely United will record their most defeats in a season.

The derby hiding at the hands of City was their 11th loss in the league, only in 2013-14 and 2021-22 (both 12) have they suffered more in a campaign.

Jamie Redknapp believes Scott McTominay's late brace to rescue a win for Manchester United against Brentford will ease the pressure on manager Erik ten Hag ahead of the international break.
Image: Jamie Redknapp felt Scott McTominay's late double to rescue a win for Manchester United against Brentford would ease the pressure on Ten Hag

There is no pretty reading regardless of which page is turned. When United announced the appointment of Ten Hag in April 2022, football director John Murtough said: "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."

Bar a clutch of games last season, the "excitement" didn't really take hold at United, where that "attractive, attacking football" has hardly been on show.

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