Manchester United fans have a right to be very excited if the news stories about the club’s manager hunt turn out to be authentic. According to recent reports in the British media, Ajax boss Erik ten Hag is the strong favourite to be named United’s next full-time manager.
Both the BBC and the Daily Mail have claimed that the 52-year-old tactical mastermind is seen as fitting the profile the United board want for the man who they hope will restore the glory days the club enjoyed under Alex Ferguson. Ten Hag is set to become the Red Devils’ fifth permanent boss since the departure of Ferguson as a Premier League champion in 2013 — the club has not won the league since and 2021-22 will be the fifth successive season it will finish without a trophy.
While the development is encouraging news for United supporters — and neutral fans who appreciate progressive, attractive football — it has dealt a blow to the dreams of embattled Paris Saint-Germain manager Mauricio Pochettino, who, too, has shown he can successfully coach teams to play a front-footed, up-tempo style and was reportedly being considered for the Old Trafford job.
According to reports, United has already held talks with Ajax — whose chief executive is former United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar. Ten Hag’s contract is up at the end of next season and it would cost United around £1.6 million to prise him away whereas PSG might demand a far larger sum for Pochettino to leave. However, Pochettino’s position at PSG is far from secure after a disappointing exit in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Ten Hag — whose Ajax side was denied a place in the 2019 Champions League final by Pochettino when he managed Tottenham — has been interviewed by United and is said to have demanded backing to pursue his transfer targets. He reportedly told football director John Murtough and technical director Darren Fletcher that he envisaged a “five-year project”. He also addressed the futures of several squad members, saying they are nowhere near “Champions League shape”.
Both the BBC and the Mail say, however, that United will hold off on an announcement out of respect for Ajax and the closeness of its Eredivisie title race with PSV Eindhoven — the latter trails ten Hag’s side by four points in the Dutch top-flight. The arch-rivals will also clash this weekend in the final of the domestic KNVB Cup.
Recent attempts by the media to confirm the news with the man himself proved futile — he threatened to walk out of an interview last week after being questioned about the United job. But he did speak to German outlet Sport1 about his future earlier in the month, when he refused “to rule anything out”. “My full focus is completely on Ajax,” ten Hag said. “Anything else would just be a distraction. I know that in football everything can change from one day to the next. If at some point I should decide to take the next step, I hope that people here will understand.”
So, is ten Hag the right man for United? And is United the right club for ten Hag?
Ticks all the boxes
He certainly ticks all the boxes for a top-class manager. Elements of his philosophy of positional play have been compared with those of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. “When we lose the ball, we must win it back immediately,” Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana said. “He is focused on that, he is always telling us that if we have control of the ball, we have the ability to push back any opponent.”
The emphasis on possession, building from the back, pressing with intensity in a narrow shape to recover the ball, switching play after overloading a side and using the width of the pitch in attack are facets of Ajax’s style under ten Hag that evoke echoes of Manchester City and Liverpool. But ten Hag is no imitator. “Erik has always looked in other kitchens to see how they work,” childhood friend Leon ten Voorde told the Guardian, “then created his own vision.”
Ten Hag, a former centre-back, is also tactically flexible. While he doesn’t compromise on his playing principles, he has shown he can adapt to the players he has. His preferred formation appears to be the 4-3-3, which his Ajax side play with such beautiful positional fluidity, but he coached a two-striker system at Utrecht because the qualities of that squad, he felt, were enhanced by it.
Ten Hag has shown, moreover, that he can improve players with his work on the training ground. At Ajax, he has helped the development of centre-back Matthijs de Ligt, central midfielders Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek, and attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech, all of whom were coveted and bought by Europe’s top clubs. Goalkeeper Onana, right-back Noussair Mazraoui, midfielder Ryan Gravenberch and winger Antony are others ten Hag has trained who continue to attract attention from European heavyweights.
Ajax has won two domestic doubles under ten Hag and is on course for another this season. The Champions League semifinal run in 2019, during which Real Madrid and Juventus were beaten in impressive fashion, remains the club’s best showing in Europe’s top competition since 1996-97. While his time at Go Ahead Eagles, Bayern Munich II (the German powerhouse’s second team) and Utrecht wasn’t trophy-laden, his work in transforming the teams on and off the pitch, especially at Eagles and Utrecht, has been acknowledged. All his achievements look even better if you consider that he has worked with limited budgets; he hasn’t had the luxury of making mistakes.
While it’s clear that ten Hag is a first-rate training-field manager with the potential to lead a big club, it’s less clear whether he is a natural fit at United. Will the club allow him the control of transfer business and patience that he has asked for and needs to implement change?
Former United manager Louis van Gaal, who rates ten Hag highly, advised him to turn down the offer, terming the Red Devils “a commercial club”. Others have been even more damning in their criticism of United’s functioning. “The entire United structure is dysfunctional,” Jonathan Wilson wrote in Sports Illustrated. “He is clearly an exceptional coach. But at Ajax he has a very specific structure, something he will not have at United. He has asked United a series of questions about what precisely his role will be, and that could be a sticking point. [United] want still to be able to sign Cristiano Ronaldo on a marketing-driven whim and impose him on a manager.”
Then there are the players — many of them big-name superstars who, if reports are to be believed, haven’t always responded well to a firm hand at the wheel. Their lacklustre performance under Ralf Rangnick, known as a stickler for high standards, has been cited by pundits, including former United captain Roy Keane, as evidence that the players tend to “throw the manager under the bus” when they don’t like his methods.
Ten Hag has a reputation of being something of a control freak who imposes strict rules. He demands a lot from his players: tactical understanding, an appetite for video analysis and dietary discipline. “His great strength lies not just in his attention to detail and organisation,” former England manager Steve McClaren, who was once ten Hag’s boss at FC Twente, said in an interview. “He has a clear philosophy of how he wants to play football; the environment he wants to create. Erik is very disciplined and people have to buy into that and have that work ethic.”
Ten Hag isn’t an unfeeling taskmaster, however. Players ten Hag has coached speak of an empathetic aspect to all of his demands — he understands that he asks a lot of them but he does it with their best interests at heart. He also builds strong personal relationships with his players.
It remains to be seen whether he gets the ‘buy-in’ he needs inside United’s dressing room should he get the job. But if he does and if the club backs him in the transfer market, allowing him the time to rebuild, there is every chance Old Trafford will soon be basking in glory again.