Manchester United news: Does Erik ten Hag know what he’s let himself in for after rocky pre-season?
Erik ten Hag had a superficial confidence and joy when he met the press on Friday to discuss the start of the season that will define his professional career.
Football director John Murtough stuck his head in before it started checking that everything was in order and someone asked if he had hidden Frenkie de Jong, United’s summer-long transfer target, around the corner. Laughed everywhere.
This is how it is for the season. No one has lost games. And when there’s a new manager in charge, man’s propensity for optimism makes you think that it certainly can’t get as bad as it used to be.
Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag addresses the media on the eve of the new season
That was before questions about Ronaldo’s departure for last Sunday’s friendlies gave an irritable answer. “There were a lot of players who left, but the spotlight is on Cristiano and that’s not right,” said Ten Hag. “So do your research, there are still a lot of players left.”
This is the standard psychology of a manager’s press conference: an attempt to bend an extremely difficult personality problem by turning it into a common collective problem. Except this is Ronaldo, so unless United win every game from now until the end of the season, his name will come out at every press conference until his agent Jorge Mendes conjures up an acceptable move or United kick him out.
That exchange had the tone of the new teacher setting the law with a particularly lively group of 11th graders, the frowns interspersed with some levity, meant to hint that he could be the fun teacher if everyone just lined up and showed him respect.
He was asked about the obligation to attack and produce winning, attractive football. ‘You talk like a Dutchman!’ he said with a smile. “They always want to play brilliant football. That’s why I’m here and I like it. You want to win and you want to win in a certain way: proactive, brave, adventurous.
United’s preseason was dominated by Cristiano Ronaldo’s desire to leave the club
However, Ten Hag is convinced that he can bring progress and success to United’s supporters
“It’s part of the culture of Manchester United and we want to bring it in. But if you can’t win in a good way, in a nice way, you have to win in the end. That is the mentality, attitude, that we bring in.’
He also amused himself with the merry line of optimists everywhere when asked about United’s failure to develop their young players.
“Don’t look back, look ahead,” he said. “I see the potential with a lot of players and yes, I am convinced that I can develop the team. Then we will see individuals develop. I need to analyze [the past], that is clear, but now we have to move forward. You can’t change the past, but you can change the future.’
All of the above is true and yet David Brent could also be at his lightest. And at United, the past is always with you. Next year around this time it will be 10 years since Sir Alex Ferguson left and 10 years since United last won the title. That’s hardly a leap of faith. It is not even remotely audacious to confirm that United will not win the Premier League this season. The question in the game is whether it will be another 10 years before they take up the challenge again?
Ten Hag shares a discussion with Ronaldo during a practice match with Rayo Vallecano
The highlights of the past 10 years could fit into one of those 30-second TikTok clips beloved by social media gurus at United: Jose Mourinho’s 2017 Europa League/League Cup double (the tin-pot double); Louis van Gaal’s 2016 FA Cup win; and perhaps a short clip of the heady optimism sparked by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s comeback at Paris Saint-Germain.
United now live for the odd win over Manchester City and Liverpool and a top four finish. Leicester City have a more impressive trophy record over the past 10 years. In this battle comes Ten Hag, a great coach in the Netherlands who did wonders with Ajax and yet has not coached in a major European competition. United could counter that and neither could Ferguson in 1986.
And yet, to build success in a league that is far more competitive and developed than that Sir Alex had to conquer, you would want to give Ten Hag the best possible chance by meticulously preparing the ground for him. Leave no stone unturned. After all, it had been clear since March that this was United’s direction.
You could imagine that all the main protagonists would have been signed for the Asia/Australia tour. That the Ronaldo issue would be resolved somehow. That the team would be significantly better than last year around this time.
The end of this campaign marks 10 years since United under Sir Alex Ferguson last won the Premier League title – with the club going into decline in subsequent years
None of the above is true. Anthony Martial, rejected by Sevilla during his loan spell, was the biggest hope for the season until he got injured. Ten Hag would have made one thing clear when he was offered the job; he needed Frenkie de Jong, his former Ajax player, to be able to play in the style he wanted.
That was a complicated move, with United being stabbed in the past for overpaying and Barcelona withholding some of De Jong’s deferred wages so that the player cannot move until he is paid. And yet, if this was the most important transfer of the summer, it was up to CEO Richard Arnold and Murtough to pull it off. They have not yet done that and Scott McTominay and Fred cannot play from midfield as Ten Hag wants. Maybe Christian Eriksen will end up there.
The transfers made so far, Lisandro Martinez, Tyrell Malacia and Christian Eriksen, feel as if they are complementing the squad rather than changing the paradigm, although Eriksen may be inspired.
Ronaldo will remain a problem all season. Every exasperated sigh, every frown when leaving the field will be analyzed and, judging by Ten Hag’s reactions so far, the manager will become increasingly frustrated by that.
United have become frustrated this summer in their hunt for Frenkie de Jong . from Barcelona
And it’s actually not Ronaldo’s fault that he is the biggest beast in United’s jungle compared to owner Joel Glazer, CEO Richard Arnold and Ten Hag. It’s a situation Sir Alex never allowed to happen. That this situation exists is linked to United’s decline over the past nine years.
They again took over Ronaldo from a position of weakness and despair and in the 13 years since he left Old Trafford, the player had grown into a phenomenon almost as great as the club itself and a figure far more powerful than the manager. That never ends well.
On Friday, you couldn’t help but remember that another optimistic manager walked into these press conferences nine years ago with the same confidence and intention. He too had not been tried at this level, due to hesitation in the summer transfer market, in vain in hopes that Barcelona would sell them Cesc Fabregas. His big asset for the new season ended up being Marouane Fellaini, one of his former players.
Watching Ten Hag on Friday it was hard not to be reminded of David Moyes, a good man and a fine coach eaten up by what United have become.
It has taken Moyes nearly 10 years to restore his reputation from the United experience. You hope for better for Ten Hag. Yet you fear the worst.