None of the top four would swap their boss for Erik ten Hag – he must prove them wrong
Erik Ten Hag faces four major problems upon taking over at Manchester United. Their names are Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and Antonio Conte.
No matter how good Ten Hag is or proves to be at Old Trafford, he must take on and beat the best coaches in the world. That is tough enough without having to start afresh with a squad overhaul.
For all the excitement at another United rebuild, the reality is none of those currently occupying the top four would swap their coach for Ten Hag.
The Dutchman must also reverse another worrying United trend. The club has become a graveyard for managers and players. Since Alex Ferguson retired, no-one has gone there and improved their reputation.
Ten Hag must overcome a weight of history which some of the most accomplished coaches of this and previous generations have found unbearable. The United job chews up coaches in a way it does not at their European and domestic rivals.
Since Matt Busby took over at United in 1945, he and Ferguson are the only two managers to win a league title or European Cup.
In Europe, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich have proven adept at winning big under different managers.
In England, three Manchester City coaches have won the title in the last 10 years. Chelsea have regularly replaced their coach and still won everything. Four Liverpool managers since Bill Shankly have won the championship, and some who narrowly missed out like Gerard Houllier and Rafael Benitez won European honours.
What United are going through now is exactly as it was between 1969 and Ferguson’s appointment in 1986, when they could not find the right man to build upon Busby’s legacy.
David Moyes, Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal are top coaches. But Moyes struggled with the burden of overseeing a post-Ferguson transition, while Mourinho and Van Gaal were past their prime when they arrived.
Ten Hag’s appointment smacks of returning to the idea behind taking Moyes from Everton in 2013 – a coach who has proven himself at getting the best out of players with more limited resources.
There is a serious problem in and around the club when so many personnel have come and gone having failed to meet expectations. That is the Glazers’ fault. They do not have the best in class in executive roles.
Ten Hag’s immediate challenge is to assess why such massive investment in the team has not produced the necessary results. I understand the fans’ fury about the Glazers and why they want them out. That is no excuse for the players’ massive underperformance considering this is one of the most expensively assembled squads in world football and a lot of those players are earning in excess of £250k a week.
It is hard to think of any United purchase of the last nine years who has improved since arriving at Old Trafford. Even those who made an encouraging start have gone backwards.
When Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Jadon Sancho joined United, there was a sense the club was going in the right direction with young English talent. Now they look terrified to play at Old Trafford.
If I was Declan Rice or Jude Bellingham observing their England team-mates’ troubles – unless my motivation was a big payday – I would run a mile if United called.
United’s players have been the big financial winners off the pitch in the post-Ferguson era while the team has delivered sub-standard displays on it. Do you really think those players receiving those massive cheques sit in the dressing room discussing how bad the Glazers are for the club? Nonsense.
But for all the negatives, Ten Hag has plenty in his favour, too. None of his immediate predecessors have taken over with the club at such a low ebb. The only way is up.
Watching at Anfield in midweek, it struck me that Liverpool’s 9-0 aggregate scoreline this season was United’s ‘white suits final’ moment.
Throughout Liverpool’s prolonged wait to restore its former glories, nothing tainted the club’s reputation more than the 1996 FA Cup final against United. Neutrals watched in bemusement as United’s title winners turned up in their black suits, ready for business, while the Liverpool players had struck a deal with Armani to make the most notorious fashion faux pas in Wembley history.
While United were seen as the team of substance, Liverpool were accused of being more about image. Now roles are reversed. And like then, the two recent league games at Old Trafford and Anfield will be spoken about for years to come.
Liverpool needed the kind of cultural reset which Ten Hag must oversee. But if people think he has taken the job because he knows the prediction that it could take as long as five or six years to catch Liverpool or City is rubbish. At clubs of United’s stature, if you make the right appointment – and you sign the right players to strengthen the spine of your team – the mood changes quickly.
Top managers will turn it around within two years. That’s what Klopp did. It is a myth that it took him five years to revive Anfield. Liverpool reached the Champions League final at the end of his second full season in charge, and the team was as bad as United right now when he took over. That is the influence of a truly great manager.
Klopp did not do that by engaging in transfer auctions for the most expensive players. He initially made strides by signing players from Schalke, Newcastle, Southampton and Hull, and formulating a distinctive, modern style.
Ten Hag has the advantage of being able to compete at the top end of the transfer market if he wants to.
We will know soon enough if his name is worthy of being referenced alongside those at the top of the Premier League. No matter how far behind United are today, and how daunting the challenge, Ten Hag knows he has a chance because of this: given their size and resources, this is not an impossible job. There is never a bad time to become the Manchester United manager.
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