Ten Hag Faces Challenges Establishing Authority at Manchester United

Ten Hag's Endurance at Manchester United: A Season of Contradictions and Controversies

by Faruk Imamovic
Ten Hag Faces Challenges Establishing Authority at Manchester United
© Getty Images/Jan Kruger

Manchester United’s 2023-24 season was marked by highs and lows, culminating in an FA Cup victory but overshadowed by an early Champions League exit and a disappointing eighth-place finish in the Premier League. This paradoxical campaign, led by Erik ten Hag, raised significant questions about the club’s future and the manager’s role within it. The decision to retain Ten Hag, following an intensive review by INEOS, sets the stage for crucial discussions on the way forward.

The Challenge of Establishing Authority

Ten Hag's appointment in the summer of 2022 came with a clear mandate: play attacking football, clean the dressing room, and win trophies. His previous success at Ajax, where he led the team to the Champions League semi-finals, set high expectations. However, implementing his footballing philosophy at United proved challenging.

Ten Hag’s principles of play required strict adherence to tactical discipline, a shift that some players resisted. High-profile players like Cristiano Ronaldo and later, Casemiro and Raphael Varane, struggled with the manager’s demands. Ronaldo’s reluctance to press, despite repeated coaching, was a significant point of contention. This resistance seemed to embolden other players, creating a faction that doubted Ten Hag’s methods.

The internal dynamics at Manchester United further complicated Ten Hag’s tenure. Reports of senior players preferring the coaching styles of Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane, which allowed for more freedom, contrasted sharply with Ten Hag’s structured approach. This preference highlighted a broader issue of player power at the club, which has historically undermined managerial authority.

Ten Hag’s attempts to instill discipline often met with mixed results. Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo responded positively to firm feedback, while others, like Jadon Sancho, clashed openly with the manager. Sancho’s public fallout with Ten Hag after being criticized for his training efforts was a notable incident. The manager’s decision to exile Sancho following his refusal to apologize privately illustrated the ongoing struggle to enforce discipline.

Tactical Adjustments and Recruitment Challenges

Throughout the season, Ten Hag faced persistent challenges with squad injuries and recruitment shortcomings. The delay in appointing a permanent club doctor exacerbated injury problems, leaving Ten Hag without a settled team for much of the campaign. The absences of key players like Lisandro Martinez and Luke Shaw severely hampered the team’s performance, especially in executing Ten Hag’s preferred high-press, high-intensity style.

Recruitment also posed significant hurdles. Ten Hag’s advocacy for a new striker saw mixed results, with the eventual signing of Rasmus Hojlund only partially addressing the team’s scoring woes. The failure to secure top targets like Harry Kane or Frenkie de Jong frustrated both the manager and players, who felt these additions could have transformed the team into title contenders.

Injuries have been a recurring theme, with numerous key players missing significant portions of the season. Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane, who formed a promising defensive partnership, were frequently unavailable, forcing Ten Hag to rely on less experienced or out-of-position players. This instability at the back undermined the team’s ability to build from the back, a cornerstone of Ten Hag’s tactical philosophy.

The lengthy delay in appointing Gary O’Driscoll as the club’s permanent doctor was another source of frustration. Ten Hag believed that having a trusted medical team in place from the start of the season could have mitigated some of the injury problems. Instead, the drawn-out process left the squad without consistent medical leadership, impacting player rehabilitation and availability.

Ten Hag
Ten Hag© Getty Images/Stu Forster

INEOS's Role and the Future

The involvement of INEOS introduced an additional layer of complexity. The company’s public exploration of managerial alternatives, including discussions with Thomas Tuchel and Roberto De Zerbi, cast a shadow over Ten Hag’s position. Despite this, retaining Ten Hag suggests a cautious approach from INEOS, recognizing the potential risks of further instability.

INEOS’s investment has brought both excitement and apprehension within the club. Their strategic vision, emphasizing "grit," "rigour," and "humour," aligns with the need for cultural and operational overhaul. However, Ten Hag’s future remains tied to his ability to adapt to this vision while maintaining control over the squad.

As Manchester United prepares for the upcoming season, the spotlight is firmly on Ten Hag and his capacity to navigate these complex dynamics. His new contract negotiations will likely address not only his tenure but also a possible reevaluation of his role. The manager’s insistence on strict adherence to tactical discipline, while balancing the diverse needs of his players, will be critical.

Ten Hag’s ability to foster a unified team spirit amidst ongoing changes and challenges will define his legacy at Manchester United. The integration of new players, managing existing ones, and adapting to the evolving expectations from INEOS will be pivotal.

Navigating Player Relations and Expectations

From the beginning, Ten Hag faced a daunting task in managing the diverse personalities within the squad. Marcus Rashford’s inconsistent form and off-field behavior were indicative of the broader challenges. Rashford’s nights out and subsequent disciplinary actions highlighted the delicate balance Ten Hag had to maintain between enforcing discipline and keeping morale high. Rashford's one-on-one meeting with Sir Dave Brailsford seemed to reinvigorate him, showing the potential benefits of personal engagement.

Rashford’s hiring of a new PR, Caroline McAteer, who works with Ronaldo, Sancho, and Varane, added another layer of complexity. The move, intended to shield Rashford from media scrutiny, also signaled a potential rift with Ten Hag. The manager's ability to manage such dynamics will be crucial in maintaining harmony within the squad.

Jadon Sancho’s situation further exemplified the difficulties Ten Hag faced. Known for his free-spirited nature, Sancho’s public disagreement with Ten Hag over training methods and his eventual exile from the squad underscored the friction between the manager’s rigid approach and the players’ need for autonomy.

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