Can Ten Hag turn it around at Old Trafford?

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Every season there are at least three Premier League managers who seem to be one defeat away from getting their marching orders. Unfortunately for him, Manchester United’s Erik ten Hag seems to be top of the list at the moment.

Brought in to steady the Manchester United ship in April 2022 it seems reasonably likely that, unless he manages a remarkable turnaround, he won’t see out his entire three year contract.

Initially, he was exactly what the owners and fans wanted. Following a rocky start – United lost the first game under him 2-1 to Brighton and Hove Albion – he soon found his feet. By January 2023 he had become the fastest manager to achieve 20 victories for United. In February he led the team to their first trophy win in six years, defeating Newcastle 2-0 in the EFL Cup Final.

But perhaps the warning signs were already appearing that his luck might be running out when the team suffered a shattering 7-0 defeat by arch rivals Liverpool in the next game of the season.

What’s gone wrong this season?

Bad as this was, it was only a preparation for what has lain ahead of the team in the 2023-24 season.

With around a quarter of the season gone, United stand in 8th place in the Premier League, have been knocked out of the Carabao Cup and their progress in the Champions League seems uncertain to say the least.

Their performances have been erratic with questionable tactics with many of the leading players failing to play to their full potential. This has also been having an effect on the betting odds for the team. Where once they could have been wagered on to succeed, now it’s very much headed in the very opposite direction.

Nor has the ongoing question of the ownership of the club helped except in generating uncertainty in fans and players alike. This may have had a definite effect on the lack of confidence and confusion that shouldn’t really be an issue for footballers at one of the biggest and most famous teams in the world.

In ten Hag’s defence

While it’s traditional to place 90% of the blame for a failing football team on the manager’s shoulders, this isn’t totally fair to ten Hag.

One of his biggest problems this season has been the number of injuries that have dogged the team.

For example England international Luke Shaw has been sidelined with a muscle problem sustained back in August and, according to official announcements “is working his way back to full fitness”.

Following foot surgery Lisandro Martinez isn’t due to be ready to play again till January – and it gets even worse. In the Carabao Cup game against Newcastle United, which the Red Devils lost 3-0, Casemiro sustained a hamstring injury which is set to keep him out of the team for “an extended period”.

As is often the case when teams are not performing well, this has also started showing itself as a divided team – Manchester disunited in fact. Any manager will know that when they’ve lost the respect of their players it’s very hard to regain it.

But, as ten Hag has underlined recently, he has enjoyed great success in the past, both at Ajax and last season with United and he’s confident that it’s not too late to turn things around.

As he told the press conference following the Newcastle United defeat, ‘. . . I am a fighter. I know it is not always going up and we have a lot of setbacks this season so far, but also you have to deal with it and that is never an excuse’.

The steps being taken

Ten Hag has pronounced on more than one occasion what faith he has in his players. So he believes that talking through the issues with them will have an immediate effect on the pitch. This is why he has reportedly been holding in-depth one-to-one sessions with them in order to iron out any issues that they have.

He has also expressed confidence that, once the injury list is shorter, he will be back to having a full-strength squad to choose from.

The question of the future ownership of the club is another issue that seems to be approaching a conclusion with Sir Jim Ratcliffe not just likely to take a 25% stake in the club, but also to invest $300 million club. While this won’t buy more players – it’s intended to be spent in infrastructure improvements – it should help to build morale generally.

So it really will be time for ten Hag to demonstrate whether he can walk the walk or just talk the talk. And there are millions of fans all round the world who will be hoping that it’s the former that’s the case.

About the author 

Grayson Bryce-Thompson

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