Perhaps the ink isn’t dry, but it sure feels like current Ajax manager Erik Ten Hag is going to be leaving for Old Trafford after this season. Which is funny as all the reports of his hiring started spilling out just hours after SI made it pretty clear that the Man United board wasn’t exactly blown away by his interview. That’s how quickly things can change in soccer, and especially at United where the winds shift by the hour, new destinations and routes are declared as often, and everything remains exactly where it was to start with.
Ten Hag certainly comes with an exciting resume, if not a particularly full one. He’s only been a “top flight” manager for four seasons, and that’s what your mileage is on the Eredivisie as a top flight league. Ajax are for sure one of the leading clubs in the world, but a lot of that is based on its history. Their flameout to Benfica in the Champions League Round of 16 last month certainly didn’t help Ten Hag’s rep, especially after the way they blitzed the group stages.
Still, Ten Hag has been able to fashion two different Ajax teams that have rolled over the competition in Holland and made at least a splash in Europe. His 2018-2019 team that stormed to the Champions League semifinals and were a second half collapse away from the final won over just about every neutral fan. That team contained Matthijs De Ligt, Frenkie De John, Hakim Ziyech, and Donny van de Beek, who all left Ajax and have found various success in bigger leagues. Ten Hag was able to recover from those departures and fashion this current squad that has some more exciting youngsters like Ryan Gravenberch and Antony. But this one is more about the rehabbed vets like Sebastien Haller, who washed out at West Ham but can’t stop scoring for Ajax. Or Dušan Tadić, who spans both of Ten Hag’s Ajax teams. Or Steven Berghuis, a purchase from Feyenoord this past summer.
And perhaps that’s part of the appeal for Man United. The squad now certainly doesn’t lack for talent level, it’s just mashed together with no cohesive plan like a toddler’s legos. Even if Paul Pogba is destined to high-tail it out of there this summer, and he most likely is, there’s plenty of projects for Ten Hag to try and rehash. Marcus Rashford (see what I did there?) would probably be top of the list. If van de Beek returns from his loan spell at Everton, he would be a candidate. Harry Maguire could use a complete refurb.
But it’s the same old question for United and whoever is managing. Ten Hag unquestionably benefitted from Ajax’s unmatched development system, and all those players that were the crux of the 2019 team were already there when Ten Hag was hired. Where is this at United? Is Ten Hag in charge of transfers? Is it still the committee of circus clowns that have put together this squad that no one can make sense of? Who’s in charge of the plan, if there is one?
And what has been the debate since Ralf Ragnick came in the middle of this season, Ten Hag wants to play a system that involves counter pressing and a high defensive line. That high defensive line has turned Maguire’s career into a Benny Hill episode. Are they planning to find a new central defender? Two? Work with this one?
What’s curious is that the original SI report that had United cooling on Ten Hag was his assertion of a five-year plan to rebuild the team. That actually makes some sense, as the only young players you could make an argument for being part of a great team down the road are Rashford (and he’ll need some help) and Jadon Sancho. Everyone else is nearer 30 than you’d like (Fernandes, Maguire, Fred), not all that good (McTominay, Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof), or soon to be in prison (Mason Greenwood). It’s not much of a leap to say this squad needs a total overhaul, and not one that can be done in just a summer or two.
So on the one hand, five seasons to be a true power sounds right. But if the United hierarchy still have hopes of making chicken salad out of the various levels of fowl excrement that’s on hand, five years is going to sound like an awful long time. Again, we have no idea which is the path the club wants to walk. They likely don’t either.
Even if Ten Hag can maximize what’s on hand, the team would still need a linchpin central striker and holding midfielder. Rumors of Harry Kane coming are just more of the same shortsightedness of United, as he also is getting awfully close to 30. Ten Hag can get more out of this team than Ragnick could simply by being the permanent manager, but how much? And again, what’s adding to it?
It’s strange that the reports say United were scared off of Mauricio Pochettino due to the cost of getting him out of the last year of his contract at PSG. Now United is worried about spending? Any worry about Pochettino being unable to corral the egos and deficiencies of the PSG team should be allayed by the fact that no one else has been able to either. Thomas Tuchel couldn’t, and United would be very happy to have Tuchel’s record at Chelsea right now. Pochettino also has a proven Premier League track record at two clubs, and Ten Hag very much doesn’t. While Ten Hag is certainly an explainable and acceptable choice, there are echoes of United cheaping out again here.
So has Ten Hag’s plan changed? Or are United finally willing to be patient and adhere to a coherent plan? It’s hard to fathom that United’s board are willing to accept no Champions League play for a couple years on end, which given Arsenal’s resurgence and the host of clubs that are taking aim on joining the aristocracy can make that a real possibility while United restructure.
There are reasons to believe Ten Hag will be a success. But there are just enough to make you think it’s still business as usual at Old Trafford, meaning more inertia.