Connect with us


Erik ten Hag’s delineated Manchester United project – what ACTUALLY happened in 2023/24



| Last Updated:


“It has to get worse before it gets better.”

These are words which rolled off the tongues of a significant section of the Manchester United fanbase towards the end of the disastrous 2021/22 season. There was a collective feeling that, similarly to rivals Arsenal, United would need to struggle before they could prosper again.

Erik ten Hag finishing third in his first season at the Old Trafford helm, an overachievement at the time and perhaps an even greater one in hindsight, largely eliminated this feeling. Which made the disaster of a season we just witnessed feel more shocking.

Read More: “Dangerous game…” Man United star warned against transfer problem by ex-Premier League goalkeeper

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking a great deal and having many private discussions with people whose opinions I value—all across the Ten Hag in/out spectrum—about what went wrong this season. I’ve also been reflecting on my own experience and learnings from my first season coaching football. In this, I intend to break down my thoughts and talk a bit about what I think the future will look like.

To give a brief overview, with a club project, you generally expect the first season to be more difficult as a coach fully implements his style before improvements are made in the second season and new players also come in. At United, it’s been different, as everything is here.

Ten Hag’s first season didn’t start well, and he realised he needed to adapt, especially since he did not have all the relevant personnel. He could have persisted with what he wanted early on, but patience is thinner in the Old Trafford air. He needed some credit in the bank, earned through results.

Whilst he continued to set United up in a possession-based framework, he adapted within this framework to give the side greater security and use their quality in offensive transitions to get results because they were not ready to fully execute what he wanted yet. All whilst trying to implement principles as time went on.

It is easy to forget that United had periods of the 2022/23 season when their possession play was very good, but reinforcements were clearly needed, and eventually, they’d need to make the jump to implement this fully.

That’s what this season was then about.

Before I get into this section I have to clarify, I disagreed with a lot of the decisions Ten Hag made this season. Those who have followed me across the season and spoken to me recently will know this. I wanted the structure out of possession adapted a lot earlier and wanted to see different things in possession – extending this slightly, I wanted different selection decisions made, too, ones I feel would have improved our possession play and reduced the need for directness due to the qualities they offered.

But the conclusion I’ve come to is that whilst exaggerated – it didn’t need to be quite as bad as it was, this season was a necessary evil. We can link this back to the opening statement uttered by many of the same people who will probably call me a Ten Hag apologist without properly reading this article.

This season, Ten Hag ripped up the roots and began laying the foundations for the future. He could have kept the tactical security that gave him success in his first season, but he knew that this had a shelf life, evidenced by the club’s cycle in recent years.

He had reasons for persisting with what he was doing even when it was not working, which he justified when speaking to Gary Neville in a recent Sky Sports interview. Key players such as Lisandro Martínez and Luke Shaw were injured, but eventually, they will return, and his preference was that when those returns do occur, a system is ready for them to slot straight into rather than having to change everything around again.

The way he has gone about this has been questionable. Some changes—such as adding a full back to the press—could have been made sooner, and some things could have been done differently. We can go on. But what is important to remember is that there’s a lot that we as fans on the outside don’t see and, quite frankly, don’t understand and aren’t able to while we remain on the outside.

One thing we do know, however, is that the structure at United has not been close to the standard you would expect of one of football’s greatest clubs for many years now. This has made Ten Hag’s job significantly harder and absolutely cannot be discounted in any discussion about his future.

Saying this does not remove blame from Ten Hag for what he has done wrong, within this structure he has made mistakes. Failing to consider it, however, creates an imbalanced analysis. Signings for example, Ten Hag made mistakes such as Antony. Casemiro had one of the best midfield seasons in recent years at Old Trafford in his opening season, but the signing always had a limited shelf life, and it has expired faster than some would have thought.

But the greater question should be, why did the manager have this power in the first place? The same was the case under the previous managers, too, all of whom had different visions of football and recruited relative to those visions, creating a mixed squad and lack of linearity in the recruitment processes at the club. At a point, it becomes irrational to focus on the manager rather than the lack of clear oversight and vision from those above the manager. United are perhaps the worst top club in football in this regard.

It is not just recruitment. United’s facilities are miles behind other clubs—something INEOS very quickly highlighted—and key departments such as sports science have been totally neglected. The club’s rotten culture begins from the top, and the manager can only do so much when working in such an environment.

Ten Hag inherited a squad whose technical and physical levels were far too low for Manchester United’s standards, and its mentality was not in the right place after many difficult years within this environment. His tactics this season were poor for large periods, but they’re the least of the concerns in this discussion because the aforementioned qualities inform tactics, not the other way around.

Whilst the squad had, and does have, quality, an argument many use against Ten Hag is that quality was not all compatible. A jigsaw with pieces that didn’t all match each other. With this, you’ll never form the full image. The lack of a left back for example, how do tactics fix this? They can only paper over the cracks, at some point you need a left back. Following the FA Cup final, Jonny Evans discussed how this negatively impacted United.

There have been some other arguments against Ten Hag which lack nuance. The argument about Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf previously playing in a high line for the club for example, not all high lines are the same. United now do not press in the same way they did in 2020/21. It is not enough to say, “These players did this,” without considering the context of those actions.

Many of the criticisms levelled at Ten Hag have been valid, though social communication is one of them. Some reports across the season and some moments in games have suggested players not fully understanding his team’s instructions —communication being one of the key traits INEOS wants in any manager. In the media, he can come across as awkward and doesn’t have the natural charisma possessed by someone such as Jürgen Klopp, who completely captured Liverpool’s fanbase.

At times, he can be late to react in games and not fully use his substitutes’ bench, even when players are tired within games. The ‘nice touch’ substitutes, bringing on academy players for their debuts with moments left of games, could have been more prevalent. Use of the academy, in general, has not always been as high as some fans would hope.

Working in Ten Hag’s favour with the academy is the style of play he has implemented throughout the club. He took responsibility for setting a style that would permeate all playing levels when he joined the club, and whilst the men’s team is a work in progress – what we see now is absolutely not what his end goal is – the club’s under-18 side perhaps exhibit what he wants best. Many feel that the academy stars have promising Old Trafford futures, something Ten Hag has contributed to.

Some understand that Ten Hag’s current actions do not align with his end goal, but they do not necessarily trust that the end goal is enough to return Manchester United to football’s peak. Others also understand this but feel that the way the 2023/24 season unfolded has made his position untenable. Neither of these stances is unfair at all.

To conclude, this season just gone was an absolute disaster, and Ten Hag has to hold a significant portion of the blame for that. But has his project actually gone backwards? I believe that the club is now in its best position since Louis van Gaal left—also following an FA Cup—to build something sustainable for the future, and INEOS’ arrival is a key part of that.

Ten Hag took difficult yet necessary steps to help shift the culture at the club and rip up the roots of a tree long-poisoned. The lack of structure meant he had to move in a nonlinear manner to do this, and whether he will be tasked with completing a rebuild inarguably began by him should depend on what INEOS want going forward.

If it is goodbye, then we should be glad that it ended on a positive note, and I feel that history will be kind to him however the next few years unfold.