Manchester United and Erik Ten Hag – Standing, but on Flimsy Foundations

After weeks of deliberation, Manchester United’s new sporting owners have made a call about their men’s first team managerial position; Erik ten Hag stays.

Erik ten Hag
Artwork by Charbak Dipta

Yes, two trophies in two seasons makes for quite the narrative for this fallen-giant, waterfall-boasting circus of a footballing institution, but with United entering the off-season on the back of their lowest Premier League finish in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, can we really say that one good underdog performance is worth ignoring the other dross?

It’s not. Like the last Dutch manager before him who won the FA Cup at Old Trafford, Ten Hag would—many would say, should—have been dismissed after the season gone by in another time. This time, however, his cup lift has arrived timely with a strike of fortune that sees United sticking with him not because they want to, but because they have to.

An organisation of the size and ambitions of Man United ought to have a succession plan in place for these managerial roles. But given this is modern-day Man United, under a new ownership no less, you better believe there is no such thing.

Not for the lack of trying, however. This is a reputation-laundering project for Sir Jim Ratcliffe and INEOS as well, and they want the fans on side. Having made promises of making football-savvy decisions, they are trying to go about things the right way, having roped in some promising names to fix that hollow shell of United’s sporting hierarchy we have all come to love to take the mick out of. Jason Wilcox (technical director) has arrived from Southampton and Omar Berrada (CEO) from Man City—not bad for a club known to have no plans in place.

United remain without a sporting director, however, and are willing to wait out for Dan Ashworth, who is currently put on gardening leave by Newcastle United as they try to negotiate a compensation fee. This is a problem.

The sporting directorship is tasked with setting up the coaching structure at a club as they see fit to maximise the results governed by the ownership’s ambitions. With such a seat vacant, United cannot bring in a new manager on the back of a “long-term” promise—a concept already too hollow these days.

Also, it is not certain that Man United will be able to get Ashworth at all, for recent email leaks indicate conversations between him and Berrada, back when they were supposed to be carrying out their respective duties at Newcastle and Man City, that could land everyone in a bit of trouble.

Liverpool have their hierarchy sorted out and have brought in Arne Slot as Jürgen Klopp’s replacement and brought Michael Edwards back as their CEO of Football. Chelsea, despite their caprice, are ahead in terms of preparation for next season after locking in Enzo Maresca as Mauricio Pochettino’s successor and signing defender Tosin Adarabioyo on a free. Spurs are looking to back Ange Postecoglou further after a promising season in their pursuit of Champions League football and silverware. Man City and Arsenal, as has been the case over the past two seasons, remain at the top not only in terms of football but also their structure as they strive to become ever stronger, with Aston Villa and Newcastle United being the recent forces looking ever more potent with their respective regimes.

These are the clubs operating at the level Man United aim to return to. These are clubs Man United have to challenge. Maybe their plans won’t work out that well in reality, but the fact remains that, on paper, every single one of these clubs is better-placed than Man United in terms of preparation for next season.

So, Man United find themselves ill-positioned to make a proper change and still lacking a footballing structure to bring about a sense of club identity, and if they thus have to wait a while anyway, why uproot the existing setup without giving it a chance and, in turn, themselves more time?

Make no mistake: United are going into yet another transition season in 2024/25, under a manager they would rather not have and amidst a tricky directorial hump in the road they were hoping to have crossed a while ago.

This does, however, give Ten Hag a chance to try to offer a bit more clarity by virtue of his football on the pitch in contrast to the denial he has been offering off it, for he is the only one who has looked at this United side in the last 12 months and claimed to be knowing what’s going on.

If it doesn’t work out, United can then always sack Ten Hag mid-season to find a short-term solution for the remainder of the campaign; like I said, keeping him buys them time.

Ten Hag is entering the last year of his United contract, but talks are reportedly underway over an extension. Extending the contract of a manager they would have sacked in a different time is, for my money, worse than extending the contract of Ole Gunnar Solskjær—both being the cases where an extension was neither needed nor merited.

Last time round, United handed an extension to a manager to whom they should never have given the full-time job in the first place. This time, one hopes that the new ownership learns from the mistakes of the past and stops repeating it while there’s still time in this yet-another-new-dawn chapter in the club’s history.

One thing is for certain, however: Ten Hag will leave Manchester United at some point, and when he does, he will leave a successful manager. That is, if the same parameters are used to measure his time that were employed to measure Solskjær’s. After all, the Norwegian remains the only United manager since 2013 to have delivered the Red Devils back-to-back top four finishes in the league, but you don’t get any trophies for that, of course, which Ten Hag now boasts two and can thus disappear behind the Old Trafford waterfall graciously whenever he takes his last bow.