How Erik ten Hag is rebuilding Manchester United
"A coach can't perform magic."
This is how Erik ten Hag defined football coaching in an interview back in 2020. That 16-minute interview gave fans an intimate tour of the philosophies of this suave Dutchman, which emphasised on patience.
Taking over the Manchester United hot seat after the club's disastrous 2021/22 season, few expected ten Hag to come good, especially after the nadir at Brentford. Fast forward a few months, and Manchester United now find themselves as the only top-five Premier League team fighting on all fronts.
All this wouldn't have been possible without belief. Ten Hag recognised the talent he inherited, which only needed a bit of confidence to get firing on all cylinders. He reinstated the spirit and belief that United lacked since Ole Gunnar Solskjær's heyday. In the games we played this season, no player lacked commitment, mingling blood, sweat, and tears for the badge.
For a team lacking identity, ten Hag has done an amazing job of selling his vision to the players. After United's stunning comeback over Barcelona in the UEFA Europa League (UEL) knockout stages, ten Hag set the record straight regarding his tactics, which demand dynamism, energy, speed, and fluidity from his players.
Surely enough, United's best performances this season featured them completely dominating their opponents. Early season encounters against Liverpool and Arsenal set the tone for things to come. The dominant and mesmerising performances and comebacks against Spurs, derby win against City in January, and defeating Barcelona in the UEL will live long in our memories. Even the 6-3 derby mauling in October proved to be positive, as ten Hag learnt from his mistakes and evolved his game.
Ten Hag also deserves credit for how he asserted himself in the dressing room. This was clear when he didn't hesitate to bench team captain Harry Maguire for his poor form. Although ridiculed at first, his running 13.4 km with the players a day after the Brentford defeat also showed that he is there with his players as a true leader.
His handling of young talents, especially the mercurial Alejandro Garnacho, should be a benchmark for all coaches. But nothing tops ten Hag's treatment of Cristiano Ronaldo. The coolness with which he handled the Ronaldo situation cemented his control over the dressing room.
Some might argue this high is only temporary. Shrewdly enough, ten Hag has made sure this won't be the case. It remains to be seen how much he is backed this summer under new ownership, but his coaching appointments scream long-term sustainability.
Ten Hag's hiring of certain people for his coaching staff, including Sir Alex's treble-winning assistant Steve McLaren, supported the instilling of his Cruyffian principles. Such appointments also helped transform a few careers. Fred, Bruno Fernandes, and Luke Shaw have been revitalised this season. The perennially underperforming Diogo Dalot and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have started to realise their potential. Even Anthony Martial performs brilliantly when injury-free.
Additionally, the appointment of Benni McCarthy as a first-team coach has been a masterstroke. Working one-on-one with McCarthy, Marcus Rashford has become the complete attacker he promised to be. With Sancho following the same path, fans will hope the outcome is the same.
Ten Hag's treatment of underperforming players also deserves acclaim. Ten Hag understood his players needed affection and support, and he obliged.
He also repaired the relationship between players and the fans. Immersing himself into United's helm, ten Hag realised how important the fans are. Now, backed by the electric crowd, Old Trafford is a fortress again.
As for the Manchester United fanbase, it is starting to dream once again.
1. The Telegraph. 21 February 2023. The Erik ten Hag masterstrokes that have thrust Manchester United back into the title race.
2. Sky Sports. 14 January 2023. Marcus Rashford: How Man Utd forward got his Old Trafford career back on track.
Inqiad is the CEO of Rashford FC. Contact him at [email protected]