Erik ten Hag, the latest mystery gift from United’s managerial lucky dip

Can the Dutch coach take an ailing celebrity club and make it function as a coherent unit?

New Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag. Photograph: Vincent Jannink/ANP/AFP via Getty

Welcome to Manchester, Erik. We've been expecting you. Here it comes at last, the latest rummage, the latest mystery gift from the Manchester United managerial lucky dip.

There is a game you can play with the managerial appointments of the post-Ferguson years. This is an appointment process so refined it has, to date, dished up five random, ill-fitting, hilariously oscillating selections in the course of the last decade.

At the end of which the fascination is not so much what the latest hopeful can do with Manchester United, but what Manchester United is going to do to him, what quality, what weakness, what blind spots will be picked out and magnified in that hard white light into something monstrous and cartoon-like.

David Moyes, who came in a little above his level, was recast by eight months in the job as a total imposter, some hollow-eyed passer-by with an empty briefcase on his desk. Ole Gunnar Solskjær, always a company hire, was transformed into a fawning yes-man, a gargoyle of the Old Trafford waxwork museum.


Ralf Rangnick’s weakness was always likely to be his remoteness. Processed through the Old Trafford hall of mirrors, Rangnick has become a kind of footballing Martian, a baffled-looking time traveller, the world’s worst Doctor Who.

Everyone has a plan until they’re made Manchester United manager. What will it do to Ten Hag?

And yet there is also hope here. This is by any reasonable standard a sensible appointment. Ten Hag is a talented coach and a man of substance.

For the first time since Alex Ferguson back in 1986, Manchester United have sourced a manager who is qualified on his record but also still on the rise in his own career. Ten Hag is agreeably serious. He has good influences. He seems state of the art in his ideas.

Father figure

Players have described him as a father figure and notably sympathetic one to one, essential qualities in a squad that appears to be teetering constantly on the verge of some kind of collective personality breakdown.

There have some whispers about Ten Hag's age, the slightly misleading sense that this is a young head coach (in fact Ten Hag would be the sixth-oldest manager in the Premier League if he took charge today).

There was a 10-year gap between retirement as a player and a first headline coaching job.

A good year at Go Ahead Eagles was followed by some stuff at Bayern Munich II, not exactly a talent pipeline (his predecessor Mehmet Scholl is a TV pundit; his successor is managing Borussia Mönchengladbach reserves).

Eventually, aged 47, Ten Hag took Utrecht into the Europa League. Two years on from there his Ajax team were beating Real Madrid 4-1 at the Bernabéu and that slow-burn trajectory was set.

Ten Hag has a reputation for promoting youth, for working to a specific 4-3-3 system, but those who know him say he will build around what he has. His current Ajax team has 10 regular outfield players. Six are 24 or younger. Three are over 30.

Jurrien Timber and Antony have already been fingered as likely recruits. But Ten Hag also values grizzled, plateauing old pros. In which case, old boy, you might just be in luck.

Cycle of mediocrity

The key task will be to break the cycle of mediocrity, to put a firewall between his own work and the layers of middle management inserted by the ownership. Rangnick has complained that United have technical players who are not physical, and physical players who are not technical.

But there is talent here. Football is a surprisingly simple business, the idea of deep-rooted character rot always a little overblown, a case of reacting to the theatre of defeat.

Two years of disciplined management, of stubbornness, of insisting on following his own process could inject even this ghost ship, this gothic mansion, with a little warmth, a sense of sharpened edges.

At which point, of course, reality must intrude. It isn’t hard to see why Ten Hag looks like an attractive option to the United board. As so often, this feels like a shortcut, a way of trying to reach a desirable end point without actually putting in the necessary work.

Here is a club that lacks method, structure, coherent culture. How do we solve that? How about tacking on the most visible part of Ajax, a club that has all of these things? Ten Hag’s success is of course an expression of that Ajax culture, not its essence or its key ingredient. Appointing him is in one sense another Rangnick: a process manager at a club that has no process; another doomed attempt by this hollowed-out robot replicant of a club to ape the human elements of a successful sporting culture.

By the same token, nothing on Ten Hag’s own resume says he has the capacity to take an ailing celebrity club, a kind of cocktail party for the disaffected A-lister, and make it function as a coherent unit. But then, who does? Zinedine Zidane? Gordon Ramsay? Volodymyr Zelenskiy?

If this feels like a deeply strange task at a deeply strange sporting entity, there is perhaps some comfort in the fact being Manchester United manager has always been difficult.

Only three managers have ever won the league at Manchester United. This is a club with 42 major trophies, 33 of them won by two men in two distinct spells. The pattern, if we can find one, is stasis, decline, crisis, revolution.

Matt Busby took a club that had been bombed into the dust by the Luftwaffe, Alex Ferguson a booze-addled ship without a league title in 26 years.

While the Glazer ownership is rightly reviled, the fact remains that part of that tricky Manchester United gravity has always been that sense of show, glitz, The Brand, an event-glamour that is a part of the club's sense of itself, from dapper Mr Busby to David Beckham flopping his hair in the August sunshine.

The Glazers have taken this to its grisly extreme. What we have here is the debauched, late-capitalism version, all human elements subsumed by the urge to sell that brand, to hammer it until it breaks.

It is hard not to wish Ten Hag well in this environment, to hope that out of his basic footballing virtues, a culture of care and detail and collectivism, something coherent can arise.

Right now, though, the fear is more what this club might do to him over the next three years. – Guardian