Why Erik Ten Hag is not the right man to take Manchester United forward

Tomos Millward

For some, Erik Ten Hag’s demise at Manchester United has been clear since the end of last season. Whilst the ever-ready excuse of off-field issues has gained more significance through the announcement of a sale to Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Ten Hag’s work has still fallen well short of the mark one of the world’s most prestigious clubs should be demanding. Tomos Millward examines the case against Ten Hag and why, at this rate, his sacking seems inevitable. It shall touch on a plethora of issues including: style of play, or lack of, his poor recruitment, embarrassing performances, and media illiteracy.

Although Ten Hag’s shortcomings have been near-universal and encompass much of United’s past couple of years, their recent performance against Everton provides us with a microcosm through which to view the Manchester club’s issues. On the surface, this may seem a baffling statement given United’s 3-0 win away at Goodison Park under tough circumstances, but their performance is indicative of wider issues and continued papering-over-the-cracks happening at the club.

United failed to dominate possession of the ball, created less than their opponents, and put on a general showing far too similar to Everton, a club expected to fight a relegation battle, as they should be. This can be seen through their 49.4% possession, 9 shots to Everton’s 24, and 2.2 expected goals to Everton’s 2.5. This shows us one of Ten Hag’s biggest issues, simply put, his team’s performances. However, we would be doing the Dutchman a disservice if this was the only charge levelled against him. 


Following United’s 3-0 loss to City, Ten Hag was asked if his United team will ever play the same way as his Ajax team did. He said: “Never. We will never play that football here because those were different players … the players you have determine how you will play. We are playing different football than I showed at Ajax. That will have to be the case because I can’t play the same way here.”  

This is a shocking admission from Ten Hag. Rewind to just before his appointment and we were told United would undergo a ‘revolution’ and that the former-Ajax boss would bring his ‘Cruyffian’ football to Old Trafford and rebuild the club to rival the dominance of Manchester City, Liverpool, and more recently, Arsenal.

One of the most significant aspects when rebuilding a top club is playing style, as this is the only surefire way to guarantee, and plan for, long-term success

One of the most significant aspects when rebuilding a top club is playing style, as this is the only surefire way to guarantee, and plan for, long-term success. In fairness to Ten Hag, he did try. For two games, an opening day loss to Brighton at Old Trafford and a 4-0 embarrassment at Brentford. Against Brentford, David De Gea hit seven launched passes, a pass that travels more than 40 yards, compared with 29 launched passes in the following game against Liverpool.

Whilst being more direct has become a key tenet of elite sides, such as Manchester City who are now able to beat the opposition’s press by launching passes to Erling Haaland, Ten Hag’s instant willingness to abandon his principles after just two matches in charge was worrying. This points to a profound lack of conviction and a bending to the pressure of immediate results.

However, playing style is just as, if not more, important when rebuilding a team as results. Embedding a successful and distinct style based around press resistance, heavy possession, and a potent attack is the only way to keep fans onside when results are not going as expected, see Arteta’s Arsenal only a couple of seasons ago, and leads to a more sustainable and successful final result.

The game against Everton is once again an effective microcosm of Ten Hag’s failings

Ten Hag’s other playing style issue aside from this profound weakness and lack of conviction, is his inability to form a coherent style this far into his tenure at United. United are still far too reliant on moments of skill from individual players rather than appearing as a well-coached team with a clear style of play.

The game against Everton is once again an effective microcosm of Ten Hag’s failings, with Alejandro Garnacho’s bicycle kick, a penalty from Marcus Rashford, and a moment of composure inherent to Anthony Martial allowing United to appear far more comfortable than they actually were.

Not only is a lack of a coherent playing style an issue, but United’s style for this season has inherent weaknesses. During preseason Ten Hag stated: “We really looked into the history of Manchester United and we really looked also into the qualities of our players … and then you can say, so what do we want to be? That is, we want to be the best transition team in the world.”

This quotation is interesting. Whilst becoming the best transition team in the world is an understandable aim, the emphasis that Ten Hag places on this is mistaken. To become a top team in modern football teams have to follow a similar structure of high pressing, dominating possession, and consistently creating high-xG chances.

Whilst there can be huge variations across how teams are able to achieve this, the overall idea is the same. Ten Hag’s decision to rely on direct play, counter-attacks, and transitions is directly opposed to this and cannot bring long-term success. This is why, even if Ten Hag does achieve this, he will fail to restore United to the heights their fans demand.

What’s worse is that Ten Hag hasn’t even been able to achieve this style of play, with United often appearing ineffective and tame with no style of play or coaching patterns emerging. This is especially worrying given the time Ten Hag has been at United and how very little of his coaching ability has been shown on the pitch.

The Dutchman has spent just under £400 million on new recruits

Ten Hag’s recruitment policy is also deserving of substantial criticism and has both contributed and highlighted his lack of tactical principles and cohesion. The Dutchman has spent just under £400 million on new recruits. There are two major issues with Ten Hag’s recruitments, these being the abject failure of many of them (especially when considering the substantial fees paid) and the lack of cohesion between the windows.

Ten Hag initially brought in players he was closely associated with, paying €15m for full-back Tyrell Malacia from Feyenoord, €57m for Lisandro Martinex, €70m for Casemiro, and €95m for Antony. The fact that two of these players previously worked under Ten Hag and Malacia was from the Eredivisie clearly shows that Ten Hag had significant, if not total, control over transfers. These were, put frankly, an abysmal collection of signings.

Malacia is yet to play a game this season due to injury and has far from set the world alight when he has played. Paying such an outrageous sum for a now 31-year-old Casemiro and putting him on an extortionate wage packages has laid the foundations for a showdown in the future with United hoping Saudi Arabia can save them. Martinez, whilst initially ridiculed for his diminutive stature, has shown himself to be an astute defender and extremely technically proficient. Whilst Ten Hag’s decision to play him as a centre back instead of full back can be questioned, his signing cannot be.

As for Antony, calling the Brazilian the worst pound-for-pound signing in football history is a drastic understatement. It is hard to remain level-headed when criticising Antony, such is the level of animosity and sheer frustration he brings out. A measly 4 goals and 2 assists in 36 Premier League games aside, he is a player with no discernible strengths. He cannot score, assist, beat his man, or be productive on any level on a football pitch.

Not only do these signings clearly point to Ten Hag’s recruitment flaws, but they also point to a desire to play in a similar vein to his Ajax team. Why else would he spend such a vast amount on two players from his previous side?

The problem arises, as we have seen, when he immediately switched away from this system after just two games in charge. United’s signings this summer also point to a departure from this system. The signings of Mason Mount and Rasmus Hojlund in particular point to a switch to this direct system, due to Mount’s direct passing and Hojlund’s ability to hold up the ball and make runs in-behind the defence.

This fluctuation from Ten Hag, accompanied by the abject failure of many of his signings, represents a disjointed and dysfunctional manager and backroom staff. All-in-all, Ten Hag’s recruitment policy has seen exorbitant wastes of money, a stop-gap policy exhibited in the Casemiro signing, and a disjointed approach from one window to the next.

Erik Ten Hag has also overseen some embarrassing Manchester United performances and has faced minimal consequences, a crime that should not go unpunished at a club as large as Manchester United. These losses include:

  • FC Copenhagen 4-3 A
  • Manchester City 3-0 H
  • Galatasaray 3-2 H
  • Arsenal 3-1 A
  • Liverpool 7-0 A
  • Manchester City 6-3 A
  • Brentford 4-0 A

These results, especially against rivals such as Liverpool, Manchester City, and Arsenal, are significant blemishes on Ten Hag’s already questionable record. The way he has handled the aftermaths of these games, especially the loss at Anfield, has made a mockery of his supposed desire for harsh punishments and strict discipline and has once again exposed a weak side to him that makes him unsuitable to be a manager at this high level.

This has been a constant theme with the former-Ajax manager. His imposition of harsh punishments for disciplinary issues, seen most clearly through Jadon Sancho’s banishment from United’s squad since 26th August, has not been imposed in a fair and meritocratic manner.

It is impossible to know whether this punishment is fair, with Ten Hag citing poor performances in training and Sancho calling himself a scapegoat, but it is clear that Ten Hag only employs these harsh punishments on varying occasions.

Whilst he has come down exceptionally hard on Ronaldo and Sancho, he has persevered with an out-of-form Antony, unacceptable choice of captain in Bruno Fernandes, and a lazy and self-entitled Marcus Rashford. This would certainly give credence to Sancho’s claims that he has been scapegoated and once again highlights a weak and incompetent side of the Manchester United manager.

Ten Hag is too afraid to go against his marquee signing and favourite Antony and, in a move again highlighting his desire for short-term stopgaps and results, refuses to discipline Fernandes and Rashford who have been two of United’s most significant players. Ten Hag’s stream of incompetence and weakness runs right the way through his tenure at United.

Whilst it may seem a small detail, a manager’s interactions with the press can provide a significant insight into their personality and temperament and is an important part of being a manager and not just a Head Coach

Ten Hag’s media presence has also been a source of scrutiny. Whilst it may seem a small detail, a manager’s interactions with the press can provide a significant insight into their personality and temperament and is an important part of being a manager and not just a Head Coach.

Across the course of his career at United, Ten Hag has displayed a shocking inability to communicate effectively with the media and, put bluntly, a drastic detachment from the reality of his team’s performances. Whilst it is difficult to accept responsibility and excuse poor showings, especially those listed above, many of the world’s best managers are able to deflect media scrutiny without calling into question their managerial abilities or throwing their players under the bus.

It takes a manager of great ability to also accept responsibility for his team’s failings and cover for his players, something Ten Hag has been unable to do. If we compare the Dutchman’s response to United’s recent loss at Newcastle to previous responses from Mikel Arteta, a manager who at the time of these comments was in a similar position to the one Ten Hag is currently in, a stark and worrying contrast emerges.

Following Arsenal’s 1-0 Home defeat to Burnley in December 2020 and the club’s worst start to a Premier League season for almost 50 years, Mikel Arteta managed to accept responsibility, remain defiant, and shield his players from criticism in the media. He stated: “When you’re not getting results at the end of the day it’s the manager who has the maximum responsibility to get them. This football club is too big to accept this many losses in the past few weeks. My chest is here so hit me guys!”

This is a perfect example of a manager under pressure and underperforming accepting the mistakes he has made and taking responsibility without undermining either his players or himself.

Ten Hag was quick to make excuses following United’s defeat to Newcastle, stating: “We have seen good performances in the week against Everton, against Galatasaray … if you have so many games in a short period you can have also a less good performance and now we have to pick this up.”

His detachment from the reality of his side’s performances and deflection of blame are two worrying media traits that United fans should be concerned about. Observing the two games he references, Everton and Galatasaray, there is nothing praiseworthy to be found in these performances.

Yes, Garnacho, Fernandes, and Martial had individual moments of brilliance, but this is unsustainable without effective team performances, which these two matches lacked. Across both games United performed poorly.

Against Galatasaray they only had 42% possession and won the xG battle unconvincingly 2.09 against 1.5. Against Everton, possession was evenly split but they conceded 24 shots and only had 4 shots on target, with 3 being the goals. These goals consisting of a penalty and two moments of individual brilliance further go to show their struggles to create from open play.

In short, these were not performances to be proud of and Ten Hag’s benchmarking of them as examples of ‘good performances’. Whether Ten Hag truly believes his side’s previous two performances were praiseworthy or if he is merely using this as a tactic to deflect from the defeat at Newcastle is insignificant as both point to deeper problems for the manager.

He is either so detached from footballing reality or, as previously highlighted in his shift away from his tactical principles, continues to show how mentally weak he truly is.

This weakness is compounded by his use of fixture congestion as an excuse which is in marked contrast to Arteta’s acceptance of blame and will only serve to reduce his reputation even further amongst his players, contemporaries, and fans.

Erik Ten Hag has presided over Manchester United in an incompetent, weak, and unsustainable manner. His failings have been widespread and significant. His inability to effectively coach any discernible style of play has led to United appearing lost and disorganised across his entire tenure, with this disorganisation also seen through his wasteful spending of transfer fees that lack overall cohesion or reasoning.

If anything, Ten Hag’s survival up to this point goes to show just how detached and incompetent the Glazer’s ownership is

More personal issues such as the way in which disciplinary punishments are imposed inconsistently and the Dutchman’s poor media handling that points to a lack of footballing understanding are bound to lead to his demise sooner rather than later.

If anything, Ten Hag’s survival up to this point goes to show just how detached and incompetent the Glazer’s ownership is. However, this is not the excuse for Ten Hag’s personal failings that many figures associated with the club believe it to be.

Funnily enough, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said it best: “But its not like a trophy will say that we’re back. No, it’s the gradual progression and the consistency of being top of the league, in and around there, and then add the odd trophy. Sometimes, a cup competition can hide the fact that you are still struggling a little bit.” Whilst a deeply flawed manager himself, it would appear Solskjaer understood the task Manchester United are facing more than the man they replaced him with.

Tomos Millward

Featured image courtesy of Nat Callaghan via Unsplash  Image use license found here.  No changes were made to this image.  

In article image 1 courtesy of @manchesterunited via  No changes were made to this image. 

In article image 2 courtesy of @manchesterunited via No changes were made to this image. 

In article image 3 courtesy of @manchesterunited via No changes were made to this image.

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