IAN LADYMAN: Erik ten Hag is at Manchester United to take a wrecking ball to all built in error
Under a grey Mancunian sky, Erik ten Hag became the sixth man in nine years to attempt to bring some sunshine back to Manchester United.
It will not be an easy task. The competition between modern Premier League heavyweights Liverpool and Manchester City has been built on a platform of previously unseen excellence.
United, meanwhile, have been allowed to plumb new modern depths.
Erik ten Hag has a big job ahead of him after his first press conference as a Man United boss
He will be looking to take a wrecking ball to what has been built at United in recent seasons
Ten Hag was at Crystal Palace to see United lose on Sunday. He arrived in Manchester on Monday just as City were preparing to parade their fourth league title in five years though the centre of town.
So United’s new manager knows the task at hand and as he starts work, on a three-year contract, the 52-year-old perhaps has little choice but to break it all down in to manageable pieces.
‘I think we are in need of a process and this is a start,’ he said with heavy tones of understatement.
Sitting before a strangely small group of journalists, this was an unveiling that looked and felt rather low-key and that was probably appropriate.
Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson’s title-winning squad of 2013 could not be persuaded to perform the same tricks for his successor David Moyes, each incumbent to follow has inherited an even bigger mess than the one before.
Ten Hag referenced last season’s second-place finish as proof that United have a better squad than many believe. But, deep down, he knows what everybody else knows. That was a fluke.
United earned 74 points last time round and that would have secured them fourth place this year. Still not good enough, but better for sure than the 58 points mustered from a season just finished that was split between Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick.
A look at the league table reveals all about Manchester United circa 2022. Just 16 wins from 38 games, 12 defeats and, perhaps most shocking of all for a club built on attacking football, a goal difference of precisely zero. The last time that any United team failed to register a positive in that particular column was 32 years ago.
Ten Hag spoke of his desires to get Man United back on terms with Man City and Liverpool
So Ten Hag knows he is not here to apply finesse or a gloss finish. He is here to take a wrecking ball to all that has been built in error over recent years.
Arriving after a title success in Holland with Ajax, Ten Hag has faltering English. Even in Dutch, he is no great orator.
His predecessor Rangnick sat in the same chair last November and over-promised.
He subsequently under-delivered to an extraordinary degree. There was no chance of the former on Monday but on certain topics, the Dutchman’s message was clear. Asked if he was happy to have Rangnick in the shadows as a football consultant, Ten Hag said: ‘That’s on the club.’
Asked if he could undermine City and Liverpool’s Premier League hegemony while Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp were still in place, he replied: ‘I think, yeah.’
If Ten Hag could take some of that straight talking and clarity of vision into the United dressing room it would help.
Ralf Rangnick was shown disregard during his stint as Manchester United’s interim manager and the modern United has allowed such levels of entitlement among its playing staff
When he became Ajax coach in 2017, Ten Hag was not immediately popular. Some players would privately mock him. But that is nothing compared to the level of disregard shown by United players to Rangnick. The modern United has allowed such levels of entitlement to grow among its playing staff. Solskjaer was soft and Rangnick was powerless given the short-term nature of his interim role.
Good dressing rooms police themselves. Bad ones resemble jigsaws with the corner pieces missing. If Ten Hag has not already identified this as a pressing issue then the many conversations he claims to have had ahead of taking the job have been with the wrong people.
The good news for United — and there is some — is that they have been driven to make real change. United’s football operation at several levels is starting to look different and more modern.
Had Solskjaer bumbled the team along into a fourth-place finish, nobody would be laughing at United but nor would they be worrying about any involvement in the title race any time soon. From that point of view, Solskjaer and United were never good for each other.
Brendan Rodgers’ title challenge at Liverpool showed teams can be made relevant quickly
Now, motivated by crisis, United have taken the big decisions. They have torn up a map that was leading them only in circles and maybe somewhere there is a slight but relevant comparison to be made with Liverpool.
Ten years ago this coming Friday, Brendan Rodgers was unveiled as the new manager at Anfield. Liverpool had finished the previous season in eighth on 52 points, 37 points behind new champions City. Kenny Dalglish had been invited to step aside after a miserable campaign characterised by the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra race row.
That morning at Anfield, Liverpool felt like a club ready to draw a line and move on. Rodgers was green, only 39 at the time, but carried himself like a man who knew what the problems were. It took Liverpool eight years to win a league title from that day but it took nowhere near as long for Rodgers to make them relevant again.
The road ahead for Ten Hag and United is dreadfully long but it is possible to move at speed. It just needs the right man at the wheel. And so, for the sixth time since Ferguson, we wait.
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