Erik Ten Hag and the pursuit of a smarter football club

ERIK TEN HAG, at last, has been appointed manager of Manchester United and the fans cannot wait to welcome their new man through the door. The hope is, after almost a decade of frustration, that Ten Hag can return United to the forefront of European football. Everyone is enthused, but the same script has been read before, at least four times since Sir Alex hung up his stopwatch.

It is arguably the boldest move made by the United board since Ferguson retired, the hiring of a coach who has enjoyed success in the Eredivisie with Ajax but has never managed at a higher level. There is a big difference between the Dutch league and the Premier League, as players who have made the move to England have found out, and despite the status of Ajax (four times European champions), Manchester United will thrust Ten Hag into an intense cauldron of expectation and employers with diminishing patience.

Can he handle it? United is rapidly becoming a basket case of a club where highly-paid players have underperformed and the rise of Manchester City has made the country’s most successful club more neurotic by the day. They’ve spent heavily but there’s a lack of strategy, a whole load of short-termism and some huge egos that need stroking. United have also developed a peculiar penchant for signing late-career superstars such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo. But since 2013, they have won just three trophies, the last in 2017. For a club accustomed to winning trophies in clusters, this has become a crisis. It is not out of the question they may not be in Europe in 2022-23.

One of the big competitive differentiators in football today is intelligence – Manchester United have to get smarter.

Ten Hag, everyone keeps reminding us, created a very exciting Ajax team a couple of years ago, but they were beaten by Tottenham Hotspur in the semi-finals of the Champions League. That team was packed with youngsters who earned Ajax a lot of money when they were [inevitably] sold, but it has to be noted Ten Hag was not the creator of a system that continually creates such talent. The system is Ajax’s business model that enables them to remain competitive. They develop young players, introduce them to the first team and then sell them. It is a model that has proved to be very successful. Ten Hag harnessed those players and moulded them into a team that was not far away from being European champions. This doesn’t mean he will replicate that process at Old Trafford, it really depends on how much raw talent he has in the United youth structure.

Manchester United is his big step-up test and it couldn’t be tougher. Apparently, he will not have a huge transfer budget, possibly a hangover from below-par transfer market activity over the past decade. It may also be down to United’s falling revenues; they have been overtaken by Manchester City in the Deloitte Football Money League this year, which provides some indication of their commercial decline. Nevertheless, United will surely allow him to strengthen the team with West Ham’s Declan Rice being among the list of players to be considered. United also need options up front and in the heart of defence. There will also be an exodus of players who are not going to get any better in a United shirt, such as Paul Pogba.

Ten Hag will need time and that is not a luxury afforded to managers at top clubs these days. He may have signed a contract that takes him to 2025 (with an option for another 12 months), but will he get that long? One would hope that the United suits will bear in mind the club has stagnated for at least five years and they have fallen away from contention. For the past few seasons, there has been an obsession that it is always the coach’s fault, but the club’s owners would be justified in looking at how transfer targets are identified and evaluated. United may need to go backwards to go forwards and take apart their entire structure to build something that is far-reaching, self-perpetuating and sustainable. They need to look at Manchester City, but not in the pursuit of finding their own Pep Guardiola. One of the key competitive differentiators in football today is intelligence. United have to get smarter.

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