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.

Premier showdown: High quality but still guessing

SO IT is official, Manchester City and Liverpool are streets ahead of the other 18 teams in the Premier League: intense, skilful, well organised and determined. There’s little between them in what was a classic “game of two halves”. This is just the start of a period that could see the two rivals play each other twice more, starting with the FA Cup semi-final on April 16 at Wembley.

A draw was more suited to City as they are still a point ahead of Liverpool. A defeat would have swung the pendulum towards the Mersey, but a victory would have given City a four-point lead that would have been difficult to retrieve. For the time being, the battle goes on, with each team anxiously watching the other for signs of a slip. At this precise moment, City and Liverpool are operating at full throttle and it is difficult to see who might beat them. However, title races do not always go with the form guide and there will be a setback somewhere, but for whom?

So often, big games disappoint, but both teams were set on gaining an advantage by attacking, rather than opting for a preservative approach. First blood went to City, a deflected shot by Kevin De Bruyne after just five minutes, which suggested that Pep Guardiola was looking to kill Liverpool off early. This was a test for the visitors but they responded well and Diogo Jota slid the ball home after a superb assist by Trent Alexander-Arnold after 14 minutes.

City regained the lead in the 37th minute, Gabriel Jesus, who has become something of a forgotten man at the Etihad, arrived at the far post to finish off a João Cancelo cross. City dominated the first half, but failed to press home their superiority. They were made to pay for it less than a minute into the second period, Sadio Mané marking his 30th birthday with the equaliser. The quality rarely dropped for the remainder of the game.

The result underlined there is little between these two teams, as evidenced by two richly entertaining 2-2 draws this season. They’ve now got seven games remaining, both of them due to face Newcastle, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Of the other four fixtures, Manchester City arguably have an easier time. City are at home to Brighton and Watford and away to Leeds and West Ham. Liverpool have home games against Manchester United, Everton and Tottenham and are away to Southampton.

Both could go all the way in the Champions League, Liverpool have a 3-1 advantage over Benfica from the first leg of the quarter-final, while City holding a narrow 1-0 lead over Atlético Madrid when they travel to the Wanda Metropolitano for the second leg.

Who came out of this riveting contest feeling they had got what they were looking for? Pep Guardiola felt his side missed an opportunity, while Jürgen Klopp, refusing to sound disappointed, gave some hint of the way he felt in believing it was a result Liverpool had to live with.

City should have won as they had more possession (55%-45%) and more shots on goal (11-6). They also had the best player on the pitch in De Bruyne, although Jota was very productive, although his striking partner, Mo Salah, was not at his best for most of the game.

Advantage City? Not really, but they are still in command and Liverpool have to depend on somebody upsetting Guardiola’s men if they are to win their second Premier title. Both will surely end the campaign with more silverware (Liverpool have already had a glimpse), but who wins what is still a mystery. We are no nearer discovering the truth.

Nobody wants Brentford to disappear from the top flight

BRENTFORD FOOTBALL CLUB have become a neutral’s favourite over the past couple of years and they have also been called one of the best-run clubs in Britain. They have provided an alternative to corporate football, although they do have generous ownership in the form of professional gambler Matthew Benham, who has injected over £ 100 million into the club. Benham, an advocate of Moneyball-style data analysis to build teams and identify talent, also owns Danish side FC Midtjylland.

Brentford, once something of a forgotten little London club, are now seen as progressive, extremely likeable and decent. They have a foppish looking Danish manager, Thomas Frank, who seems to embody the laid-back and approachable style of his compatriots, and they have become rather good at discovering talent and making a decent profit from selling players. On top of that, they have a new stadium that will hopefully ensure the rise of Brentford will continue into the future.

Brentford started the 2021-22 season as the 50th club to play in the Premier League. They opened the campaign with a 2-0 victory against hapless Arsenal and were unbeaten in their first four away games. They enjoyed exciting games against Liverpool (3-3) and West Ham and it all seem to be achieved with a smile on their faces. Since then, their form has evaporated and they’ve lost six in the last seven Premier League games. They could still survive comfortably as there are some very average teams beneath them, but the smiles are not quite as beaming.

Staying in the Premier League is a tough task for any promoted club, but Brentford seemed to have come so far in a relatively short space of time and a life of transition may be catching up on them. Week-in, week-out, they are up against Premier-hardened teams with experience of scrapping away at the foot of the table. It’s a big challenge, just look how teams like Fulham, West Bromwich Albion, Norwich and Watford have fared after coming up.

Let’s not forget, though, the top flight has been graced by the Bees before, completing four seasons before world war two and one afterwards, in 1946-47. The post-war boom saw average crowds of 26,000 at homely and much-loved Griffin (a pub on every corner) Park.

That’s all history now and the gap between the Premier and Championship is widening. Brentford are clearly trying to build something they hope will be sustainable and they moved into the Brentford Community Stadium in September 2020. Avoiding the drop is vital if they are to become part of the establishment and benefit from the substantial financial advantages the Premier and its lucrative broadcasting deal provides. 

The club’s financial statements for 2020-21, their promotion-winning season, have just been released and it is easy to see how the economics of football can be transformed by an extended run in the Premier League. As an example, Fulham when they were promoted in 2018, earned £ 38.3 million but in the Premier (a relegation year), their income totalled £ 137.7 million. Likewise, Norwich’s revenues when they were relegated in 2020 from the top tier were £ 119.4 million, but in 2020-21, they dropped to £ 57 million. Although parachute payments help to cushion the blow of relegation, the sudden change in financial status can be crippling.

Brentford’s turnover in 2020-21 was £ 15.3 million, an increase of 10% but way below what they can generate in the Premier and far lower than most of their Championship rivals. Given their matchday income was next to nothing, this was attributable to media revenue of £ 10.7 million and £ 4.5 million from commercial activity. Brentford made a pre-tax loss of £ 8.5 million, a reasonable deficit given what normally goes on in the Championship, a division renowned for excessive spending as clubs gamble on trying to reach the promised land. Brentford’s wage bill went up from £ 26 million to £ 41 million in 2020-21, but a big slice of that included promotion bonuses. This amounted to a wage-to-income ratio of 270%.

Nevertheless, Brentford have only made a profit once in the past decade and they are very dependent on player trading. In 2020-21, for example, they made £ 44.3 million in profits on outgoing transfers, notably in selling Ollie Watkins to Aston Villa for £ 28 million and Säid Benrahma to West Ham for £ 21.7 million. At the same time, they picked up 24 year-old Ivan Toney from Peterborough for a mere £ 5 million and he had netted 33 goals by the end of the campaign. He has scored six of Brentford’s 26 league goals this season.

Goals have been hard to come by in recent weeks and Brentford’s fortunes have taken a downturn. If other strugglers bolster their ranks in the January transfer window – Newcastle surely will for one – then the Bees might find themselves sucked into a relegation battle. Thomas Frank, who may be under more pressure than he was in August, has just signed a new contract that will keep him at Brentford until 2024-25, so his employer clearly has faith in him.

Nobody really wants to see their Premier League life fizzle-out after one season. If nothing else, we need the likes of Brentford to prove there’s room for all kinds of football institution in the modern game. Otherwise, what are we left with, a dozen top-heavy giants bashing each other around the head with their 24 carat gold maces?