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.

Another Manchester United post-mortem as the hour-glass loses more sand

DIEGO SIMEONE sprinted off the pitch and down the tunnel, showered with water, beer and plastic cups. He knew exactly what to expect as his team knocked Manchester United out of the UEFA Champions League. United were disappointing, lacking the intelligence to deal with an Atlético Madrid team that knew exactly how to play their hosts. The Spanish champions made the most of every foul, every hold-up and every niggling challenge and were economical with their energy. 

United enjoyed the greater percentage of possession, as they should have given their home status, but they did very little with it, especially in the second half. Atléti put on a classic two-legged away performance, the type that once characterised such ties in the days before the European Cup became the bloated Champions League.

How much longer can Manchester United remain on this greasy pole of existence? How much more disappointment can fans weened on multiple trophy wins and a stream of star players slotted into the system under Sir Alex, tolerate? The club is fortunate it has legacy fans who believe in the religion that is Manchester United, and a waiting list of eager fans longing to join the throng. Nothing dramatic is going to happen to United, but they desperately don’t want to become a heritage act.

Success is relative, so for United, that is measured by trophies, Champions League success and high-end squads playing a brand of exciting football the club’s reputation and DNA has been built upon. Those days have gone, United enjoyed not one but two long eras where style was allied to success. It has now gone and it will not return in a hurry, because United is now a multi-national sporting institution, owned by people who expect (not unreasonably) some form of financial return. Success has to be engineered to ensure the graph goes in the right direction. 

The “style” that United always saw as a prerequisite, is no longer at the top of the list. Getting back to being title contenders (genuine contenders, not top four candidates), is now the priority. It’s not something that has to be achieved at any cost, United are not about to become a team of cloggers, but that’s why they have hired, in the recent past, Mourinho, Ibrahimovic, Cavani and Ronaldo. There’s no “class of ‘92” situation waiting to revitalise the club, firstly because nobody has the patience to realise it and secondly, coaches come and go rather quickly.

United’s golden age in Europe was not in 1968, 1999 and 2008, even though they won the top European prize in each of those years. Sir Matt Busby spent more than a decade trying to win the competition, Ferguson won it twice in a period when United stood emphatically astride English football. Some say he should have had more success, but 2008, when his United team beat Chelsea on penalties, was really the end of their time as a compelling force. In 2009 and 2011 they reached the final again, to their enormous credit, but they were way behind champions Barcelona. Since then, their record has been very disappointing and setbacks like their Atlético defeat are becoming all too frequent.

United’s decline and Ferguson’s departure are, to some extent, coincidental. But where United went wrong was inadequate planning around his retirement and then in expecting instant results from every appointment. It should be recalled that Ferguson was not an immediate success, he took over in 1986 and it was not until 1990 that he won his first trophy. There is not a top club in existence today that would give a manager that amount of time to get it right.

But it is not as simple as getting the coach right. United have been through a few since 2013 and they are still searching for the holy grail. They have a squad that has cost more than almost every other assembly of players in Europe – the players fielded against Atléti cost over £ 500 million – they have one of the top wage bills, they enjoy 70,000 crowds. They are still Manchester United.

There seems, however, no cohesion and a distinct lack of strategy around transfers and an ongoing erosion of the club’s culture. Hiring veteran players is something a lesser club would entertain, it implies a desperate need to give United a “lift”, a boost to morale. Admittedly, we are talking about big names who have been brilliant, but United are not a club that should be pinning its hopes on faded genius. The attitude of some players has to be questioned, as pointed out by pundits like Roy Keane.

The question is, if people believe the coach(es) are to blame, who do they want to manage the team? The blame doesn’t only rest with the coach, it is also with those employed in identifying new talent for Manchester United and how those players fit into the system. Until they become more rounded, more strategic and joined-up, the frustration will continue for England’s biggest club.

Frank O’Farrell: Victim of United’s early 70s decline?

FRANK O’FARRELL was not only the oldest living West Ham United player until his death on March 6, 2022, he was also the last surviving manager to have Manchester United’s holy trinity of Best, Law and Charlton as part of his team. 

Admittedly, those legendary players played just seven times in O’Farrell’s second season at Old Trafford as United imploded in 1972-73, but the former Irish international deserves credit for taking over at a club that was declining by the week.

O’Farrell was widely considered to be a likeable, thoughtful character who learned his trade through the so-called West Ham academy, a group of players who moved into coaching and met-up in a local café to discuss tactics, continental football and innovative methods. This “club” included Malcolm Allison, Jimmy Andrews, Dave Sexton, John Bond and others. O’Farrell had played for the Hammers in the 1950s and also turned out for Preston North End and Weymouth. 

His managerial career began with Weymouth and then on to Torquay United, where he attracted the attention of clubs higher up the food chain. It was thought he would take over from Bill McGarry at Ipswich Town, but in December 1968, he was appointed manager of Leicester City, who were struggling near the foot of the first division and had just lost the long-serving Matt Gillies. 

Leicester were 20th in the league and had won just four games. They were just ahead of Nottingham Forest and Queens Park Rangers. By the end of March 1969, they were in a relegation place, although they had games in hand due to their FA Cup run. Leicester’s FA Cup campaign saw them beat Liverpool at Anfield in the fifth round and in the semi-finals, they overcame holders West Bromwich Albion 1-0 at Hillsborough. Leicester faced Manchester City in the final, knowing they could also suffer relegation although they still had five league games to go. They lost 1-0 at Wembley to City, and then set about trying to save their first division life. They beat Spurs and Sunderland, drew with Everton and lost against Ipswich Town. They went into the last game at Manchester United, needing a win to stay up. They lost 3-2, after leading, and finished one point behind Coventry City. This was a very capable Leicester side that included Peter Shilton, David Nish and Allan Clarke.

It took two seasons to get Leicester back to the top flight and this brought O’Farrell to the attention of bigger clubs, including Manchester United. Sir Matt Busby, who had initially retired in 1969, had returned to stabilise a ship that had gone off course, but he was stepping down in 1971. O’Farrell was one of three men seen as likely successors, Ian Greaves of Huddersfield and Brian Clough of Derby were the other leading candidates.

O’Farrell was selected as the right man, although Busby was still trying to persuade Celtic’s Jock Stein to join the club. The relationship didn’t get off to a good start, largely because Busby offered him the job with a salary of £ 12,000 plus bonuses. Louis Edwards, the chairman, saw O’Farrell was not impressed and corrected Busby with an increased salary of £ 15,000. This time he accepted, but he admitted that he never trusted Busby after that incident. It didn’t help that when O’Farrell arrived at Old Trafford, Busby was still occupying the manager’s office. O’Farrell was his own man, though, and announced publicly that “I shall be manager in every sense of the word. From July 16, United are my team.”

He also headed off the potential problem of Busby being just along the corridor. “It has been said the presence of Sir Matt Busby could be a hindrance to a new manager because of his immense prestige. I don’t see it that way.” This could have been interpreted as O’Farrell letting his predecessor know he was going to do it his way.

O’Farrell’s first season, 1971-72, saw United top the table, perhaps surprisingly, but George Best was rapidly becoming a problem, his personal life, drinking, gambling and womanising setting a bad example. United’s autumn deteriorated after being three points clear on New Year’s Day, they lost seven games in a row. Best ended the season threatening to quit the game, Bobby Charlton was showing his age and Denis Law was coming to the end of his time. 

O’Farrell bought in new faces to begin a rebuilding programme, which he said would cost a million pounds. Martin Buchan, a young defender from Aberdeen, joined United for £ 135,000. Ian Moore was signed from Nottingham Forest for £ 225,000 in March 1972, but the player, at his peak an excellent striker, was rarely fully fit. Another forward signing, Ted MacDougall, arrived from Bournemouth for £ 200,000 in September 1972. This was a move that didn’t really work out and within six months, United sold him to West Ham. Wyn Davies, the 30 year old former Newcastle forward, joined from Manchester City and spent just six months at Old Trafford.

United went into 1972-73 in some disarray and O’Farrell had to deal with Best seeking solace in Spain, hosting a press conference in the sunshine. United’s players were getting tired of the antics of their star man. Brian Kidd, for example, commented: “There’s one set of rules for George Best and one for us.”

United’s form in 1972-73 was abysmal at times and although Best was persuaded to return, he went missing again in December 1972. For O’Farrell, time was running out and after a 5-0 defeat at Crystal Palace, he was sacked. Louis Edwards told him, “We’re terminating your contract,” and O’Farrell asked why. “No reason,” replied Edwards. At the same time, United transfer listed Best while Sir Matt Busby, his great mentor, announced: “We’ve finally had enough of George.”

United were relegated at the end of 1973-74 under Tommy Docherty, but they returned with a young, vibrant team. It was O’Farrell’s misfortune to arrive at Old Trafford at a time when the team needed rebuilding and old hands needed rebuilding. And then there was Best.

O’Farrell continued in management and was employed by Cardiff, Iran, Torquay and the UAE club, Al Shaab. Needless to say, his career will always be remembered for his time at Leicester and Manchester United. Things might have been so different if United had disposed of Best far earlier and the likeable Irishman was allowed to build a team in his own image.