Manchester United: Seat of thorns awaits Erik ten Hag
Erik ten Hag can take a leaf out of Pep Guardiola’s book. Ten Hag, who has been given the arduous task of putting a once-invincibles-now-also-rans Manchester United back to their old self, can go back to the summer of 2008 in Barcelona when a 37-year-old Guardiola got a team teetering on the brink of capitulation.
Guardiola took some harsh decisions. ‘Disturbing elements’ were off-loaded, senior pros had to earn their place… the message was clear. ‘My way or highway’. The players got back the confidence and, most importantly, Guardiola unleashed a demon-in-waiting. Barca’s then new now most decorated No. 10 Lionel Messi.
Rest, as the cliché goes, is history. Unprecedented six trophies in one calendar year, 14 titles in all at Camp Nou.
The Dutchman can also seek an audience with the legendary Alex Ferguson. When the Scot took over at Old Trafford in the November of 1986, United were staring down the barrel. In the next 26 years under Ferguson, United won 38 trophies that included 13 Premier League titles and two Champions League triumphs. Ferguson will be the best man to give him an insight into what it takes to build a champion team.
The task is surely cut out for the 52-year-old. For United are success-starved — a Europa League win to boast of in nine years is something they are not accustomed to — and fans are no longer keen to show their patience. Champions League failure like this season is like par for the course and drubbings at the hands of eternal rivals.
Man City and Liverpool are regular features. A team in transition for almost a decade and may will be for another three years.
There are too many pulls in different directions in the dressing room and a merciless purging will be Ten Hag’s first priority. The buzz is there are at least 10 players who are looking at the exit door. And given the funds United have at their disposal, some quality players will be roped in. That is also hypothetical. If United miss out on a top-four finish, good players will need a lot of convincing to buy Ten Hag’s revival plan.
The biggest challenge for Ten Hag will how to solve a problem like Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese, in his twilight, is still a force to reckon with but you cannot expect him to deliver everyday in as demanding a league as the English Premier League.
He scored 21 goals in all competitions for United but in big matches Cristiano was subdued. Barring the Tottenham match in March. Cristiano could be more effective in 25-minute bursts when the rivals’ limbs are tiring.
Will Ten Hag show the guts to use Cristiano more as a substitute than a regular starter? Or will he use the treaded path of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and interim manager Ralf Rangnick?
United’s defence and midfield also are crying for revamp. Paul Pogba and Harry Maguire are the players Ten Hag will have to take a call on.
Ten Hag is known as someone who loves to play an attractive brand of football. We have seen his young Ajax doing wonders in the 2019 Champions League, beating teams like Real Madrid and Juventus to enter the last-four. Players like Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong were part of that team who are now a name for themselves. He is expected to do something similar at United. But that will take time. Whether the management and fans will give him the time is the question. As Wayne Rooney said: “I’m sure they are going to let him rebuild the squad because that needs to happen.
“But I think fans have to be a little bit patient with it because it’s not going to change overnight or as quick as you would like.”