The Impossible Job - Season Preview

There exists an old Dutch proverb about the value of success. The saying reads, “Hoge bomen vangen veel wind.” When translated, this means, “High trees catch a lot of wind.” Being the new manager of Manchester United, this perhaps serves as a suitable forewarning for Erik ten Hag.


Away from the flashing lights of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, towards the east of the Netherlands, a young Erik Ten Hag occupied a town named Haaksbergen. His playing career as a footballer was most prominent in the region of Twente, a club for which he made over 200 appearances. The people of this region hold a very down-to-earth mentality, and they speak with a very strong Dutch accent – qualities which resemble Ten Hag himself. But above all, they are modest. They know the definition of hard work. These characteristics will no doubt serve Ten Hag well as he embarks on the most difficult job in football.

Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement nearly a decade ago, United have struggled to find someone who can come close to replicating the Scotsman’s relentless success which saw United dominate English football for so long. A fellow countryman of Ten Hag's, Louis Van Gaal, warned him of the pitfalls that he and other managers post-Ferguson have experienced, labelling the once invincible force as a mere shadow of something which has now become known as a “commercial club.” Looking at the reigns of David Moyes, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, they all hold a common theme: they were managers who were often undermined by those above, and those above held their focus on media attention - unfortunately, this came before any ambition for real success on the pitch.

Since then, we have seen the departure of United chief executive Ed Woodward, who has been replaced by Richard Arnold. Additionally, United appointed their inaugural football director, John Murtough, an appointment which sees the club attempting to modernise their approach towards backroom organisation. These appointments, along with a number of others at various levels, will no doubt be key in efforts to move away from media popularity and instead towards restoring long-term success on the pitch.

Now the focus is on Erik ten Hag. A reshuffle in the background has brought back some stability, and the attention immediately turns to the manager and his players to give something for Manchester United fans to shout about again.

A Tale of the Transfer Window

Two stories have dominated United’s summer transfer window: the contractual saga of Barcelona's Frenkie de Jong and the potential departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. While both situations hang entirely in the balance, it can be said that United have conducted some good business so far under Ten Hag. The former Ajax manager has brought with him Argentine Lisandro Martinez, a central defender with a fee of around £50 million, and whose fiery determination and stone-cold composure can surely only benefit the squad as a whole. From the same league, full-back Tyrell Malacia has joined from Feyenoord, while former Spurs and Inter Milan playmaker Christian Eriksen arrives after a remarkable comeback to play at Premier League club Brentford during the latter half of last season.

These three signings will all have something to give to the team which Erik ten Hag begins to build, yet it is still felt that more signings will be needed before the transfer window closes at the end of August. The departures of Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba have left holes to be filled in midfield, while a striker may be needed in the event that Ronaldo does leave. There is still time to complete these deals, though with the beginning of the season fast approaching, time will become a luxury for Ten Hag as he prepares his squad.

As it stands, it’s fair to say that Ten Hag hasn’t got everything he wants yet, this is apparent solely through the fact that United have yet to sign Frenkie de Jong. However, the sign of a good manager is being able to improve the players which he currently has at his disposal. This has not been apparent at United in recent years, and perhaps Ten Hag is the man to give some of United’s players a concrete plan for development and an aroma of confidence and determination.

The Season in Prospect

Last season saw United finish with their worst points tally in Premier League history, along with a neutral goal difference, early exits in both domestic cups and a deflating, frantic Champions League last-16 defeat to Atletico Madrid. Club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was dismissed in the aftermath of heavy defeats to Watford and arch-rivals Liverpool, all of which feel like a lifetime ago. Interim boss Ralf Rangnick departed before he could take up his predetermined role as a consultant at the club. It would be an understatement to say that the season as a whole was a nightmare for United fans and United players alike.

On Sunday, United will begin their Premier League campaign at home to Brighton. It will be hoped that this will mark the beginning of something special at United under their new man. Additionally, last season’s chaos means United find themselves competing in the Europa League, missing out on the chance to compete in the illustrious Champions League. However, perhaps Ten Hag will view this as a silver lining, as the Europa League presents a more realistic chance at attaining silverware in his first season, along with the FA and Carabao cups.

In terms of the league, a finish in the top 4 is the primary aim. If Ten Hag fails to achieve this, then this could be written off if United win the Europa League, which would resemble similar circumstances to when United won the trophy under Jose Mourinho in 2017 to secure Champions League qualification for the following year.

As important as trophies are, what will also be of high importance to United fans is a considerable improvement in the quality of football played by the men in red. Ten Hag brings the promise of a dynamic playstyle, with a systematic yet attack-heavy approach to give fans something to believe in. However, this transition will be far from smooth, and it can be expected that there will be a lot of bumps along the way. In the long term though, we could find ourselves witnessing some of the success that so many United fans crave, the sort that was constantly seen during Sir Alex’s reign.

Another aspect which Ten Hag must correct is the dynamic of the dressing room. Last season it appeared that player power prevailed over the manager’s own will. Two teams whose level United aim to reach, Manchester City and Liverpool, both put their respective managers Pep Guariola and Juergen Klopp at the forefront of their club’s image. This is what Ten Hag must become for United, and his recent condemnation against a certain group of United players who chose to leave a pre-season game before the final whistle, including Cristiano Ronaldo who displayed an unusual lack of professionalism on this occasion, shows that the Dutchman will not be fazed by any member of his dressing room.

Final Word

The upcoming season presents a new era for Manchester United, which brings along with it feelings of doubt, hope, excitement, fear and belief. The previous decade has been devoid of any real success, but now Ten Hag has the chance to add his own knowledge and experience to the mix. He will undoubtedly need the support of those around him, and the fans in particular, to make a real go of this and to restore this great club to its former glory.

The Dutch proverb aforementioned in this article is a reference to how those in high positions of power are bound to face incredible amounts of criticism. Ten Hag will be no different, and it's important that he is ready for the level of scrutiny and analysis that comes with the package of being United's new boss.

Ten Hag faces a mountainous task ahead of him. He now must begin to climb that mountain.

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