Talk of Ten Hag being sacked misses point of what INEOS is trying to do at Man United – The Athletic

By Mark CritchleyMar 6, 2024

Erik ten Hag attempted to make the best of a bad situation and talk up his players’ efforts after the Manchester derby but there was no hiding from the consequences of yet another defeat.

Back-to-back league losses for his United side have left a return to the Champions League next season looking unlikely.

As for their only hope of a trophy, United welcome Liverpool to Old Trafford in the FA Cup quarter-finals in a fortnight. A home draw helps their cause, but the prospect of one of the best attacks in the Premier League running at a defence that has faced 127 shots in their past six games is a bleak one.

And so, despite a recent run of six wins in seven, despite the approach at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday being just about all an injury-hit squad could muster, and despite his insistence that United are making progress, manager Ten Hag’s future is a live issue again.

Phil Foden scores for City in their 3-1 derby win (Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

There are mixed feelings over the best course of action among supporters. In a poll on the United We Stand forum held after Sunday’s defeat, 36 per cent voted for Ten Hag to be sacked before next season. Only a quarter wanted him to stay. Others either do not have faith in the club to find the right replacement or are willing to wait to make a decision when the season ends in May.

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Senior figures at Old Trafford will need an idea of what to do a good deal earlier than that though, as two United ex-players turned pundits have recently noted.

While appearing on Sky Sports last week, Gary Neville said that he suspects Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Sir Dave Brailsford of new co-owners INEOS “already know” if Ten Hag will be staying or going. Paul Scholes went one further after the derby, positing that a decision has likely been made and the manager will eventually be replaced.

Some might argue it should come even earlier still: if Scholes is right and Ten Hag is seeing out a stay of execution, why not let the axe fall early?

There is a logic to that argument, particularly if further setbacks follow over the next few weeks and if United are left with nothing to play for on the run-in.

Finding the right permanent replacement during a season would be a tall order but another interim manager — one following an INEOS playbook focused on longer-term strategy — could make better use of these remaining two and a half months, turning dead-rubber matches into valuable developmental minutes for players who have a future at the club.

But who is to say there is nothing to play for? If you squint, United’s 2024-24 season is just about salvageable.

Tottenham Hotspur visit Aston Villa this weekend, meaning the gap to fifth could be closed to three points if Spurs lose and United beat Everton 24 hours earlier. Tottenham’s game in hand is away against Chelsea, which is hardly a guarantee of three points.

Statistically, Villa and Spurs have two of the toughest run-ins. Each still has to play all of the top three and will face opponents who have picked up an average of 1.62 and 1.58 points per game respectively. United, by contrast, have one of the easier run-ins and will come up against sides who have picked up 1.27 points per game, while playing four of the bottom six.

The bounce of a new manager — even on an interim basis — could make more seem possible.

United will hope to catch Tottenham (Alex Livesey – Danehouse/Getty Images)

That is the argument, at least, but it is a harsh one. For Ten Hag, it is still just about the case that last season’s major achievements in what was his debut year — qualification for the Champions League and winning a domestic trophy — could both be repeated.

After last season, he should still have enough credit in the bank to finish the job he started. And even if returning to the Champions League is a bridge too far, a strong finish would make for a generally decent set of results since the turn of the year.

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Yet the best argument against removing the Dutchman from his position immediately and the reason why any change is unlikely before the end of the season is that the structure that would make such a call is still taking shape.

When Ratcliffe reached an agreement with the Glazer family for his minority stake in October, the 71-year-old billionaire did not view Ten Hag’s future as something up for debate. If there were problems at Old Trafford, the belief was that they lay further up the chain of command.

INEOS prides itself on making evidence-based decisions, however, and the last five months have provided Ratcliffe’s team with plenty of evidence to consider.

In his recent round of interviews, Ratcliffe himself was given the opportunity to offer his unequivocal support to Ten Hag but stopped short of doing so, arguing that it would be “inappropriate”. Rather than focusing on individuals, he argued United, as a club, have failed every manager since Sir Alex Ferguson retired 11 years ago.

What is clear is that any manager or head coach will need to work as part of a wider structure, without having the sort of autonomy Ten Hag has often enjoyed, even when it comes to deciding how the team play.

“We’ll decide what that style is — plus the CEO, sporting director, probably the recruitment guys,” Ratcliffe told journalists. “That will be the Manchester United style of football, and the coach will have to play that style.”

Omar Berrada was the first big name in place (Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

That was a revealing answer, a glimpse of something approaching a hierarchy of decision-making at the new-look United. And it is no coincidence that to date, INEOS’ Old Trafford revolution has progressed in that exact order outlined by Ratcliffe from top to bottom.

Omar Berrada’s appointment from Manchester City as the incoming chief executive was the first piece. Dan Ashworth, now on gardening leave after informing Newcastle United of his desire to leave, is expected to become sporting director. Senior recruitment appointments are likely to follow.

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It is only once that overarching structure is settled that decisions are expected to follow on the manager’s position.

After years of United focusing only on the horse and not the cart — hiring and firing without an elite setup informing such decisions — it would be foolish to make the same mistake again. And as those pieces begin to fall into place, a clearer picture of the culture Ratcliffe wants to build will emerge.

It may be that INEOS decides Ten Hag is not suited to working in the way it envisages a head coach. It may be that Ten Hag prefers a greater degree of control than on offer to him. Or it may be that INEOS concludes that an elite, functioning system is what Ten Hag has needed behind him all along.

We will not know if any of those outcomes are the case if Ten Hag is dispensed with before the INEOS era is fully underway and that football operations structure is in place. And so Ten Hag will likely press on, making the best of a bad season.

GO DEEPER

Man United have grand ambitions but derby day shows the gulf to City is huge – on and off the pitch

(Top photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

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Mark Critchley is a football writer for The Athletic, covering Manchester United and Manchester City. Mark joined after five years as The Independent’s northern football correspondent. Follow Mark on Twitter @mjcritchley

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