Erik ten Hag’s ambitions for the rebirth of Manchester United will be discovered by the players before we do.
Ten Hag passed his first test when he made the statement in front of a crowd of excited reporters. He is not here to delight the audience but to elicit a reaction from a group that has lost its direction and understanding of what it means to represent the cherry red shirt.
Everyone has a strong opinion on United. Ten Hag has sought the advice of many people, including former manager and fellow Dutchman Louis van Gaal, who reiterated his criticism that United is first and foremost a commercial company. “I draw my own line,” Ten Hag remarked, emphasizing the impression that United had chosen a guy willing to go his own way.
That is the first prerequisite. Others were as well, and they felt they had the board’s support. The distinction is one of context. Sir Alex Ferguson had just been gone one season when Van Gaal succeeded the overachieved David Moyes. Similarly, when Jose Mourinho took over in 2016, Van Gaal left behind an FA Cup and the feeling that United was still at the top table.
That is no longer the case. The pretense that Manchester United are on par with their competitors has been shattered. The setback against Crystal Palace on Sunday was the sixth in a row on the road, with a goal difference of two for and 17 against. They snuck into the Europa League by the back door, something they were thankful for when West Ham lost a lead at Brighton, which would have fallen United to seventh and into the Europa Conference League.
Ten Hag’s austere tone was only partly due to his limited mastery of English. He was fluent enough to convey his seriousness of intent and that football is “one, two, and three” on the list of objectives at a club currently under his charge, while recognizing the significance of any club’s commercial business. United’s economic might is a significant element of the allure that will help fund his objectives. What else would he do?
Following the tepid loss at Selhurst Park, he said that the task of appraising his players will begin immediately. There was apparent support for embattled leader Harry Maguire, as well as an obvious welcome for Cristiano Ronaldo, from whom he quipped that he anticipated goals. Beyond that, he remained silent: “I speak first with Ronaldo before I speak with you.” That’s understandable.
Next season marks the tenth anniversary of United’s 20th and most recent Premier League victory, an unfathomable span during which Ferguson won the trophy 13 times in two decades. Ten Hag isn’t even thinking about the championship next year.
His first aim is to regroup and stabilize by developing his own way. To create a future worth having, he must murder the past, discard any mention of DNA, and consign the Class of 92 to history, because that is what they are: remnants of a brilliant era with no influence on the present.
To restore Liverpool’s greatness, Jurgen Klopp had to shut the Boot Room and replace it with his own vision. As a result, he was able to restore the club’s perception of itself as a great institution with its own distinct spirit and personality. Not Shankly’s Liverpool, Paisley’s Liverpool, Fagan’s Liverpool, or Dalglish’s Liverpool, but Klopp’s.
It is not that Moyes, Van Gaal, Mourinho, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer all failed because of their personal failings, but because the club was unwilling to back the reforms required to take United out of the past. The parish’s ownership, board, and Ed Woodwards were never able to let go of the past, to accept that the world had gone on without them.
They are aware of it now. This new viewpoint, this new knowledge, allows Ten Hag to be his own man. In a manner that his post-Fergie predecessors did not, the moment is perfect for him. The issue is whether he is capable of doing so.