Whether it’s observing the players you’re about to inherit or answering probing questions, Erik ten Hag he was reticent on his two visits to markedly different English football stadiums over the last week.
Ten Hag must have been on camera a dozen times during the broadcast of Manchester United’s 12th game. Premier league defeat at Selhurst Park and his lips never moved. She barely smiled at a selfie request. In old trafford the next day Ten Hag smiled like a Cheshire cat.
For him United To supporters tuning in, his most moving response was about ‘fighting’ Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, warning that “you always see an era can come to an end”, a quote worthy of a movie poster. To Guardiola and Klopp it will not seem too portentous, with Manchester City and Liverpool so far ahead of United that they seem like a mirage.
In an 18-minute press conference, Ten Hag uttered the word “analysis” and its derivatives seven times. Ten Hag has avoided The Lowry for the more remote Mere, as he initially settles in England. There are acres in a nearby National Trust and a revered nearby golf course (Ten Hag lounges on the fairways) for the Dutchman to mull over certain decisions.
Representatives for Dean Henderson, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Brandon Williams have already sought clarity and are already planning an exit strategy. Another United player’s agent is so in the dark that he asked a reporter if they were aware of any decisions being made about the future of his client.
United wasted no time in drawing a line below last season with the introduction of Ten Hag on Monday and conducted their interview with MUTV in Amsterdam two weeks earlier. It was during that meeting that he referred to United’s second-place finish last season. Ten Hag reiterated on Monday that “this team was second in the league, so there is great potential.”
Publicly, United are yearning for positivity and interest in the club is rising again. The club claims that the subscriptions sold out in record time (it seems they do every year) and there was a record rate of renewals. Good for a club whose outcome to the campaign was dominated by lively protests.
At the latest fan forum on April 29, director of football John Murtough was on the same page as Ten Hag: “Erik will try to maximize the potential of existing players in the short term while building towards long-term success. … There is a lot of potential left in the existing team.”
For the sake of United, it is to be hoped that their private outlook is not so optimistic. Second place was false and misleading in a season of sterile games played in hair-raising training camp atmospheres.
At the time, it was worrying how impressively United had adapted to stadiums without fans, and with the turnstiles reopened and the adrenaline rush provided by match-goers returning, United players shuddered. This season has been a more precise measure of the individual and the collective.
Take Alex Telles’ postseason post: “I caught myself today thinking: Was it a good season?
“Being in a team like United brings great responsibilities. And it wasn’t a good season for us, I know, far from it.
“But for the boy who dreamed of being a footballer in Brazil, to be able to complete the 50-game mark with this club… Man, I can say that it was something very important for me. Football is my life. keep working, always trying to improve. Thank you all.”
Telles posted it on the more lenient Instagram and, unsurprisingly, comments were limited. The Brazilian is happy as long as he has an appearance quota that ensures his inclusion in the Brazil squad. He is not as interested in playing for United as his compatriot Fred is.
United provisionally anticipate two departures as a full-back: Wan-Bissaka and Williams. Williams is more familiar with United’s standards by virtue of his academy upbringing. Telles has had two seasons at the club and is still rhetorically wondering if the worst season in United’s history in four decades is ‘a good season’.
This squad has been rumbling and the potential isn’t ‘huge’. Six high-level members are leaving, at least. Chief Executive Richard Arnold spoke at the ‘decisive’ action forum. That is already being tested by a fringe player who described United as a “stumbling block” for a transfer, a scenario similar to early departures in January that never materialized.
United will be judged on both departures and arrivals in the summer. They have to break double figures for starts (only four defenders want to leave) and that will be a litmus test of the ‘relentless’ action Arnold promised.
Major departures in structure, the scouting department, the communications department and the press office reflect well on Arnold as he seeks to distance himself from the compliant culture that Ed Woodward cultivated. “Change is coming because of the steps being taken to drive long-term success,” said Arnold.
The change has to be drastic. Not as extreme as 10 new players, as Ralf Rangnick recommended, but six signings should be the minimum target to make up for the exodus of the uncontracted clique alone. This season was no aberration for United AD (after dominance), a fallow era of three trophies in nine years.
Historically, United are not proactive sellers and that has become more noticeable amid managerial changes and the removal of Man United’s ‘glory glory’. They still carry too many passengers and Ten Hag has inherited a team of players signed by four different coaches for 11 years.
Ten Hag may not talk to players for another month and he really doesn’t need to. Some investments, either through transfer fees or inconsistent contracts, have not been claimed and losses must be cut.
A United source pointed out that the habit of handing out undeserving contracts began with the appointment of Cliff Baty in 2016 as chief financial officer. Baty is still in the place and the unnecessary extension of Bruno Fernandes was finalized after Woodward left.
Ten Hag’s reticence is likely to be tested.