Appointing Erik ten Hag is the best decision Manchester United have made in 10 years

February 19, 2023

Erik ten Hag was not the favoured pick in the dressing room to manage Man United but his appointment was undeniably the right one.

It needn’t have been this difficult. Had Sir Alex Ferguson anointed Jose Mourinho in 2013 Manchester United could have ridden roughshod over the Premier League landscape and immediately retained the title.

But Ferguson was blinded by pride and anointed a fellow Scot he claimed was a “winner”. Only he had won nothing. David Moyes has still won nothing.

Should Erik ten Hag’s tenure end trophyless, his appointment would still have been vindicated. United are a credible force for the first time in a decade.

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They eventually got it right by hiring Mourinho in 2016 but by then the upper echelons of the Premier League were unrecognisable from Ferguson’s final season. United were an unabashed cup team in Mourinho’s first year in The Lowry and finished sixth in the league.

Ten Hag has restored discipline at United and they have an identity again. They start in the same formation and opponents as storied as Barcelona are adjusting their defence to counter United’s attack.

The days when United would revert to a back three and prey on opponents through counter-attacks are over. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had some success with such humility yet also acknowledged after his last home game – a sorry 2-0 defeat to City – that “it’s not what we want to look like. We want to be on the front foot and aggressive.” United were both in Camp Nou.

Barcelona swear by Brian Clough’s mantra that “If God had wanted us to play football in the sky, he’d have put grass up there”. Yet they were reduced to aerial deliveries against United, unsettled by two Raphinha crosses. Gavi and Jules Kounde were guilty of cynical fouls.

Preying on slightness and committing tactical fouls are what visitors are supposed to resort to at Camp Nou. United have already learnt from their uncertain performance at Arsenal, where they were caught between two stools and stalled.

Appointing Ten Hag is arguably the best decision United have made since Ferguson changed Robin van Persie’s course from City to United in 2012. Without that intervention, the Premier League trophy would not have been on display in the Old Trafford museum.

It is probably beyond United again this season but they are now five points off Arsenal, having been 11 adrift when they lost at the Emirates Stadium four weeks ago. Ten Hag is neither downplaying nor playing up United’s championship chances.


We don’t think so far about this,” Ten Hag said of the title talk. “What we have to do is put us in April in the right position. So our thinking can always be on the next game, always have to be better than the previous game and think about game from game with the energy and focus.

“We have to win on Sunday, we have to collect three points against Leicester and that demands a lot of energy and demands high standards.”

Dominate, intimidate and regenerate are daubed on the walls of Carrington and United are fulfilling those directives. Ten Hag spoke on Thursday evening how well the players had been eating and sleeping in a month of eight games in 26 days.

It has suited United for Arsenal and City to hog the limelight. Arsenal crumbled at the height of their giddiness and City have reeled them in quicker than many anticipated.

United are still two top-drawer players away from having a squad that is truly capable of sustaining a challenge and their attack continues to be carried by Marcus Rashford. Their lack of ruthlessness and knack for narrow victories is unsustainable against City, who have plundered 21 more Premier League goals than United.

For a club that endured the trauma of seven defeats by conceding a minimum of four goals within 10 months, United are ahead of schedule with their rebuild. Their recruitment hit rate under Ten Hag has been the best in 15 years.

Casemiro and Lisandro Martinez are shoo-ins for the team of the season, Christian Eriksen was pivotal prior to his injury while Tyrell Malacia and Antony are works in progress. Ten Hag is already pushing for United to add an elite goalscorer and dynamic midfielder ahead of next season.

Those of us who observed Ten Hag and spent some time with him during the pre-season tour left Australia with a higher opinion of a manager who was not the preferred pick among a coterie in the dressing room. Mauricio Pochettino was.

The majority of United’s players quickly bought into Ten Hag’s principles and he has actively made bold calls without a whiff of mutiny from any of the current players. When Cristiano Ronaldo underestimated Ten Hag, his competitive career ended with a therapeutic ego massage by Piers Morgan.

Those who are on the periphery have still appreciated Ten Hag’s directness. The players know where they stand with him and United’s standing has improved.

When eight of us lunched with Ten Hag at United’s hotel in Jerez in December, it was a throwback to an era when managers socialised with journalists. For someone who can appear gruff, Ten Hag has a deadpan and Dutch sense of humour and that luncheon reaffirmed United have a concise communicator in the dugout.

It needn’t have been this difficult, but almost a decade on from when Ferguson headed upstairs, United are getting there.