Man Utd have lacked a great manager in an era when the very best have worked in the Premier League, but Erik ten Hag is changing that history.
It always felt slightly bizarre in recent seasons that on Manchester United’s biggest days of the year it would be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the opposite dugout to Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp.
Solskjaer was a likeable man, a United legend and a reasonable manager, who did actually achieve some notable results in those fixtures, but in an era when the best bosses in the game have flocked to the Premier League, it always felt like the club were missing a trick by sticking with the Norwegian.
The 49-year-old has now been out of work for 13 months since leaving United and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious route back into the very highest level of the game at the moment. Solskjaer was replaced by Ralf Rangnick, who is now in charge of Austria, and neither is in high demand.
Ever since the sacking of Jose Mourinho in November 2018, this has been a club lacking elite-level leadership from the very top, but with the appointment of Erik ten Hag, they look to have finally bucked the trend.
The decision to hire Ten Hag in the summer was the first time United have recruited an up-and-coming manager approaching the peak of their powers since Sir Alex Ferguson left. It felt like the best days were behind Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho when they got the job, but that is most certainly not the case with Ten Hag.
On Wednesday night the Dutchman brought up his 15th win in the job in just his 22nd game. That feels like a significant achievement, given the first two games ended in disastrous defeats to Brighton and Brentford. To put it into context, it took David Moyes and Jose Mourinho 26 games to collect 15 wins and Louis van Gaal 29 matches to reach the same tally. Solskjaer achieved it in 20 games, but then won one of his next nine. That doesn’t feel likely now.
In the space of a few months, Ten Hag has improved players, with Diogo Dalot, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial prime examples. His eye for a player has also been impressive, with the summer signings almost all making a big impact. Lisandro Martinez and Casemiro, in particular, have been revolutionary to how this team plays, adding control in midfield and an excellent left-footed passing option at the back.
There is also a clear style of play emerging. United are more patient in possession and control games better than they ever did under Solskjaer or Rangnick. In the games against Tottenham and Chelsea before the break they looked like a top-level side, taking on their rivals on an equal footing and dominating possession, rather than playing reactive as they had done previously.
But Ten Hag is impressing as much off the pitch as he is on it. There were some concerns as to how he would assimilate into life at Old Trafford. For all that Ajax dominate the discourse in the Netherlands, the spotlight and scrutiny that accompanies United are unparalleled.
Ten Hag has shown he has the stature and character for the job, however. He has handled the circus around Cristiano Ronaldo exceptionally well and has got the players on side. Jadon Sancho’s slump in form has been dealt with sensitively and although he isn’t a manager who holds loads of meetings with players, his attention to detail and the focus on improving the club has won over the changing room.
That even goes for players who aren’t involved. One member of the dressing room who hasn’t played as often as he might have liked is impressed with the manager, despite his own situation.
Ten Hag has spoken constantly this season about the importance of developing a spirit in the squad and to aid that he has recruited performance psychologist Rainier Koers, who is spending the full season embedded into Carrington as part of the staff.
Part of his role, according to Ten Hag, is to “get the right spirit” in individuals and the collective. It’s just another example of minute details that the manager is focusing on, leaving no stone unturned in his attempts to take United back to the top of the domestic game.