From transfers to tactics - why Man Utd's decision to keep Erik ten Hag makes little sense

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Here’s a quick hypothetical – if a manager was given one of the most expensively-assembled squads in the world and led them to their worst league finish in over 30 years, put together a defence which allowed more shots on goal than all but one team in Europe’s big five leagues and presided over multiple big-money transfers which failed, would you give them a new contract? If you answered yes, you may be in charge of Manchester United, because that’s exactly how Erik ten Hag has performed over the past year or so.

Of course, he won the FA Cup as well to go with last season’s League Cup, and if winning silverware is the primary role of a manager then perhaps the Dutchman can be said to have been a success since arriving from Ajax. But the trajectory of his team’s performances over the past year has been so bad that it remains astonishing that Ineos, who now run sporting affairs at Old Trafford, have decided not just to keep him on but also to begin discussions over a contract extension.

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To make it all a little stranger, they have managed to keep him on in a manner which also undermines his credibility. Prior to the FA Cup final victory over Manchester City it was leaked to the press that the club planned to dispense with Ten Hag’s services regardless of the result – and before publicly announcing their change of heart, they interviewed Thomas Tuchel and according to The Athletic (paywalled) also met at various points with Thomas Frank, Marco Silva and Mauricio Pochettino and had initial discussions with Roberto de Zerbi and Rúben Amorim. Ineos have contrived to simultaneously back Ten Hag and make it look as though he was far from their first choice to manage the side next season.

It seems likely that the change of heart came about less because of the FA Cup final (an impressive performance but one which owed more to unexpectedly heroic individual showings by players like Raphaël Varane than it did to any great tactical innovation from the manager) but because of fan pressure – despite an abysmal season by Manchester United’s past high standards, the overwhelming view from the stands is that the blame lies with the players rather than the head coach.

Whether one agrees with them or not depends on whether one believes that the public falling-out with Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford’s off-field issues, Casemiro’s sudden decline and Alejandro Garnacho’s teenage tantrum towards the end of last season amount to an indication of a toxic dressing room culture or of a manager who doesn’t inspire confidence and loyalty in his players. But in truth, even if Ten Hag is entirely blameless in that department, his performance in so many other areas has been deeply concerning.

Tactically, United were incoherent last season. There is a reason few other managers at top sides attempt to play with both a high attacking line and a deep defensive one – it leaves the team’s component parts stranded from one another, and so it was that United’s midfield were consistently either unable to get up to support an isolated attack, or forced to leave the defence exposed, hence the enormous number of attempts on goal permitted to opposing teams. Out of all the teams in England, France, Spain, Italy and Germany’s respective top flights, only a woebegone Sheffield United side gave up more chances.

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Simultaneously, only the three relegated teams and West Ham United offered up a greater expected goals total to their rivals in the Premier League, while Manchester United were barely mid-table for both expected and actual goals of their own. In finishing eighth, their lowest league placing since 1990, they actually exceeded the expectations of their performances. This was a poor team by any standards, not just United’s, and it seems strange to exculpate Ten Hag, who laid the foundations and came up with a baffling strategy.

Then there are his signings – Antony was his man through and through, while he also pushed hard for the baffling signing of Mason Mount as well. Neither has proven to be a good use of funds. It has at least been suggested by reporters closer to the club that Ten Hag will find he has rather less influence on transfer strategy going forward, which may well prove to be a very sensible move.

That might mean that the team he put together will now be pulled apart. It has been suggested that every United player other than Kobbie Mainoo, Rasmus Højlund and Alejandro Garnacho is up for sale and substantial turnover is expected. Whether the players brought in will line up with Ten Hag’s vision or expectations remains to be seen, but United fans could perhaps be concerned that there is a lack of a joined-up vision between the manager and recruitment team. That would be true with every manager in the same situation, of course, but it will be interesting to see how this summer pans out and what Ten Hag does with whatever squad he has at his disposal come August.

Which begs the question – if you’re going to enter an intentional period of massive transition because performances were so poor, why continue with the same man at the helm? And if you believe that he is not at fault, why freeze him out of the process of deciding who comes in next season?

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The answer, of course, is that Ineos don’t fully trust Ten Hag despite their decision to offer him a new deal – and there is a lot of evidence that suggests they’re right not to. So it is that United will begin the churn with a disconnect between manager and recruitment and, as a result, quite possibly between manager and squad. Given how chaotic everything has been at Old Trafford since Sir Alex Ferguson left all those years ago, perhaps it’s only fitting that Ineos should start their tenure with big decisions which send the club in multiple directions at the same time. There is a long road ahead and perhaps they will get every other decision this summer right, but this is a strange start to a critical period.

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