EPL TALK: Ten Hag's tough stance turning Man United into mean machines

Man United manager Erik ten Hag pumps his fist in celebration of his side's 1-0 Premier League win over Wolves.
Man United manager Erik ten Hag celebrates his side's 1-0 Premier League win over Wolves. (PHOTO: Manchester United/Manchester United via Getty Images)

THE MAN who provided dinners for others almost went to bed without his own. Marcus Rashford is a hero to millions and a misbehaving child to his manager. The Manchester United forward was castigated for oversleeping.

Apparently, Erik ten Hag’s list of punishable misdemeanours also includes not brushing teeth, eating sweets before a main meal and kissing girls behind the bike sheds. He’s not playing games anymore, but Manchester United are winning them, eight of their last nine in fact. Any more of this and it’ll be time to talk trophies at Old Trafford.

Weird world cups, Liverpool’s tribulations and a Hobbesian brute known as Erling Haaland have obscured United’s progress. They started 2022 by losing 1-0 at home to Wolves. They ended the year by defeating the same opponents by the same score.

But United’s journey is more than just lazy symmetry. There is not so much a new sheriff in town, but a new headmaster. The Theatre of Dreams has entertained enough sheriffs. Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal played gunslingers, like young and old versions of Clint Eastwood respectively, armed with fistfuls of dollars and promising to clean up the town with a few dollars more. But charisma and track records were – and are – no longer enough at Old Trafford.

Popular sentiment once suggested that Sir Alex Ferguson’s hairdryer routine was out of touch with a gentler, modern reality. Football had eased into the age of the sensitive new age manager. But there was a snag. It didn’t work for all.

In fact, there’s an argument that it didn't really work at all. Ferguson’s omnipresent fury may seem about as contemporary as battering an offspring in a supermarket queue, but the idea that an international, multicultural dressing room filled with multi-millionaires, needed to be endlessly indulged and pampered always seemed a tad naïve.

Pep Guardiola turned up at Manchester City and dumped a popular goalkeeper. Behind the infectious giggle and megawatt smile, Jurgen Klopp has rebuilt Liverpool’s line-up twice by losing dead weight. They are nice guys. But they are ruthless guys.

Neither of them showed any interest in signing the bronzed ATM from Portugal. But Manchester United did. Of course they did, because they were soft and flabby, a heavyweight boxer gone to seed, not quite aware of their surroundings and taking too many wrong decisions from too many hangers-on.

It’s not just easy with hindsight. It was easy at the time to see that Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t fit with United’s idea of counter-pressing. But he was bigger than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick, and the toxic imbalance of power allowed the Portuguese striker to do whatever he wanted.

That’s not idle speculation, but a direct quote from a former team-mate.

After the Wolves victory, Luke Shaw said that ten Hag has stopped United players from “doing whatever they want”. Such a simple concept at Old Trafford, the quaint notion of power residing with the person paid to have it. But Ferguson’s retirement left a power vacuum capable of sucking managers in like the Death Star tractor beam.

David Moyes tried to get tough and was laughed out of the club by senior players who’d won more in the previous season than their superior had won in his lifetime. Mourinho brought more personal baggage than the Kardashians at airport check-in and van Gaal was considered more of an avuncular relative, sitting with the kids and trying to handle a PlayStation controller for the first time. Solskjaer never shook off his imposter syndrome and Rangnick was viewed as an irrelevance.

As Shaw pointed out, they were United. They did whatever they wanted, except resemble a unified, winning line-up. They were behaving like children and needed to be treated as such.

Manchester United manager Erik Ten Hag shakes the hand of his striker Marcus Rashord following their 1-0 Premier League win over Wolves. (
Manchester United manager Erik Ten Hag shakes the hand of his striker Marcus Rashord following their 1-0 Premier League win over Wolves. (PHOTO: Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)

Moving on after Ronaldo departure

Ronaldo had a temper tantrum and was sent home. For good. To stick with the school analogy, he was the best-looking kid in class and the most popular with the girls. Even the PE teachers were in awe. But the new headmaster expelled him anyway. Ten Hag is rebuilding the name of the institution, not the individual.

And for a guy speaking in his second language, the Dutchman is proving adept at a pithy soundbite, too. When asked about Ronaldo taking Saudi cash, ten Hag simply said: “Let’s talk about the future.”

Just perfect.

Moyes and Solskjaer would’ve almost certainly paid tribute to Ronaldo’s club contributions. Mourinho and van Gaal might have gone with a sarcastic retort and Rangnick’s view was irrelevant. But the headmaster has moved on. New year. New class. There is nothing to gain from discussing former pupils, especially errant ones.

Of course, Ronaldo was an easy public display of workplace power, like Monica sacking Joey in her restaurant in Friends. There was never going to be any genuine pushback or cause for complaint. But disciplining Rashford for oversleeping is like reprimanding Bambi for playing on the ice. Rashford provided free dinners for the poor. He’s too sweet to savage.

Moreover, the line-up’s weak spot played into Rashford’s hands. There’s a hole at the apex. Having Anthony Martial as the club’s only No.9 is a little like having Donald Trump as the Republican Party’s only presidential candidate. He’s got experience in the job, but maybe not the kind needed right now.

Rashford had 10 goals to his name before the Wolves game, a couple of stellar England performances at the World Cup and the promise of being the one United performer with an air of unpredictability in attack. He was, in essence, undroppable.

Until ten Hag dropped him, making a bigger statement, perhaps, than sacking Ronaldo.

In such instances, it’s tempting to go for the easy analysis. 'Big manager makes big decision by dropping big player at big club' is the obvious headline , but ten Hag’s matter-of-fact response to the subsequent interrogation should delight the United faithful. He saw nothing complicated or controversial in the decision (and Rashford responded by coming off the bench to score the winner.)

This is heady stuff at Old Trafford. For years, Ferguson obsessed over the elusive, almost mystical qualities of “a Manchester United player”, but little attention was paid to the make-up of “a Manchester United manager”. Ten Hag looks, sounds and behaves like one.

Alan Hansen famously said that United would win nothing with kids, but ill-disciplined kids proved to be the problem in recent years. Now, they could finally win something with their headmaster.

For years, Ferguson obsessed over the elusive, almost mystical qualities of 'a Manchester United player', but little attention was paid to the make-up of 'a Manchester United manager'. Ten Hag looks, sounds and behaves like one.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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