Should Man United sack or keep Ten Hag? Here’s a case for both and the answer

Football

Erik ten Hag is fighting to save his job as Manchester United manager. The 54-year-old has yet to be given the unequivocal backing of the club’s new football leadership regime, led by new minority owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe, and the team are outsiders to secure Champions League qualification — eight points adrift of fourth place with 12 games left to play in the Premier League.

With United already out of this season’s Champions League — Ten Hag’s side finished bottom of their group — and eliminated from the Carabao Cup in the fourth round, the FA Cup is the club’s only route to silverware, with Wednesday’s fifth-round tie at Nottingham Forest (stream live on ESPN+) now a huge game for Ten Hag and his players.

Ten Hag, hired from Ajax in June 2022, won the Carabao Cup and guided United to a third-placed finish in the Premier League in his first season, but his second campaign has seen the team lurch from one disappointment to another.

So what does the future hold for the Dutch coach? With his new bosses already making moves off the field by hiring a new CEO, Omar Berrada from Manchester City, and lining up Newcastle’s Dan Ashworth as director of football, the manager’s position is uncertain to due to a lack of public commitment to Ten Hag.

There are good reasons for him to stay; there are similarly good ones for him to be replaced. But what will United do?

Stream on ESPN+: FA Cup, LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

Why Ten Hag has to go

Every football manager is ultimately judged on results and that is why Ten Hag’s Old Trafford future is so uncertain.

United have massively underperformed this season, particularly in the Champions League where they won just one game and finished bottom of a weak group including Galatasaray and FC Copenhagen. Ten Hag’s team conceded 15 goals in six games — only Belgian minnows Royal Antwerp (17) had a worse defensive record in the competition.

In the Premier League, Ten Hag’s team have lost more games at this stage of the season (10) than David Moyes’s 2013-14 side (8), and Moyes was fired less than 12 months into a six-year contract shortly before the end of that campaign.

It has been one step forward then one step back for United this season. Despite the club boasting the most expensive squad ever assembled last year, according to UEFA, this term their goal difference after 26 games stands at zero — they have scored 36 goals and conceded the same amount. To put those numbers into context, leaders Liverpool have a goal difference of +38, having scored 63 and conceded 25; Arsenal have the best goal difference right now (+39) after scoring 62 and conceding 23.

How United perform on the pitch is down to Ten Hag. He selects the players and decides the tactics, and he has been let down by both. Too many players have failed to live up to their reputation, with nobody dropping below their level more than England forward Marcus Rashford. But Ten Hag’s game plan has repeatedly been exposed by rival managers, whose teams have taken advantage of the chaotic nature of United’s defending as a team.

United’s forwards don’t press as energetically or strategically as other teams, their midfielders lack defensive discipline and are too often caught out of position while opponents attack on the counter, and Ten Hag’s defenders, particularly his full-backs, rarely perform like a cohesive unit.

While Ten Hag’s tactical qualities have come under the microscope, his judgement in the transfer market is another significant flaw. Ten Hag pushed United to sign winger Antony from Ajax following his arrival from the same Dutch club in 2022. United’s recruitment team had reservations about the Brazil international’s ability to succeed and also the £85 million fee being demanded by Ajax, but Ten Hag won the argument as the club were determined to back their new manager in his first summer.

Antony has been an expensive flop, registering just one goal and one assist in all competitions this season. Goalkeeper André Onana, who played under Ten Hag at Ajax and signed for £47.5m from Inter Milan over the summer, is another who has struggled to perform to expectations.

Ultimately, a manager who posts bad results, makes poor signings, and fails to make his team competitive is only heading in one direction: through the exit door.

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Nicol: Fulham outplayed Man United at Old Trafford

Steve Nicol reacts to Fulham’s 2-1 win over Manchester United in the Premier League.

Why Ten Hag has to stay

Ever since Ten Hag walked into Old Trafford in the summer of 2022, he has had to deal with an endless array of off-field issues. None have been bigger than the destabilising impact of the club’s majority owners, the Glazer family, spending over a year to undertake a “strategic review” that has ended with Ratcliffe buying a minority stake and taking charge of football operations.

The Glazers, unpopular owners since acquiring United in 2005, have been a lightning rod for supporter unrest, so Ten Hag has had to build his team to the backdrop of constant protest and disharmony.

Ten Hag sanctioned the exit of Cristiano Ronaldo to Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr in November 2022 after the forward repeatedly challenged his authority, while he banished Jadon Sancho from the first-team squad before sending him on loan back to Borussia Dortmund after the winger refused to apologise for a public display of dissent on social media earlier this season. Meanwhile, Rashford’s off-field conduct, having twice angered Ten Hag with his socialising this season, has done little to make the manager’s job easier.

Injuries have been another major problem for Ten Hag. Lisandro Martínez, Mason Mount, Casemiro, Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial and Tyrell Malacia have all missed significant periods due to injury this season, with the majority still sidelined. Centre-forward Rasmus Højlund arrived from Atalanta for £64m in the summer with a back injury that delayed his debut for over a month, and the Denmark international is now injured again and faces a few weeks out with a muscular injury after finally finding his goal-scoring form.

Ten Hag’s supporters would also argue that United have failed to deliver the players he wanted the club to sign. Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong was regarded by Ten Hag as crucial to his plans, but United were unable to persuade the Netherlands international to leave for Old Trafford despite agreeing a £58m move with Barca.

United also failed to challenge Bayern Munich for the £88m signing of England striker Harry Kane last summer due to concerns over Tottenham’s willingness to do business with another English team. Senior figures at United have told ESPN that Ten Hag favoured a move for the young Højlund due to a belief that he would be more suited to his desire for a forward who would press opponents high up the pitch, but other sources said that it was the club’s finances which dictated the pursuit of Højlund over Kane.

One key element of Ten Hag’s appointment as manager was his track record of putting faith in young players — a quality which chimes with United’s deep-rooted tradition of backing young talent.

Ten Hag has delivered in that area, with both winger Alejandro Garnacho (19) and midfielder Kobbie Mainoo (18) emerging as first-team players this season after being given opportunities by the manager. Højlund, at 21, is another young star beginning to shine under Ten Hag as he has scored 13 goals in his 30 games across all competitions so far this season.

So while results on the pitch do little to help Ten Hag mount a convincing case to keep his job, it is clear that he has worked in an extremely tough environment because of off-field factors. With Ratcliffe now bringing clarity and a sharpened focus on football, Ten Hag might now actually be able to spend more time doing what he was employed to do: build a team capable of making United serious challengers again. Why move him on this summer when he hasn’t had the opportunity to prove himself?

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Does Sir Jim Ratcliffe have a plan for Old Trafford?

Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens try to decipher what Sir Jim Ratcliffe will do with Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium.

Verdict

If Ten Hag fails to secure Champions League qualification for United this season, it is difficult to envisage a scenario in which he survives as manager. But the financial blow of missing out on the game’s premier club competition would make it more challenging for United to fire Ten Hag and replace him with a high-profile successor.

A source has told ESPN that it would cost in the region of £14m to dismiss Ten Hag and his staff with 12 months remaining on their Old Trafford contracts.

If it costs another £10m-£15m to hire a new coach, that would leave a significant hole in the club’s budget at a time when United are struggling to comply with financial fair play regulations due to a combination of over-spending, low returns from outgoing transfers and reduced prize money in recent seasons.

Ratcliffe and his new football regime have made it clear that they want to reduce the financial waste that has held United back in recent years. They want to be smarter in the transfer market and ensure that the days of high spending on inadequate players are over. But if the first decision they make centres on a £25m-£30m outlay to change the manager, it would set the club back and make it harder to take the team forward.

It is unlikely that Ten Hag will survive simply because the costs of removing him seem unpalatable, however. High-profile, successful coaches including Thomas Tuchel and Jose Mourinho will be on the market this summer, while the likes of Brighton’s Robert De Zerbi, Sporting’s Rúben Amorim and Porto’s Sérgio Conceição are emerging as contenders for bigger jobs in the months ahead.

With Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Liverpool already in the market for new coaches at the end of the season — and change possible at Chelsea, Newcastle and Paris Saint-Germain — the managerial carousel may be more interesting than the player transfer window.

This summer offers United the chance to make a big change at a time when many of their rivals are also looking to press the reset button. History shows that new regimes/new owners generally hire their own manager within 12 months of taking charge, so Ten Hag has it all to do to save his job. His results, recruitment and tactics all count against him, so even if he manages to sneak United into the Champions League, he hasn’t done enough to earn another year as manager.

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