Erik ten Hag has won silverware in his first season as Manchester United manager. The Dutchman oversaw a 2-0 win against Newcastle United in the League Cup Final at Wembley. The victory followed an impressive win over Barcelona in the Europa League a few days earlier. These results keep Man Utd in the hunt for multiple trophies this season.
Legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson won 13 league titles, 9 domestic cups, and 3 European trophies with Manchester United. This was one of the most dominant spells in English football history. Replacing the Scotsman as manager was a daunting task for the club’s owners. Predictably, the appointments made have been rather mixed.
David Moyes lasted less than a season as Ferguson’s immediate successor. Moyes couldn’t win a major trophy, netting only the Community Shield. Louis van Gaal followed him and won an FA Cup in his first season, but lasted less than two years in the hotseat. It was a similar story with José Mourinho as he won the League Cup and the Europa League but left after two and a half seasons with the club in poor league form and with unrest amongst supporters. Former playing favourite Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reached the Europa League Final but lost to Villarreal on penalties, with his tenure also ending without a trophy.
By winning the League Cup in his first season in charge, ten Hag has matched van Gaal already and has matching or surpassing Mourinho’s record in his sights. However, is it too early for tabloid-front-page-style mockups of ten Hag as a magician? van Gaal and Mourinho won trophies with the club too, but ultimately weren’t able to sustain it. Has the club truly been transformed to avoid history repeating itself?
All of those previous managers had optimistic beginnings to their time in charge. Moyes won the Community Shield. Solskjaer led the club back to a top-three finish and reached Semi-Finals and Finals. Mourinho and van Gaal won trophies early in their tenures before things fell apart.
Therefore, to an extent it is always going to be early to say whether ten Hag has really transformed things. Until the Dutchman has multiple successful seasons, there is still the possibility that he could be a similar appointment to van Gaal or Mourinho.
Those who doubt whether Manchester United have really changed have plenty of ammunition. Long-term questions over the club’s ownership remain. It feels like supporters are only ever a few results away from outright revolt. Although a trophy is a trophy, Man Utd faced Aston Villa, Burnley, Charlton, Nottingham Forest, and Newcastle en route to League Cup success: hardly a who’s who of English football. Charlton’s Ashley Maynard-Brewer was the only regular starter to play in goal against Man Utd in the League Cup campaign.
Signs of Change
Much of that criticism is harsh. Man Utd can only beat what is in front of them and have done so comfortably. Most impressively, the Wembley win came just days after a great win over Barcelona. Man Utd dealt comfortably with the La Liga leaders. A Newcastle side that has been hard to beat this season also never looked like winning the Cup Final.
ten Hag has shown himself capable of making difficult decisions and backing his own judgment despite criticism. Fans reacted poorly to the idea of Steve McLaren’s return to the club as his assistant. However, that appointment has worked well, giving him a native English speaker who knows the club and league and who he trusts after working together before. The decision to sign Wout Weghorst on loan from Burnley was described as “not a Man Utd transfer”. However, Weghorst does a lot of the hard work and provides a balance and strength at the top of the formation that is allowing those around him, notably Marcus Rashford, to shine.
There are plenty of signs that ten Hag is a shrewd operator. Fans will rightly be optimistic of further success with him in charge.
ten Hag’s Victories
Winning over the fans at Man Utd is one thing. Quite another is getting the most out of the club’s owners and directors. ten Hag seems to have got more from those behind the scenes at Old Trafford than his predecessors.
Mourinho’s reign collapsed during a high-profile spat with Paul Pogba. The club backed the star player that time and asked the manager to get a song out of him. The Portugeuse will be looking on enviously at how ten Hag was allowed to discard Cristiano Ronaldo in similar circumstances. The club terminated Ronaldo’s deal early and he is now plying his trade in the Saudi Arabian league. Mourinho has said that he identified a centre back as his top target and the club did not act on this. Meanwhile, ten Hag stated that a central midfielder was his priority and the club signed Casemiro. The Brazilian has been a revelation since joining the club from Real Madrid.
The Path Forward
Man Utd’s owners will point to their £1.4bn outlay on transfers since Ferguson retired. They have an argument: this is a level of finance that only Manchester City have been able to match – and then only whilst racking up a raft of alleged financial rule violations.
Whilst spending levels haven’t been a problem post-Ferguson, truly backing the manager has been. The club has often taken a step forward only to then sit still instead of pushing on. This allows other clubs to catch up and then to pass them again.
The Glazer family have been exploring a sale of the club. There could be new owners coming in the future, although it doesn’t seem a quick process. The Glazers remain deeply unpopular with fans. The only way that is going to change is if they win a lot more trophies. Even then, they may never be popular; too much bad blood has been allowed to develop. Fans simply do not believe the current owners have the club’s interests at heart.
The League Cup is a start, but it’s too early to say Manchester United are truly transformed. Erik ten Hag does seem like someone who could oversee a return to the very top. To do so, Manchester United need to get back to what made them great in the 1990s: fully trusting the man at the helm.