EPL TALK: Ten Hag must assert himself or end up like Solskjaer

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Former Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (left) and current boss Erik ten Hag. (PHOTO: Getty Images)
Former Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (left) and current boss Erik ten Hag. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

FOR the pre-season tour, Manchester United supporters shuffled along for the latest round of far-flung friendlies like Star Wars fans waiting in line for the next instalment, all saying the same thing.

Maybe this one will be better. The last one was terrible and the one before that, too. But this time, there are new ideas and characters. The man in charge of the wannabe empire has a European accent. This is going to be a return to form, surely.

And the pre-season tour was a success. Asia hosted one United victory after another. The need for speed was obvious. New signings obliged, dazzling along the flanks and pushing the fast-pressing agenda, while Anthony Martial led the line, enthusiastically and positively, scoring goals during the branding exercise.

The faith in the manager was warranted, even if it was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

In 2019, the Red Devils visited Singapore and China, promising a faster, fitter squad, dominating the wings through new signings Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka and winning four out of four on tour.

Mason Greenwood scored the winner against Inter Milan in Singapore and Martial found the target against Tottenham in Shanghai as Solskjaer pulled together the traditional strands of United’s DNA to build back some of that lost beastliness.

But Frankenstein’s Monster turned into Solskjaer’s mice, a timid bunch with malleable backbones.

Today, James is gone, Wan-Bissaka will follow if the right offer comes in and Greenwood is out of the picture. The more things change, the more they stay the same, with Martial up front, desperately hoping to sustain his pre-season form into the period that actually matters.

For United followers, this is Groundhog Day back to front. The morning begins with a euphoric dream of pre-season victories, overlapping wing-backs and Martial leading the line and ends with the nightmarish reality of a tactical collapse, exposed centre-backs, inferior branded goods and Martial disappearing faster than David de Gea coming for a cross.

In truth, United should treat this period like Brad Pitt’s Fight Club. The first rule of pre-season is, we do not talk about pre-season. And the second rule is, we do not talk about pre-season, unless it’s to acknowledge that the performances carry as much weight and meaning as a Thor sequel. They’re a bit of a laugh. Don’t overthink ‘em.

But of course, I’m doing just that, comparing the premature expectation of Solskjaer’s decent pre-season of 2019 to the Erik ten Hag sequel of 2022, but only to recognise their relative unimportance from a form and fitness standpoint, whilst spotting the clear and present dangers of repeating the themes of 2019.

Back then, vivid memories of standing behind the goal at the Singapore National Stadium, watching James and Wan-Bissaka orchestrate counter-attacking exercises for Solskjaer have been replicated this time around, according to reports, as ten Hag laid out his template for progressive, aesthetically pleasing football, easy on the eye and hard on the opponent.

But the new approach has also been hard on the Red Devils. Their current centre-backs are not renowned for their acceleration and Crystal Palace and Melbourne Victory both exposed ten Hag’s high line, bypassing AWOL wing-backs to poke United’s soft underbelly, also known as Harry Maguire.

Manchester United manager Erik Ten Hag (left) with defender Harry Maguire during the pre-season friendly match against Aston Villa in Perth.
Manchester United manager Erik Ten Hag (left) with defender Harry Maguire during the pre-season friendly match against Aston Villa in Perth. (PHOTO: Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)

At this point, criticising United’s skipper is like making fun of Donald Trump. It’s too easy and needlessly cruel in the case of Maguire. But the England centre-back may come to represent a cultural and tactical barometer for teg Hag, a useful guide for how decisive and committed the Dutch coach is going to be, in terms of his principles and personnel.

With Victor Lindelof’s lack of pace an ongoing concern and the delay to sign Lisandro Martínez leaving the Argentine short of match fitness, ten Hag must back Maguire, in the short-term at least, as he searches for a degree of continuity.

But something has to give here. Either ten Hag turns into a Zen master to rival NBA coach Phil Jackson, coaxing hitherto unseen levels of confidence and consistency from his captain (possible) or he tweaks his philosophy to ensure additional defensive cover (unlikely) or he eventually sells Maguire (if all other options are exhausted).

Ten Hag must assert himself in a way that eluded Solskjaer, who retained the aura of a nervous, rookie teacher inviting the coolest A-Level students out for sneaky beers.

Ten Hag’s initial loyalty towards Maguire is understandable and necessary – Maguire has time to demonstrate his value in a tweaked system while his manager is short of options – but the Dutchman’s relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo is more concerning.

There isn't one.

According to reports, the two men are yet to meet. Ten Hag has spoken of productive conversations on the phone, sounding like a jilted lover trying to convince friends that it’s only a matter of time before he reconciles with a partner who was clearly out of his league.

Ronaldo may have a family situation to contend with. Ronaldo may have contacted Atletico Madrid. Ronaldo may have even pondered the reported offer of going out on loan for a season before returning to giddy United executives, delighted at the prospect of having their 38-year-old social media influencer back in the fold.

All or none of the above could be true, but every headline, fabricated or otherwise, is a wearying battle of the brands that potentially diminishes ten Hag’s position.

Solskjaer was mocked for buying the striker. Ten Hag faces similar ridicule for keeping the ageing icon. Neither manager caused the Ronaldo problem. But only one remains in a position to settle it.

Solskjaer was mocked for buying the striker. Ten Hag faces similar ridicule for keeping the ageing icon. Neither manager caused the Ronaldo problem. But only one remains in a position to settle it.

Unlike Solskjaer, ten Hag enjoys considerable latitude among supporters. His track record at Ajax has earned him a grace period to clear the upcoming obstacles. But he needs to clear them.

His English Premier League opener against Brighton and Hove Albion is less than two weeks away and decisions are still to be made concerning Ronaldo’s future, Maguire’s struggles, Martial’s position and the inherent defensive weaknesses of ten Hag’s tactical ambition.

He might find that he has little to lose in asserting himself in as many of these areas as possible. Solskjaer went the other way, pandering to the status quo and pacifying corporate interests.

It did not end well.

And United’s recent managerial history has a stubborn habit of repeating itself.

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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