Manchester United are back in another crisis, with serious questions being asked about the future of manager Erik ten Hag.
The Dutchman was only appointed in the summer of 2022, but after eight defeats in 15 games this season, he is under scrutiny.
The Athletic has spoken to a wide range of contacts within and connected to Manchester United, all of whom wanted to remain anonymous to protect their relationship with the club.
This is what we know about Ten Hag’s position.
How much pressure is Ten Hag under?
Despite United suffering their worst start to a season in 61 years, changing manager is not seen as the solution and Ten Hag’s position is not under immediate threat.
There is an awareness within the club that performances and results have to improve, but there is a belief that United’s predicament shows how quickly things can change in football.
After Saturday lunchtime’s trip to Fulham, United face a Champions League visit to Copenhagen, then welcome Luton Town to Old Trafford. All three are viewed as challenging but winnable games that could change the complexion heading into the next international break.
Ten Hag has been reluctant to seek excuses for United’s performances in the many setbacks and distractions they have faced this season: the number of injuries suffered, the disciplinary issues involving several players, or the uncertainty of the ongoing strategic review.
Others at Old Trafford believe the turbulence experienced off the pitch this season has not helped matters on it and that must be factored into any assessment of performances, including the manager’s. The club has been hit by a string of off-field issues, including the Mason Greenwood affair; domestic abuse allegations against Antony, which he denies; and a dispute between the manager and Jadon Sancho, which has seen the winger effectively frozen out of the first team set-up.
There is no plan to dismiss Ten Hag at present, but neither is there universal confidence in his abilities among those with connections to United. Some feel that after spending the majority of the past two decades coaching in the Netherlands, he has not fully adapted to the demands of the Premier League.
Others consider Ten Hag to be a good coach but the wrong personality for the situation United find themselves in.
Why are Manchester United playing so poorly?
Are the players still behind him?
The club’s hierarchy may be sticking with Ten Hag, but there is a growing feeling of unrest within the squad, with some players beginning to lose faith in him.
Ten Hag’s intensity, which was widely lauded and seen as a positive last season, is now being viewed as a problem and there are doubts as to whether he will change his approach to try to arrest the alarming run of performances. This has translated into a lack of belief in how he is preparing them to win matches.
The comment about wanting to “play more football” after the win over Brentford, made by Ten Hag when explaining his decision to take Casemiro off at half-time, did not go down well inside the dressing room.
Others raised eyebrows at Ten Hag’s decision to leave Raphael Varane out of the starting XI, picking Jonny Evans instead for United’s derby against Manchester City — a game they lost 3-0. The United manager cited “tactical reasons” when explaining his motive. Varane, 30, subsequently missed the Carabao Cup loss to Newcastle through illness.
His handling of the Sancho episode in September, where he questioned the winger’s standards in training before effectively being called a liar by the England international, has led to the player being exiled at Carrington.
Some in the dressing room feel the situation could have been handled differently by Ten Hag. Harry Maguire, who has returned to the squad in recent weeks after being stripped of the captaincy, was said to be bruised by efforts to get rid of him in the summer.
The Athletic has been told that Ten Hag is not on close terms with many of United’s players and a perceived lack of charisma on his part has frequently been cited.
Although players are beginning to have doubts about Ten Hag, not all of them believe he has lost the dressing room — and what he is being criticised for now is what he was being praised for a year ago. After all, they revelled in his discipline when he made them run 13.8km the day after losing 4-0 to Brentford in August 2022. Ten Hag joined his team on the run.
Some members of the squad, such as Andre Onana, Antony and Martinez, owe their United careers to Ten Hag and will therefore be behind him and hopeful the slide in form can be halted.
Who would ultimately make the decision to sack him?
That responsibility rests with co-chairman Joel Glazer, the member of the family most involved in the day-to-day running of the club.
However, such a decision would also be passed through chief executive Richard Arnold and would be based upon the recommendation of football director John Murtough, who is ultimately responsible for the football department and the key voice.
The appointment of Ten Hag was led by Murtough and is the most significant and consequential decision he has taken since being installed in the newly created director role almost three years ago.
Ten Hag was viewed as the candidate best placed to achieve long-term success and the club’s faith in his ability is said to remain intact.
However, the prospect of Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s 25 per cent minority investment complicates matters.
INEOS taking control of sporting matters at Old Trafford has raised questions over the future set-up at Old Trafford and, as revealed by The Athletic, Arnold is expected to leave his role as chief executive in the event Ratcliffe’s bid is approved.
An INEOS-led sporting department could have consequences for Murtough’s role and whether he would retain a significant say in the hiring or firing of managers is far from certain.
People close to the club feel no major decisions will be taken before Ratcliffe gains control of the sporting decisions as expected and the Glazers would not wish for upheaval while the process is nearing completion.
How much would sacking Ten Hag cost – and would it be prohibitive?
Ten Hag has 20 months to run on the three-year contract he signed upon his appointment from Ajax. Were United riding high in the league, we might be approaching the point where both parties would meet around the negotiating table to discuss renewed terms.
If Ten Hag were to be dismissed, he would need to be compensated and, for now, the question of whether United would be able to afford his dismissal is an open one.
Ten Hag earns a reported £9million per year at United, meaning to relieve him from his duties immediately would cost the club around £15m in compensation. Additional payments would need to be made to any members of staff to depart with him.
Assistant coaches Mitchell van der Gaag and Steve McClaren joined United following Ten Hag’s appointment and would likely depart with him, as might Benni McCarthy, another Ten Hag-linked addition.
For comparison, compensation payments to previously dismissed managers are disclosed under ‘exceptional items’ in United’s accounts.
The club paid out approximately £10million in compensation when dismissing Solskjaer and certain members of coaching staff, although this was dwarfed by the £19.6m paid to Mourinho and his departing backroom team three years earlier.
United would be expected to pay compensation to any club whose manager they hired as Ten Hag’s successor, depending on their contractual situation.
Do United’s finances leave enough room to swallow such an expense? It is a hypothetical question for as long as they keep faith in Ten Hag, although nevertheless worth exploring.
The club’s 2022-23 financial results, released last week, revealed the club’s cash reserves had fallen to £76m, while further drawdowns mean there is just £40m remaining on their revolving credit facility.
Perhaps most significantly, United are having to take care to remain within the bounds of financial fair play regulations due to spending heavily in previous years. We can safely say hefty compensation payments for an unexpected managerial change would not help those equations.
How big a complication is the proposed investment by Ratcliffe?
While United will insist it is business as usual until the INEOS deal to buy a 25 per cent stake and take control of the football operations goes through, there is undoubtedly a state of flux behind the scenes.
With Arnold expected to depart, other senior figures will be jockeying for their position.
Given where it is in the process of acquiring a stake in United, it would be remiss of INEOS not to have a view on the performances, the players and Ten Hag. But until a transaction goes through, predicting what it will do is difficult.
There is a clear sense that it would want to understand everything fully before making any kind of decision, which is not going to be possible until it is running the football department.
We know Ten Hag bumped into the INEOS team earlier this year when the club were making their presentations, but that meeting was brief and consisted of not much more than a handshake.
Talks over INEOS’ acquisition continue and a deal is yet to be finalised and signed off. INEOS declined to comment when contacted by The Athletic.
How much of the blame does Ten Hag deserve for United’s poor record this season?
There are many factors as to why United are suffering such a slump under Ten Hag, a number of which have nothing to do with the man himself. The Glazer family’s ownership, for one thing, continues to cultivate a toxic atmosphere around the club.
Ten Hag is ultimately a key figure in a football department that has undergone sweeping changes in recent months, with many new figures arriving in freshly created roles. The resulting structure is complicated, particularly when compared to some of United’s more streamlined elite rivals.
Murtough is in charge of the department, with a brief that extends far beyond transfers, and reports to Arnold. Below him, Matt Hargreaves — who arrived in the summer — deals with negotiations, with Steve Brown serving as head of scouting. Andy O’Boyle is the deputy football director and Murtough’s No 2.
United insist they have made significant progress in developing a more sophisticated football operation since the days when Ed Woodward and Matt Judge effectively ran the operation between them, but they acknowledge there is work to do. Several sources believe Murtough lacks the skills required to steer United’s transfer policy, although the club insist he is highly rated.
In the meantime, the prospect of Ratcliffe effectively taking control of the football department has created disquiet around those already working there, who are understandably concerned about their futures. None of that uncertainty has been helpful to Ten Hag as he has sought to turn things around on the field.
However, he has played a part in exacerbating personnel issues. More than £330million has been spent over three transfer windows under Ten Hag’s watch and yet the team does not seem closer to having a coherent style. Their shopping list for next summer again looks to include long-standing problem areas such as centre-back and defensive midfield.
Ten Hag has said he has been unable to field his best XI due to injuries. Luke Shaw, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Martinez and Tyrell Malacia have all suffered long-term problems, while Sergio Reguilon, Varane and Mason Mount have missed games. Casemiro is the latest casualty after suffering a hamstring strain against Newcastle on Wednesday that has ruled him out of Saturday’s game away to Fulham.
United are not alone in this regard, but it is not unreasonable to wonder if Ten Hag’s training methods, coupled with a long pre-season, may have played a role in the problems they have encountered.
Availability issues have helped create a sense of confusion and indecision in the team’s style of play. Ten Hag seems caught in two minds between picking energetic midfielders in the hope of protecting the back four or creative midfielders who can help a low-in-confidence attacking trio ahead. It is strange that Ten Hag pushed so hard to sign Mount from Chelsea in the summer, for example, but has been reluctant to use him in recent weeks.
Are there viable options to replace him?
United do not have a fixed plan in place on who they would target if the Dutchman did leave.
Unlike a club such as Brighton & Hove Abvion, who make forward planning for managerial departures a key part of their strategy, United have not made an assessment of the market. It is possible, however, that agents may pitch names to senior executives.
United categorically denied a report yesterday saying they were exploring options to replace him. The report named Ruben Amorim, the Sporting Lisbon head coach, and Zinedine Zidane as coaches of interest. “The report claiming that we are exploring alternatives to Erik ten Hag as manager is categorically false,” a club statement read.
No talks have taken place with Amorim, although United did express an interest in him via an intermediary in early 2022, before Ten Hag’s appointment.
Given United’s financial situation, it is more likely that a Ten Hag successor — if hired at this point in time — will be a manager without a club.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, the hiring of every United manager has been a response to the perceived weakness of the previous man. In this instance, that would be Ten Hag’s man-management skills and ability to communicate effectively with the dressing room.
In an odd quirk, United’s previous hiring tendency means a post-Ten Hag manager could be someone in the vein of Solskjaer — a figure who can communicate well and help players relax while a wilder cultural reset can occur.
There is no shortage of elite coaches who are out of work. Zidane, a three-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid, is the highest-profile, but the list includes the likes of Graham Potter (out of work since his brief and unhappy spell at Chelsea), Hansi Flick (sacked by Germany in September), and Antonio Conte (out of work since leaving Tottenham in March).
Julen Lopetegui, who was also spoken to before Ten Hag’s appointment in 2022, Lucien Favre and Solskjaer, who has not taken another management job since leaving United, are available.
Ernesto Valverde was considered for an interim role before the appointment of Ralf Rangnick in November 2021, but is now in charge of Athletic Bilbao.
(Additional reporting: Carl Anka, David Ornstein, Adam Crafton, Laurie Whitwell, Daniel Taylor)
(Top photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)