Erik ten Hag's Manchester United – player and staff tensions, football principles and what's next

After a fortnight in which INEOS conducted a season review without testimony from Erik ten Hag, the confirmation he is staying means dialogue can now take place about a campaign in which Manchester United exited the Champions League at the group stage and slumped to an eighth-place finish in the Premier League, before pulling off a stirring FA Cup victory.

Sifting through the causes behind a campaign of contradictions will come once an agreement is reached on Ten Hag’s new contract, the exact make-up of which needs some discussion. Extending Ten Hag is viewed as an essential show of support after the huge uncertainty on his position, but the fresh terms may in exchange bring a reevaluation of his role. There are multiple points on which both sides must yet find agreement.


Ten Hag remains but so too do questions over his level of boardroom support at Man United

That kind of negotiation, coming off the back of INEOS scouring the managerial market so publicly for alternatives and advancing to salary discussions with Thomas Tuchel and Roberto De Zerbi, is an indication that the resolution remains fragile.

However they have arrived at this outcome, United will want more from Ten Hag in his third season, just as he himself will hope that the “environment” Sir Jim Ratcliffe spoke of is materially improved.

The Athletic has spoken to dozens of well-placed sources, all of whom will remain anonymous to protect relationships, to deliver the full story of a season that ended with Ten Hag surviving a major scare on his job, including:

  • Casemiro and Varane voicing a preference for coaching approach of Ancelotti and Zidane
  • Ten Hag’s frustrations at waiting months for a new doctor
  • Attempts to instil discipline after Vegas night out
  • Player complaints of “bad cop, bad cop” management
  • Executives question if Van der Gaag right fit as No 2
  • How McClaren and Fletcher lobbied for pragmatic football
  • Belief the lack of a sporting director undermined Ten Hag’s authority
  • Rashford’s 90-minute one-on-one with Brailsford
  • Squad’s desire for Kane, and other targets missed

Tensions with the players

Erik ten Hag was given a three-point brief when he took charge of Manchester United in the summer of 2022. The board told him to play attacking football, as he had done when taking Ajax to the Champions League semi-finals in 2019; “clean the dressing room”; and win trophies. There was an expectation it would take six transfer windows to achieve it, after a season in which United had finished on 58 points.

Ten Hag made no secret of how he would go about trying to meet those aims when interviewed for the job by John Murtough and Darren Fletcher in early 2022. He had answers to every game scenario posed by the United directors and explained, in detail, his coaching methods, which are built around a blueprint of dozens of principles of play.

It is those principles, however, which cut to the heart of the turbulence Ten Hag has encountered at United.

Over his two seasons, Ten Hag has repeatedly cited players not following “the rules” when it comes to bad performances or poor actions on the pitch. Following the 2021-22 season where order was absent, with Ten Hag saying he inherited “a mess”, the implementation of a team structure was regarded as essential within the club and the fanbase.

But establishing that has been far from straightforward. Some players pushed back at what they felt was an overload of information, believing it to be micromanagement that inhibited their play. Others could not fully grasp what was being asked.

Cristiano Ronaldo was something of a litmus test. Ten Hag tried to get Ronaldo to press, not least because of his own ideals but also due to the wish from directors for a high-intensity style.

He made allowances. Rather than asking for three distinct runs as he would do of a young player, he wanted two — for example, chasing the first defender on the ball, then following to the goalkeeper, before dropping back into shape if unsuccessful. Ronaldo was coached on this time and again but he made minimal movements in training, according to people with direct knowledge of the sessions, leaving some staff to wonder if he understood.

There are people familiar with the situation at United who believe Ronaldo knew what was being asked yet failed to comply because he felt it was not the best use of his abilities or the way to win matches. Ronaldo went on to leave the club in dramatic circumstances, ending up playing in the Saudi Pro League, but the cracks his resistance had caused remained, with other players gradually emboldened to disagree with their manager.



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Casemiro and Raphael Varane spoke to team-mates about the similar approaches taken by Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, which gave players more freedom and greater agency on workload, and how Ten Hag’s positional style of football was not to their taste.

They were told by staff that Madrid is a completely different club to United and La Liga a slower competition with less strength in depth than the Premier League, so those same liberal techniques would not work. But Casemiro and Varane, having won multiple titles, had strong feelings and became dissenting voices.

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Varane and Casemiro had been used to a different approach (Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images)

Those familiar with the situation feel that player power has been a major issue at United for years and having senior professionals doubt the message from this latest manager planted seeds with others in the dressing room. Alejandro Garnacho responded well to firm feedback, with Kobbie Mainoo described as a sponge for instruction by people with knowledge of the training environment.

Bringing through the two teenagers and adding value to the club is viewed as a sign of Ten Hag’s credentials, but wrestling control of this debate over tactics has been one of Ten Hag’s major tasks.

In that proxy war, Jadon Sancho took the public route. Ten Hag’s disappointment with Sancho over his application came to a head during a training session before the Arsenal game in September. Sancho did not commit to pressing as an “opposition” player in the practice match in the way Ten Hag wanted. Sancho was offered the chance to end his involvement early, which he took by walking off the pitch. Ten Hag referenced Sancho’s training levels after the Arsenal defeat and the player responded with his infamous social media post, accusing him of double standards and effectively calling his manager a liar.

Ten Hag attempted to explain his point to Sancho in one meeting at Carrington and attempted to schedule another summit a few days later in which it was expected Sancho would apologise privately, face-to-face. But this did not happen. Forwards coach Benni McCarthy has said personal pride was a factor. “If you’re from the streets, no one wants to apologise,” McCarthy told South African radio station 947 Joburg. “Jadon wasn’t going to have that.”

Ten Hag exiled Sancho in response. He felt Sancho was an incredible player but that his attitude did not correspond to a winning culture. His patience had been stretched months earlier after his second game in charge, away to Brentford, when Sancho told him United had bought the wrong player because his preference was to play on the left, rather than the right. This guided Ten Hag’s decision to go for a player in that position in the remaining days of the transfer market — ultimately, Antony.

The sight of Sancho performing well on the right wing in Borussia Dortmund’s run to the Champions League final was not lost on people at United. Sancho was known to be a free spirit on the pitch and around the training ground — a “cheeky chap” according to one person with knowledge of the environment — albeit capable of poor timekeeping and unsatisfactory responses to instructions on what to do in possession and on transition.

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The relationship between Sancho and Ten Hag was never repaired (Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

In his first season, Ten Hag gave Sancho two months away from United to decompress. But in his second season, when Sancho seemed to ignore assistant Mitchell van der Gaag in a session, Ten Hag felt he crossed a line, so he stepped in. United will look to sell Sancho this summer, aiming for a £40million ($51m) fee — a decision taken irrespective of Ten Hag being manager.

Sancho had friends in the dressing room, though, and some at the club felt the situation could have been handled differently. That friction between Ten Hag’s matter-of-fact personality and a group of players which includes many different characters, some needing a softer touch, created fractures. Consistent injuries meant Ten Hag was unable to use rotation as a means of rewarding those who subscribed to his doctrine and reprimanding those who did not.

Some players began to switch off because of meetings that went over the same details. After sessions, Ten Hag was known to make his way around players to impart instructions while walking off the grass, then hold another meeting in the briefing room at Carrington to emphasise his points. Occasionally these lasted up to an hour, but the standard was 30 minutes or less.

Some senior players felt the repetition was too much. Ten Hag could counter that Pep Guardiola, Mikel Arteta, and Unai Emery are all known for drilling in details over video meetings. He is known to believe studying footage is a way of understanding the tactical plans without using energy on the training pitches.

Still, in the final weeks of the season, Ten Hag toned down this aspect of his management, conducting informal meetings in the Carrington dressing room as players were preparing for gym sessions. He tried to vary his message to trigger fresh reactions, notably with two inspirational videos before the FA Cup final.


From his perspective though, he had been provided with enough evidence to suggest that some players needed their responsibilities on the pitch hammering home.

Take the example of Antony, who sometimes lacks focus when instructed to mark certain players at set pieces. For Cole Palmer’s stoppage-time winner at Stamford Bridge from a Chelsea corner, Antony stood on the edge of the box not picking up anyone.

Antony has shown disobedience to Ten Hag’s demands twice during games. He made an exploding motion with his hand to his head when Ten Hag told him to play at left-back during the 4-3 FA Cup win over Liverpool and repeated the action — a sign of his incredulity — when shifted to the same position in the 1-0 Premier League loss to Arsenal. In the dressing room afterwards, Ten Hag ripped into the Brazilian, telling him bluntly he had to play where he was told, with United trying on both occasions to take drastic measures to turn games around.



Antony, Manchester United’s €95million problem

Ten Hag felt that relaxing his approach, such as guiding Antony through his thought process, would have undermined his authority with a squad that requires strong leadership. It can be a political club and there are those who know the environment who suspect any sign of weakness from Ten Hag would see him at the “slaughter” of players.

Ten Hag also gave Antony brutal criticism in the dressing room after his display from the bench in the 2-0 win over Everton in March, to the extent that Antony appeared visibly affected. The performances of Antony have been held against Ten Hag, given he chose him ahead of two other options proposed by United’s recruitment team, including Raphinha, with the price reaching £86m. Antony’s first season finished with eight goals and three assists in all competitions and his second campaign totalled three goals and two assists.

Ten Hag is said by those familiar with the matter to be deeply disappointed the signing is not working out, especially after backing Antony at various stages, including when police opened an investigation over domestic violence allegations. That investigation remains ongoing.

Some of the accusations dated back to his time at Ajax, prompting questions of due diligence by United, but the private firm hired by the club to run checks on Antony before his signing did not flag any concerns. Antony denies any wrongdoing. Several people at United believe those off-field problems distracted him from focusing on the improvements needed in his game.

Marcus Rashford has also had an under-par season, scoring eight goals and getting five assists in all competitions. At times, Rashford has appeared confused on the pitch and encumbered by the responsibility on his shoulders following a 30-goal campaign and new contract signed last July, which people with knowledge of the matter say is £325,000 per week basic with substantial bonuses.

There was concern as well as anger internally when Rashford went on two nights out in Belfast, being seen on the second of those entering a club gone midnight, hours before he was due for a Friday morning training session. He phoned in sick and missed that Sunday’s FA Cup tie at Newport County, having initially insisted he had only gone out on the Wednesday. Ten Hag fined Rashford two weeks’ wages in response, although there have been delays to the process.

That Monday at Carrington, Sir Dave Brailsford addressed the squad en masse for the first time to outline the INEOS strategy, particularly in terms of raising standards across the club. Brailsford’s introduction was planned rather than a reaction to Rashford’s indiscipline, but it appeared to strike a chord with the player.


Rashford’s fine has been halted (Michael Regan – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

As team-mates were filing out of the room, Rashford requested a one-on-one meeting with Brailsford. The pair spoke for 90 minutes and afterwards, Rashford appeared energised. Ten Hag, having turned down Rashford’s request to play at Newport, reinstated him to the team at Wolves that Thursday and Rashford scored the opening goal after five minutes of a 4-3 win.

Brailsford went on to hold a series of private meetings with every member of United’s squad to fully understand the landscape at the club, but did not entertain any focus on Ten Hag, according to people familiar with the process.

Rashford is known to have taken issue with Ten Hag’s style of management, though. The pair seemed to have a strong relationship after a productive first season, with Rashford given the platform to play some of the best football of his career, but strains emerged. Rashford is the kind of player who takes on coaching in bite-sized chunks rather than exhaustive instructions. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer kept Rashford’s game relatively simple, focusing on his ability to cut in from the left and run in behind. The arrival of Rasmus Hojlund, who likes to pick up the ball in the inside left channel, saw Rashford shift further towards the wing, away from the areas where he did his best work.



Marcus Rashford – what happened?

Rashford hiring a new PR in Caroline McAteer, who works with Ronaldo, Sancho and Varane (plus Mason Mount), caused ripples at United due to challenging relationships between those three players and Ten Hag. Rashford felt he needed an advocate in the media in the face of intense scrutiny and online abuse.

Executive uncertainty, Las Vegas and ‘bad cop, bad cop’

When INEOS arrived, there was an opportunity for United to trigger the clause in Ten Hag’s contract extending its length by one year to 2026. But instead, the sense arose of Ten Hag being a manager on trial, in a similar manner to his predecessor, Ralf Rangnick, whose interim status became an excuse for players to slack off towards the end of the campaign. Those who make the case for INEOS argue a manager should be able to operate effectively whatever the length of his contract.

But the steady stream of reports on potential Ten Hag replacements compounded the matter in the opinion of some close to the club, as did Ratcliffe never publicly backing Ten Hag.



Manchester United’s pursuit of Thomas Tuchel suggests a club uncertain of the way forward

Another parallel between Rangnick and Ten Hag has been the absence of a sporting director, in terms of someone in power being able to spell out to players the long-term consequences for short-term behaviours. That gap will continue until Dan Ashworth arrives. Jason Wilcox, the technical director, has been getting to grips with the club and his role.

Real engagement from above has been scarce in Ten Hag’s tenure. Murtough, the former football director, did not exert his status on the squad, while Fletcher, the technical director until Wilcox arrived, has been more of a conduit for information and a guiding presence for younger players than an authority figure.

In that setting, Ten Hag took the initiative and leaned into the stubborn side of his personality to try to wrest control of the group. Those who know him feel he may have relaxed a little had he been able to dovetail with a more assertive personality at executive level. One player acknowledged those wider issues when privately confiding the club had been run “like a circus”.

The INEOS investment spread an element of discord as staff realised a major change was coming. The mantra from Ratcliffe and Brailsford during introductory addresses caused excitement and also trepidation. Those in the new co-owners’ group wanted to get rid of a supposed “job for life” culture and trim the 1,000-strong workforce significantly. They were aware it would cause some immediate upset but aimed to streamline operations and create a culture of high ambition.

The January transfer window was marked by executives trying to impress the new regime rather than channel all energies into whether the squad could be supplemented, with Ten Hag desperate for a striker.

In that setting, the atmosphere at Carrington soured. Tactically, Ten Hag is very respected, but there is little room for manoeuvre in his vision. Van der Gaag has a similar personality and some players saw him and Ten Hag as “bad cop, bad cop”. Van der Gaag is vital to the daily flow at Carrington, setting the training programme and overseeing logistics. He is described as working “24/7”, watching each opponent four or five times and having a strong rapport with the analysts. His fluency in several languages, particularly Portuguese, is seen as vital for communication. Those who know Van der Gaag well say he has a dry wit.

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Van der Gaag and Ten Hag were called “bad cop, bad cop” (Michael Regan – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

His relationship with some players and other staff members has not always been smooth, however, due to his sharp, occasionally caustic comments.

Ten Hag selected Steve McClaren as his other assistant to create a blend of personalities, with the 63-year-old bringing vast experience in English football and a buoyant approach to coaching. At times, Van der Gaag and McClaren have shared a frank exchange of views.

Finding the right balance of responsibilities between his coaching staff is an aspect Ten Hag has worked through, especially after the departure of Eric Ramsay to Minnesota Vikings, with McClaren taking ownership of set pieces and Fletcher having greater involvement on the training pitches. McCarthy, the forwards coach, is a jovial character.

Brailsford began working at Carrington auditing United in January, conducting a series of interviews with players and staff and getting a feel for the environment. He ruled the training ground should be significantly renovated, which will start this summer, and he also felt Ten Hag’s team might require restructuring.

The three key words in the INEOS playbook are “grit”, “rigour” and “humour” — they form the title of the book by Ratcliffe about his company — and there were conversations around Ten Hag getting a new No 2 in the summer to lift the mood at Carrington. Brailsford is known to feel athletes should be excited at getting to their place of work. But Ten Hag is loyal to Van der Gaag, having worked with him at Ajax, and was against any such proposal. The issue of Van der Gaag’s role could yet resurface.

Ten Hag’s resistance earlier this year was a sign he might not fit easily into the role INEOS prefers for the coach of its football clubs. He was open to working in sync with sporting and technical directors on recruitment, having seized influence previously due to his uncertainty over the quality of options being proposed and United executives’ abilities to execute deals. But he was steadfast against a young coach being imposed on him instead of someone he trusted.

Ten Hag can be personable, though, and he has tried to cultivate camaraderie, organising a barbecue for player and staff families at Carrington in September, as well as a bonding meal with nearly all the squad at The Ivy before the FA Cup quarter-final against Liverpool. He has good relationships with several players, who respect his calm and balanced approach, whatever the result.

However, some players have been frustrated at a training schedule that was typically shared late on, despite being planned meticulously weeks beforehand. Others believed more days off in a packed calendar would have been beneficial.

Those privy to Ten Hag’s views say he felt notifying players of days off in advance would invite them to plan trips abroad, possibly jeopardising their fitness on return. An example of why Ten Hag reached that conclusion came in Las Vegas on the pre-season trip. Five players went out to Drai’s nightclub the night before United played Borussia Dortmund despite Ten Hag insisting everybody get rest. When asked by a fellow partygoer at Drai’s whether being out late would be frowned upon, one of the players is said to have replied that he wanted to have fun while in Vegas.

Some experienced players felt Ten Hag treating the squad uniformly due to the actions of a few was wrong and having prior notice of free time would simply allow them to plan family days out. Ten Hag adapted as the campaign went on, beginning to share training workloads 10 days ahead of time. It was still a far cry from the month in advance Solskjaer provided, but that period had its share of disciplinary issues.

Ten Hag also eased up on training days. In the week of the FA Cup final, he gave players Monday and Tuesday off, when previously he had got them in the day after matches.

On the U.S. tour, Ten Hag insisted on double training sessions to get players fit, but the strict curfews and intense schedule left some frazzled. The number of meetings taking place was also commented on.

Ten Hag is known to feel members of his squad were not mentally prepared for pre-season after the previous 62-game campaign and he also underestimated the air miles, with a game in Houston sandwiched between friendlies in New Jersey and Las Vegas — three cities spanning the width of the United States. It is why, on this summer’s tour, United will be based in Los Angeles, with a short day trip to San Diego and a game in South Carolina on the East Coast on the way home.

Injury problems and the wait for a doctor

Injuries have been the dominant theme of the campaign and there were frustrations dating back to last summer for Ten Hag. In December 2022, Steve McNally stepped down after 16 years as United’s club doctor, being replaced on an interim basis by Jim Moxon, formerly of Liverpool.

But a permanent hire was required and talks took place with Gary O’Driscoll, who had established a strong reputation at Arsenal. Ten Hag was impressed during an introduction in January 2023 and wanted him to join on July 1 for the start of pre-season.

But Arsenal, with contractual terms in their favour, asked for time to find O’Driscoll’s replacement before agreeing to his exit and that process dragged on until late September. People familiar with his thinking say Ten Hag felt United could have pushed back at Arsenal and sorted a much earlier arrival date. He believes having a doctor he has total alignment with is vital for player availability and that, had O’Driscoll started in July, it would have also provided fresh energy for the squad.



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It was only after the FA Cup final that United completed work to bring in a new head physio in Jordan Reece from Arsenal, with Robin Sadler, who held the role for three years, departing in January. A meeting with medics and INEOS figures took place at Carrington in the week before the match at Wembley to thrash out the key issues on player availability.

Lisandro Martinez and Casemiro became the 15th different centre-back partnership for the match at Brighton, and Ten Hag is adamant the absence of a settled team has dramatically hampered results.

Martinez and Luke Shaw, two left-footers, played only five games together this season — four wins, one defeat — and their combined loss has been most telling in terms of executing the build-up patterns seen in Ten Hag’s first season.

Jonny Evans was only 50 per cent fit for the 4-0 defeat at Crystal Palace but made himself available because he was the sole recognised central defender. Ten Hag was relieved Evans emerged from the game uninjured. Martinez and Varane were not match-ready for the FA Cup final but played because of the occasion.

Some speculated training intensity as one cause for the spike in problems, but Ten Hag argued robust sessions were required to keep players primed for matches and that he tempered the output when necessary. An analysis of the players who sustained muscle injuries showed no overloading, according to those briefed on the results, but there were mistakes.

Shaw said he accepted a request by Ten Hag to play against Luton in February after training one session that week. Ten Hag had chosen to take Shaw off as a precaution at half-time in the previous game at Aston Villa. But at Kenilworth Road, Shaw suffered his third hamstring injury of the season and did not play again.

“It’s kind of ­everyone’s fault. Partly my fault, partly medical staff,” said Shaw. People familiar with his thinking say Ten Hag accepts responsibility on that call also, but they add that he would never force a player onto the pitch. His options were limited, with Victor Lindelof sent on in both matches. Tyrell Malacia being out all season put pressure on Shaw to play more often than ideal.


Other reasons flagged included the aftereffects of playing the most matches in Europe last year and the recovery undertaken by injured players, with several suffering repeat problems. Data showed the actual number of injuries was in line with those recorded each season over the past decade, but the days missed hit a high in that period (2,185) — triple the figure from 2021-22 (716). United had the most players absent for games in the Premier League, so the focus fell on the rehabilitation plans — whether they were correct by design, or players lacked faith in their reliability.

O’Driscoll and other club staff investigated the issues for several months to try to avert the crisis and while bad luck played a part, some players were sceptical about the care provided at United.

Last summer, Malacia underwent treatment in the Netherlands with his own choice of surgeon for a knee meniscus injury, while in March, Martinez completed his rehabilitation from damaged knee ligaments in Argentina during an international camp. Martinez was said to be very upset a recurrence of his fractured metatarsal was not picked up earlier at the start of the campaign after three scans.

Casemiro also questioned why he suffered muscle injuries this season given he had never experienced such problems before. His only previous muscle injury lasted six days, but Casemiro was out for more than two months with a hamstring issue in the autumn and he came close to sustaining a rupture in March before the FA Cup tie with Liverpool despite tailoring his training as per instructions. Supported by United’s medical team, he decided against playing as soon as he felt a tightness in training and, after the match, he also ran the scans past Brazil’s national team doctor, making the call to stay home rather than join up.

The issue reared its head again on FA Cup final day when Casemiro withdrew from his place on the bench, citing hamstring discomfort once the teamsheets had been handed in at Wembley. Some people close to the team suspected an element of calculation on Casemiro’s part given Ten Hag had dropped him from the starting line-up after he had filled in at centre-back for seven successive games to help the club. There was consternation among players and staff about the timing of Casemiro reporting his problem.

United said on the day of the final he was not fully fit in the days building up to the game and then felt a tightness that meant he was unable to play. People close to the player insist this was the case.

The scale of injuries meant more reliance than intended on Hojlund, Garnacho and Mainoo — three young players all in their first campaigns as Premier League regulars. Each showed major promise while also experiencing dips, as any emerging player might, but especially so because of fatigue. All three are in the top seven for minutes played by United outfield players this Premier League campaign.

Recruitment disappoints players and coach

Different recruitment over the past two summers may have allowed Ten Hag greater rotation. In the depths of the MetLife Stadium, after United had beaten Arsenal 2-0 in a pre-season friendly with Sancho as a false nine, Ten Hag spoke casually to reporters. He was asked when he wanted a new striker in. “Last year!” he replied, smiling.

Hojlund signed a fortnight later, although he would not play for United until September 3 due to a back problem and a lack of depth up top affected the team all campaign. United scored 57 Premier League goals this term, after 58 goals in Ten Hag’s first season. That total of 115 is 75 goals less than City scored in the same period.

In the summer of 2022, United lost Edinson Cavani on a free, with Ronaldo following that winter. Wout Weghorst was a temporary solution, but with Anthony Martial fit for less than half the games Ten Hag has managed, Rashford, Bruno Fernandes and Scott McTominay have been shifted from their best positions to play up top.

Ten Hag asked for a new striker during his first summer and advocated for Cody Gakpo because he could play on the wing or through the middle. He was available from PSV Eindhoven for £40million. Ideally, Ten Hag wanted both Gakpo and Antony, but United could only afford a deal for one.

After having to rely on personal connections to source Weghorst midway through his first campaign, Ten Hag was determined to get a guarantee of goals for his second and pushed hard for Harry Kane. But Murtough, in conjunction with Joel Glazer and chief executive Richard Arnold, declined to enter the running, ruling negotiations with Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy too complicated and Kane’s price too high for a 29-year-old.

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The failure to sign Kane was a disappointment (Lukas Barth/AFP via Getty Images)

United wanted a longer-term answer and Ten Hag was pleased to get Hojlund having been convinced of his character during video calls. He was a gamble, though, aged 20 having scored 10 goals in 34 games for Atalanta in 2022-23 and still costing £72m. Internally, it was agreed that signing Hojlund meant United adjusted their expectations for the season.

Many in Ten Hag’s squad wanted and expected United to go for Kane so that the team could, in their minds, be transformed into title challengers. Casemiro was known to feel that having come third, with 75 points, adding a proven scorer of Kane’s quality would have lifted United’s aspirations significantly. He had been told when signing that United intended to make additions to compete at the top of the Premier League and gave the impression he was disappointed that, having done his bit, the recruits last summer did not marry up to that proposed ambition. He was not alone in that thinking and the attitude in camp suffered as a consequence.

United also looked at Randal Kolo Muani, who was available from Eintracht Frankfurt, and Ten Hag met him in London but decided he was not the right fit for his team. Kolo Muani, then 24, moved to Paris Saint Germain in September 2023 for £72.7million and has scored nine goals in 40 games.

Ten Hag was encouraging and supportive of United’s controversial plans to bring back Mason Greenwood, too, but the U-turn left them a striker short and overshadowed the start of the season.

Ten Hag’s influence on United’s transfer business is clear and INEOS wants to reduce his role, aiming to appoint a head of recruitment. But Ten Hag has missed out on key players for his style. He still speaks to people about the evolution that would have been possible with Frenkie de Jong on board, believing there was a chance early on in his first summer to strike a deal with Barcelona and convince the player to join.

As an alternative option, Ten Hag liked Declan Rice, who was very interested in joining, but Casemiro was seen as more attainable by the club. Last summer, Ten Hag pushed again for Rice, judging his blend of physicality, quality and mentality to be the right mix to elevate United’s foundation. Again, several players agreed with their manager, but United were way behind Arsenal and even Manchester City in the pursuit.

United eventually made contact with West Ham, but it came across as a token gesture, which was dismissed. Instead, the club pressed ahead with signing Mount, who was seen as a versatile player of excellent quality. His injury record this season was entirely unexpected, playing 20 games in all competitions and only 513 minutes in the Premier League.

Ten Hag was interested in recruiting Denzel Dumfries to offer more attacking potential at right-back. A swap including Diogo Dalot was discussed by United and Inter Milan, but both sides wanted money on top for their player. Talks ended when Malacia’s injury became clear because Dalot’s ability to play on the left made him more of an asset than Dumfries. Dalot has responded well to Ten Hag, adding areas to his game and becoming United’s player of the season.



Diogo Dalot on becoming vital for Man Utd: ‘Erik showed me that I could do it’

A new goalkeeper to replace David de Gea was very much at Ten Hag’s behest. People privy to his thinking say Ten Hag felt De Gea’s performance in the FA Cup final against City lacked hunger.

As well as Andre Onana, United also agreed a deal with Anderlecht for Bart Verbruggen, who chose to join Brighton to get more games. Altay Bayindir signed instead.

The tactical plan

Onana’s arrival was intended to dramatically alter the way United could play, enabling Ten Hag’s team to build up from the back and keep a high line. In Onana’s first game for the club, the friendly against Real Madrid in Houston, it was striking to see him near halfway when United had attacking set pieces.

But Onana was caught out with his positioning against Lens at Old Trafford when Florian Sotoca scored from the edge of the centre circle and that jolt triggered uncertainty for team-mates adjusting to this new approach. The carousel of defenders in front of Onana, especially the absences of Martinez and Shaw as two ball carriers, had an impact, too.

In United’s Champions League tie at Copenhagen, Onana projected nervous tension during the 4-3 defeat that proved terminal for progress. He had by then become known for being vocal in talking to himself and others and, as the goals went in, he began asking those around him what was going on. “What do we play?” he said.

There were times when defenders thought the same thing, occasionally dropping deep to receive the ball from Onana only for him to go long and force those in front of him to run to keep up to play. Patterns were practised at Carrington, but Onana also “played what he saw” in moments, spotting and aiming for an attacker despite midfielders being in poor positions for second balls. That left some players not being as open to short passes to avoid pressure from opponents and the possibility of exposing themselves should a mistake follow.

The assertive Onana that came out of his box at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in the second game to win United possession and then picked out Garnacho with a long pass — the kind of transition unthinkable under De Gea — experienced a confidence dip. But he did not shrink away, instead putting himself forward for media duties and eventually finding a groove on the pitch. His pass to set up Dalot for a chance at Kenilworth Road, for instance, was straight from the training ground, with the Portuguese sprinting from full-back through the middle.



Onana’s team-mates were losing patience with him, but he is turning things around

That defensive line was at the crux of Ten Hag’s troubles, however. He continued to instruct for a higher starting point so that his team could squeeze the play in the final third to win the ball and counter quickly. It was the blueprint mapped out by the United hierarchy, but the personnel at his disposal, especially with Martinez injured for the vast majority of the campaign, were ill-equipped for that style. Often they would drop deeper than Ten Hag intended, leaving a large space for midfielders to cover.

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Onana did things unseen with De Gea but also had his bad moments (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

A clear example came in the FA Cup win over Liverpool when Caoimhin Kelleher claimed a Fernandes free kick that Varane and Lindelof had got in the box to meet. As Varane and Lindelof jogged back, Ten Hag shouted and demonstrated with his palms down that they should stop just beyond the halfway line. When they fell further back, he slapped his hands in frustration.

Varane was regarded as an excellent box defender but problematic when covering large spaces and Ten Hag tried dropping him, instead starting Evans for the Manchester derby in October. Three days later, he planned to name Varane on the bench for the League Cup tie against Newcastle, but when the teamsheets arrived, the Frenchman’s name was not there. United reported Varane had an illness, although he did turn up at Old Trafford.



Varane’s United exit is chance to show youth is answer to long-term problems

Ten Hag’s relationship with Harry Maguire was also severely tested at the start of the campaign, with the defender bruised by how United went about looking to sell him in the summer.

On the pitch, Ten Hag did not want to compromise further, having done so in his first season when allowing De Gea to kick long rather than pass out from the back. But others in the coaching setup, such as McClaren and Fletcher, advocated for a pragmatic approach in the short term.

Ten Hag had organised his team in a compact shape for the trips to Arsenal and City, taking the lead in both before losing late. He repeatedly cites that trip to the Emirates in September, when Garnacho had a potentially winning goal ruled out for a fractional offside, as a sliding doors moment because he feels victory there, using a clear plan, would have electrified the mood at United and earned buy-in from players, while damaging Arsenal.

The 4-0 embarrassment at Palace, when United executives felt players had given up, acted as a catalyst for change. Against Arsenal, Ten Hag shored up the midfield by selecting Sofyan Amrabat and a more secure performance followed — albeit a defeat nonetheless. The wins against Newcastle and Brighton came from the same measured system, adapted to include two false nines in Fernandes and McTominay, with Hojlund looking tired. McClaren became more visible on the touchline.

It would be the formation that Ten Hag used to masterful effect against City in the FA Cup final, working because the players gained the confidence to carry out the instructions from those final Premier League matches.

From an INEOS perspective, the question remained why the team had not shown such coordination for many of the 38 Premier League games, or the Champions League group stage, and that is why they came close to changing manager.

Those familiar with his thinking say Ten Hag feels the unique stress of playing for a club under immense scrutiny warrants greater recognition during recruitment and that due to the fact he overachieved in his first season, lifting United from sixth to third, he was owed some leeway in his second season.

After an uncomfortable start to the summer, humility from INEOS and soon a new deal for the manager, all eyes will be on the start of his third campaign.

(Top photo: Getty; Matthew Ashton/AMA, Marc Atkins, DIRK WAEM/AFP; design: Dan Goldfarb)

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