There are a lot of eyes on Erik ten Hag right now and, consequently, a lot of different ways of looking at the situation he finds himself in at Manchester United.
On the one hand, he is the man in charge of the Premier League’s in-form team, having picked up more points than any other top-flight side over the past five games. Ten Hag has won 30 of his first 50 top-flight matches in charge, a better record than any other manager in United’s history.
On the flip side, he is still the Premier League manager bookmakers believe likeliest to lose his job next — even after this narrow and unconvincing yet vital win over Luton Town. He is, depending on who you ask, struggling to implement a coherent style of play, making curious selection choices, or failing to fully communicate his ideas to a skeptical dressing room.
Which of those interpretations is closer to the truth? Maybe one way of telling is by keeping your eyes solely on Ten Hag himself: closely observing how he acts on the touchline. Particularly as the next time United play, he will not be there.
After remonstrating a little too forcefully with assistant referee Neil Davies over the award of a late throw-in, he was shown a yellow card for the third time this season and will serve a one-match suspension away to Everton following the international break. So, what exactly will United be missing?
Ten Hag emerged out of the tunnel alone before kick-off, lagging behind his players and staff. After a wave to the stands and a fist bump with Fred the Red, he took his seat in the dugout. But once the whistle blew, he was sedentary for all of about 40 seconds.
The Dutchman almost immediately took up a position on the edge of his technical area, where he typically spends much of any given 90 minutes, although he is not the most animated of figures once he gets there.
For much of the first half, he stood with his hands in his pockets. And on the rare occasions those hands left those pockets, they imparted non-verbal instructions — an open palm telling Marcus Rashford to move wider; a wave of a hand asking for a ball to be played over the top.
But what else can a manager do? There are only really two opportunities to get detailed instructions across in-game — when speaking to substitutes who are about to come on and during stoppages in play.
Christian Eriksen’s injury provided an opportunity. Ten Hag first began briefing his replacement Mason Mount while Eriksen was still playing, all without his eyes ever leaving the pitch.
As the change was made, he collared Scott McTominay for a chat about United’s build-up play. There was time for a word with Alejandro Garnacho about getting the ball out to the left wing more too. All three players were engaged and listened intently, hardly giving the impression of an unhappy, uncertain dressing room.
Perhaps that is because all three were getting on the pitch. Early on, when Harry Maguire appeared to be struggling with a knock, Ten Hag called Raphael Varane to warm up. There was a wry smile on Varane’s face as he put on his orange bib and got up out of his seat.
Read into that what you will. The positive take would be that a four-time Champions League winner would rather be starting games than coming on as a substitute — and it is much preferable to the alternative.
Ten Hag’s sidelining of Varane since the Manchester derby has been curious but it has also been repeatedly explained by the United manager in press conferences. Figures close to Varane, who did not want to be named to protect relationships, say he has accepted the decision is a tactical one and point out there is always a way back for a player under Ten Hag, as Maguire’s return proves.
Decisions to drop players of Varane’s calibre will always be questioned, though, and only justified by results. The fastest Ten Hag moved all day might have been as the whistle went for half-time with the score still at 0-0. Only Maguire beat him back down the tunnel.
The United manager was the last out for the second half too, another short round of applause for the fans going unnoticed by them as the game had already restarted. But from that point onwards, Ten Hag began to be more animated.
One spell of probing Luton possession in United’s defensive third had the United manager crouching down to his knees and bellowing at his defence. There was a kick into the turf after the cheap concession of a corner.
Ten Hag briefly returned to his seat in the dugout in those moments to talk with assistant Mitchell van der Gaag, but was quickly up on his feet again, obscuring the view of those sitting behind. After a shake of the head, he returned to the technical area.
It was from there he witnessed the goal, although soon after Victor Lindelof had thumped in what would be the winner, the hands were back in the pockets. Only once his players had returned to their own half for kick-off did he try to dish out further instructions, aside from a bark to Sergio Reguilon on the near side.
The stoppage for Rasmus Hojlund, who limped off with a suspected hamstring injury, allowed for more in-depth discussion.
At that stage, Ten Hag called upon a brains trust, sending fitness coach Charlie Owen to speak with Hojlund’s replacement Anthony Martial while he discussed his options with Van der Gaag, coach Eric Ramsay and newly-appointed head of sports medicine Gary O’Driscoll.
It is that brains trust that will be tasked with guiding United at Goodison Park in the manager’s absence. Interestingly, Ten Hag leant on Ramsay in particular in the final stages, calling him back down to the technical area for a discussion that appeared to centre on United’s shape.
Then there was the yellow card. Ten Hag had already remonstrated with the same assistant over a throw-in at the end of the first half, which led Luton’s support to break into a chant of: “He’s going to cry in a minute”. Having kept his composure once, he failed to do so a second time.
Ten Hag was still berating Davies minutes after the incident but was in a more reflective mood in his post-match press conference. “There is a certain point you have to accept decisions, I do as well,” he said. “We have a very competent coaching staff. They will take over.”
It will not be easy, not least because at the moment, United do not look like a side capable of beating anyone easily. This win was a result to avoid a crisis rather than a performance to inspire confidence. Outside of the Carabao Cup, the last time Ten Hag won a game by two clear goals was in May.
Then again, the last time United drew a game was in April. They are one point clear of a Newcastle United side many still believe can finish in the top four, five points behind a Tottenham Hotspur side who were top of the league and unbeaten a little over a week ago.
As ever, different ways of looking at the same situation. For those who want to see Ten Hag on the touchline at United beyond this difficult period and potentially for many years to come, there are still reasons to believe he will be. And those who don’t will now get their wish, for one game at least.
(Top photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images)