“Big place, this,” Sir Alex Ferguson would say as he gazed around Old Trafford in the early days, a sense of awe in those gruff tones. Big job, too. When Ferguson took over from Ron Atkinson as the Manchester United manager in November 1986, the club were fourth from bottom of the old First Division and the culture was all wrong, especially in the playing squad, where there was too much boozing and not enough achieving.
There will doubtless be a moment when the scale of it all hits Erik ten Hag, who was confirmed on Thursday as United’s next permanent manager; he will begin work over the summer, once he has finished the season at Ajax. Because not since Ferguson has an incoming manager found the club at such a low ebb.
It is not about the league position. David Moyes inherited a champion team from Ferguson in 2013, albeit one that had surely peaked, but Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho took over with the club having finished the previous season in seventh and fifth respectively, and Ole Gunnar Solskjær – initially the caretaker – got them when they were sixth. United are sixth again under another interim, Ralf Rangnick, although the statistics show that they have their lowest points tally of the Premier League era after 33 matches.
What sets the situation apart are the feelings of helplessness and frustration in the stands and dressing room, which are not helped by a glance at their greatest rivals. When Ferguson took over his biggest challenge was to knock Liverpool off their perch but they are now back on it and, even worse, Manchester City are up alongside them. The coming weeks will once again see the United fanbase wrestle with a dilemma. Of two unpalatable options, who would they rather win the league and, even, the Champions League? (It is probably still City in a photo-finish.)
The fans have protested vociferously against the Glazer family ownership over the past week or so but what has been more worrying of late has been how some of them have turned on certain players at Old Trafford. Harry Maguire was cheered ironically when substituted against Atlético Madrid and Paul Pogba told where to go when he came off against Norwich. Even Marcus Rashford, the local hero and national treasure, has heard exasperated cries.
This is extremely unusual at United, where – amid a dismal run of form and some abject performances – Rangnick has detected a fear factor. “We didn’t dare to attack,” he said after the 4-0 loss at Liverpool on Tuesday night, referring mainly to the first half. “It almost looked that they were afraid to be outplayed.”
Rangnick is so concerned by the club’s injury list that he wants an investigation into why it has been so long but the very worst thing – the bottom line – is the lack of identity, the sense of square pegs in round holes, a jarring friction.
Under Solskjær, United at least played in a particular way: a quick, counterattacking style that would yield some thrills, especially when allied to a never-say-die attitude, even if its lack of depth ultimately saw him exposed. It has been different under Rangnick. He wants intensity, hard running without the ball, to use the counterpress as a tool to attack and defend, and he has not found the players to execute it.
The result has been an absence of control, creative toils and opponents running through United. Apart from David de Gea, has any player performed to or above his level? Maybe Fred. Cristiano Ronaldo’s numbers have been decent but do not tell the whole story. It has led to the view that this is the worst Old Trafford team since the late 1980s. Even De Gea’s excellence carries a caveat: United’s best player ought not to be their goalkeeper.
Ten Hag represents the reboot, a very good coach who knows what he wants and how to implement it. It is pass-and-move football, with effective pressing – a little like the vision of Rangnick. Although wedded to a classic 4-3-3 at Ajax – it is in the constitution there – Ten Hag is flexible and, above all, he wants to win.
The optimistic reading is that Ten Hag, who believes he can get so much more out of the squad, can take gradual and sure-footed steps forward, putting a playing structure in place, an identity, with signings aligned to his needs in the short and longer term. With United’s appeal and financial power, it should be possible to turn things back in the right direction – if decisions are sound and consistent.
The rebuild in the summer stands to be huge, Rangnick – who will move into a consultancy role – saying during the week that “there will be … I don’t know … six, seven, eight, maybe 10 new players”.
Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Edinson Cavani are expected or set to leave as free agents and Dean Henderson will surely prioritise greater playing time elsewhere. There have to be doubts over the futures of Phil Jones, Eric Bailly and Anthony Martial, who is on loan at Sevilla.
The negative reading is that the body of work is simply too great, Liverpool and City too far ahead, and Ten Hag will fall foul of the equation which sets progress against time and pressure.
Nor will it only be about the technical stuff because this is United, this is politics, international relations, box office. Is Ten Hag ready to be the de facto club spokesman on pretty much everything, the one voice heard with any regularity?
It requires a force of personality to drive the juggernaut and a will to do so, which does not depend entirely on a fluency in English, even if that helps. The right kind of noises or content are key and, at Ajax Ten Hag has not always given the impression that he is comfortable in front of the media. The Dutch sometimes refer to him as wereldvreemd or world strange, someone so focused on football that he does not know anything else.
Ten Hag will need the support of everybody at United, particularly the staff in the recruitment department, and one thing is clear: he has it all to prove. Big place, this. Big job.