After months of endless speculation, the train carrying Manchester United’s search for a new manager is now emerging from the darkness of a seemingly never-ending tunnel and into the sunlight.
Erik ten Hag is edging closer and closer towards concluding United’s pursuit of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s permanent successor and it is now understood to be a matter of when, rather than if, he will be announced as the club’s new boss. The Ajax chief was sounded out as the club’s preferred candidate last month and it would now take a dramatic turn of events to stop him from overseeing the next chapter in United’s history.
Despite having never managed a club of United’s size, or handling a group of players with such big reputations and egos, Ten Hag has earned the opportunity to have a crack at the role. He has put Ajax back on the map in recent years and his reputation as a manager has significantly developed during his more than four-year tenure.
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Whilst Ajax’s run to the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2019 will be recognized as Ten Hag’s headline act during his tenure in Amsterdam, the work he has done in building several competitive and exciting squads should also be applauded. The class of 2019, following the dramatic defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, was almost immediately torn apart because of their success, meaning Ten Hag faced the challenge of a fresh rebuild.
It was a challenge he passed with flying colours. Despite losing the likes of Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong that summer, and Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek the following year, Ten Hag responded by remaining calm and continuing to follow Ajax’s strict philosophy of unearthing hidden gems and developing homegrown, academy talent .
And it is Ten Hag’s refusal to veer off course that has served him and Ajax so well throughout their managerial marriage. It even earned applause from Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp back in December 2020.
The German said: “Erik is rightly regarded as one of the most exciting coaching talents in world football at the moment because of the work he does with Ajax. Of course, it is a wonderful club – one of the stellar names of European football – but in this moment it is clear they have outstanding leadership of the organization and Erik is a big part of that.
“They have had to adapt in recent seasons after losing a few players to rival clubs. I remember from my own experience at Dortmund how that feels and what a challenge it is.
“How they deal with it is exceptional. The foundations of the team remain solid and they have recruited well.
“They have a clear identity. I love watching them, I have to say.”
Smart and sensible recruitment is something Ajax have mastered in recent years. United have not, not by a long chalk.
This is where Ten Hag’s expertise could come into its own. However, United need to grant the Dutchman assurances that he will get to have a big say in the day-to-day running on the football side of the business, otherwise it would be pointless in hiring a manager that is renowned for following a uniformed policy and structure when United have never been in such desperate need of a strict structure themselves.
Fortunately, United appear to be learning, putting a strategy in place ahead of Ten Hag’s arrival. the Manchester Evening News understands that all plans for the summer transfer window can be vetoed by the Dutchman when he gets his feet under the table and can sound his opinions on matters.
It is a good, sensible first step, even if only tiny in the grand scheme of the challenge awaiting Ten Hag. He has proven that he is a bit of a dab hand when it has come to recruitment in recent years, and the recruitment side of the operation at Old Trafford has lacked that expertise in recent years.
It is why, therefore, Klopp’s admiration for Ten Hag is so important, in the sense that United should pay close attention to what he has said and recognize that everything must be placed neatly and well organized for the 52-year-old to succeed and make United great again. But it won’t happen in an instant.
Ten Hag’s impending arrival is exciting, even if it carries a degree of risk – but what managerial appointment does not? If United recognize Ten Hag’s greatest strengths from him, provide him with the tools he needs and ensure that everyone sings from the same hymn sheet, it could be a match made in heaven.
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