Although Manchester United gave the impression they cast the net as wide as four candidates to become the club’s 12th permanent post-war manager, it was always between two: Erik ten Hag and Mauricio Pochettino.
Ultimately, United decided Ten Hag was the manager most closely aligned with the club’s identity and strategy. United sources say they have hired a proven winner who preaches an attractive, attacking style of play and is committed to youth. Ten Hag, although already 52, is viewed by figures at United as one of the most exciting, consistent managers in European football.
High-level sources highlighted Ten Hag improves players and has developed two exciting and successful teams at Ajax. During conversations with the United football director John Murtough and technical director Darren Fletcher, Ten Hag outlined his long-term vision of him to build a successful and exciting team. United were struck by his passion, energy and enthusiasm for a moment’s challenge.
READ MORE: Live updates as United announce Ten Hag
Those at United who have spoken to Ten Hag insist he is determined to prove himself in a major league and ready to manage world sport’s most scrutinized institution. Ten Hag coached Bayern Munich II between 2013-15 and sources at United believe his big-club experience of him in Germany and Holland stands him in good stead.
The United chief executive Richard Arnold has taken a hands-off role in the running of the football side but engaged in the final stages of the managerial process. Arnold, Murtough and Fletcher unanimously agreed Ten Hag was the best candidate.
Six months ago, Brendan Rodgers appealed to the United hierarchy in what were Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s final weeks. United held exploratory talks about the Leicester manager yet Leicester’s downward spiral lengthened Rodgers’s odds and eventually, the bookies rubbed his name off their chalkboards.
Rodgers’ sound bites were as unhelpful to his chances as Leicester’s injury record. In France, Pochettino kept his powder dry when Solskjaer was sacked and that was a mistake. United wanted Pochettino in the wake of Solskjaer’s sacking and approached Paris Saint-Germain, who abhorred the prospect of yielding to one of European football’s traditional elite.
Had Pochettino agitated for the job he has had his eyes on for six years then PSG might have relented. Zinedine Zidane was available, just as he is now, and remains the frontrunner to replace Pochettino at the Parc des Princes in the summer.
Perhaps Zidane, a three-times Champions League-winning coach with Real Madrid, would have prevented the collapse at the Bernabeu in February. PSG were 2-0 up on aggregate with 29 minutes remaining in their round-of-16 tie before capitulating again in a 3-2 defeat. PSG’s propensity for collapses is legendary, but that was another nail in Pochettino’s coffin.
Ten Hag and Luis Enrique had their admirers at United early in the season, albeit at a time where there was no contingency plan in the event Solskjaer was sacked. United were so invested in Solskjaer, gifted a three-year contract in July, it was not until the 5-0 evisceration by Liverpool on October 24 that they started drafting a battle plan to replace him.
United’s refusal to flex their muscles and pay £15million to release Pochettino from his contract was the turning point. Enrique was never a remotely realistic option as he was committed to coaching Spain at the World Cup, which commences in November.
The choice of Ralf Rangnick as interim manager, with a two-year consultancy role tagged onto it, was also to Pochettino’s detriment. Ten Hag was always more aligned with Rangnick and the momentum behind Ten Hag started to build in January, with United confident of releasing him from his Ajax contract a year early if they opted for the Dutchman.
It was in January the Manchester Evening News revealed United’s aim to appoint their next manager before the end of the season. Sevilla coach Julen Lopetegui received a cursory mention yet it was as much to make up the numbers and give the impression the process was thorough and considerate. Lopetegui was recommended to United by Jorge Mendes, empowered by having Solskjaer’s departure in November and eager to appease his client of him, Cristiano Ronaldo.
There was growing support for Pochettino in the United dressing room in early February yet the club has defended the most uncaring United squad in anyone’s lifetime. Some are ‘underwhelmed by Ten Hag. The players were wisely not consulted on Ten Hag after Ronaldo’s view on Solskjaer (and Antonio Conte) was gauged in October and November.
Pochettino would have been more confrontational, a man who spoke out against Daniel Levy at Tottenham, whereas Ten Hag is more compliant. United have only had to pay Ajax £1.7million. Molde banked two deposits of £500,000 for Solskjaer in 2018-19.
Come United’s elimination from the Champions League in mid-March, the MEN revealed Ten Hag was the club’s preferred candidate. Four days later, on March 21, he was interviewed by the club. From then on it was a matter of when Ten Hag would be announced, rather than if.
Ten Hag’s agent, Kees Vos, applied pressure on United to finalize a deal, suggesting RB Leipzig were interested but stressed Ten Hag favored United.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.