There have been so many false dawns at Old Trafford, so many mismatches
between the greedy and gullible American owners and the managers given neither the time nor the authority to rebuild the legacy Alex Ferguson left nine years ago.
That could change this coming summer. Erik ten Hag, manager No.6 (or No.9 if you count the interims, including the bewildered incumbent Ralf Rangnick), is about to give up almost everything he holds dear to take on this dysfunctional monster club.
Except he has never really been a manager. He is a hugely impressive ‘head coach’ who has generated hundreds of millions by developing players who have then been sold for profit to the European elite.
In Amsterdam, where he restored Ajax towards former glory, ten Hag’s office is adorned by sepia-toned images of Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal. Michels was ‘The General’ credited with inventing Total Football. Cruyff was the player around whom that vision was built, and the
inspiration for the way that Pep Guardiola managed Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Manchester City. And van Gaal was another disciple of that
Dutch culture, a bombastic one until his ego was broken in the revolving managerial chair at Old Trafford.
All these men came through a club, a country, that punched above its weight by insisting that if football is worth playing it has to be The Beautiful Game. Where United once bred the Busby Babes, nurtured to play open, attractive winning football, so the Ajax school and the Barça Futbol Academy adopted those same principles. It is no coincidence that Michels and van Gaal had their terms as head coach at FC Barcelona. None whatsoever that any conversation around the principles of the game with Guardiola heavily involves Cruyff.
If Michels was the General, Cruyff was the genius, the very demanding voice on the field. It has been my privilege to have known both and to hear from them that one without the other might never have been able to change European football as they did. And are still doing.
Ten Hag, a private family man who was a relatively limited central defender, is imbued with their vision. It is not just the pictures on his wall, but the testimony of men who played alongside him. Ten Hag, apparently, was a “coach on the pitch” even as a defender who stepped out of his role to turn defence into counterattack in the colours of FC Twente, De Graafschap, RKC Waalwijk and Utrecht.
His contemporaries will tell you that even there ten Hag was a workaholic player with an eye, and a voice, for detail. A vision built on the Ajax way, the one transplanted to Barcelona. A vision that demanded obsessive work ethic. To use the sobriquet attached to van Gaal, the ‘Iron Tulip’.
It is far more than inspiration from pictures on a wall. Ten Hag was hired for two seasons to coach the young players of Bayern Munich while a certain Pep Guardiola was in charge of the A-team there. One can imagine the eternal nights of these two obsessive disciples of Hendrik Johannes Cruijff,
as he was originally christened.
One cannot imagine any of them suffering the turmoil at Old Trafford whose owners, the Glazer Family, neither know nor care about the game but regard the club as a siphon to draw their fortunes while seldom visiting, much less understanding, that the game is drawn out of the dressing room and the training fields.
In the post-Fergie decade David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Rangnick all had no chance while acolytes of the Glazers were dazzled by agents enriching themselves and their client players by persuading the club to pay fortunes to individuals who failed to make a cohesive XI worthy of the club’s heritage.
Busby would squirm in his grave. Ferguson visibly despairs in the stand. Finally the men of finance entrusted by the Glazers to buy the big names have gone. A new chief executive, new football director, new technical director and coming soon new scouting system are to be entrusted (by the Glazers) with restoring a club where self-interested overpaid stars failed the first principle of football – the team concept.
Even Cruyff knew that a star cannot function in isolation. Before him Ferenc Puskás, the Hungarian of the 1950s, put it this way: “The artists are like piano players – they need artisans to carry the piano on to the stage.”
Ten Hag was asked last weekend if he will be able to handle big egos, like Cristiano Ronaldo. “I think so,” he responded. The brown eyes gave nothing away, no doubt. ”I will remain myself in that, too. I will not change my view on coaching. The material always determines how you play, but I indicate the requirements that come with it and the standards… I tell who has what task and who does not meet that will be told, regardless of who he is.”
Ten Hag has stipulated that the coach has a say in transfers and everyone knows that United is about to enter a summer (another one) of transfer turnover. Paul Pogba out among maybe half a dozen, maybe more. In Amsterdam, ten Hag had a chief executive (the former United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar) and a director of football (the former Ajax, Arsenal and Barcelona winger Marc Overmars) who decided the budget and the purchases.
In four years as head coach, ten Hag accepted the sale of his three brightest stars — Frankie de Jong (to Barcelona), Matthijs de Ligt (to Juventus) and Donny van de Beeck (to the bench at Man U).
There is speculation that he will try to replant all three into his new build.
And that he will go for Christian Eriksen. But the encouraging message from Old Trafford is they hired him because he sugarcoats nothing.