‘Eras can come to an end’- a bold, confident and rousing Erik Ten Hag discussing Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp’s dominance upon his Manchester United arrival. Instead of dismantling incumbent powerhouses (namely Manchester City and Arsenal), it seems Ten Hag’s Manchester United ‘era’ has far less longevity than the ones he foresaw coming to an end.
It is tough to deny that ever since the inevitable retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United have predictably been on the decline, punctuated by very few high points. Perhaps, a Europa League title under Jose Mourinho or last year’s Carabao Cup victory under Ten Hag’s guidance are the peaks of what has otherwise been a prolonged trough. A damning indictment of Ten Hag and Manchester United’s struggle is epitomised by the fact that the 13 losses that they have suffered before Christmas this season- the most losses accumulated before Christmas for the club since 1930/31.
It would be a discredit to Erik Ten Hag to say he has not had some success at Old Trafford. Last season alone, the club finished third in the Premier League, reached the FA Cup final (losing narrowly to bitter rivals, Manchester City) and as aforementioned achieved silverware in his debut season at the helm. Even then, this is somewhat of a facade, particularly when you consider 7-0 and 6-3 losses to Liverpool and Man City- certainly no sign of their eras ending from those results.
However, as so many managers know all too well, short-term (and more importantly, past) successes rarely have a great jurisdiction over board confidence and job security. Ten Hag can (and arguably has) have had both a strong season last year and be rightly under a high degree of scrutiny and pressure based on his failures this year.
Manchester United are sat in 8th place, 8 points off the Champions League positions, 12 points off top, eliminated from their Champions League group finishing below relative minnows: Galatasaray and FC Kobenhavn. 26 games, 13 losses, 33 goals and a shocking 41 goals conceded. Man United’s particular regression this season can be attributed to a plethora of factors, some of which are banal, avoidable and frustrating. Others are more external or at least fall above the agency of Erik ten Hag.
One point of particular frustration with fans, analysts and pundits alike is Ten Hag’s current inflexibility. Despite evidently struggling to secure consistent results, there seems little to no deviation in Ten Hag’s structure and particularly deployments of attacking weapons. However, yet notwithstanding the above, Manchester United have nevertheless been able to create 31.25 Expected Goals so far this season- which ranks them in the median of the Premier League in this metric- they have only been able to score on 18 occasions- underperforming their xG by 13.25 goals.
This hugely outweighs any other team in terms of their margin of underconversion. The closest competitor for this unenviable output is Everton who underperform their xG by 9.73- scoring only 23 from 32.73 xG. This is intrinsically interconnected with another facet of Manchester United’s ‘fall from grace’- consistently inconsistent recruitment. This season, thus far, the overwhelming disappointing being Rasmus Hojlund who is yet to register a goal or assist in 15 Premier League appearances for the Red Devils.
He is yet another player arriving with a hefty fee and equally substantial expectations who has struggled to recreate outstanding form on the continent for Manchester United, symptomatic of Antony. However, recruitment has perhaps taken an upturn with last year’s addition of Lisandro Martinez performing strongly. Yet, like so many of the squad, has been plagued with injuries which had ought to be a caveat to United’s unravelling difficulties.
Off-pitch, Joel and Avram’s Glazer’s ownership continues to be discordant with fans. Excessive and evergrowing commercial incomes are not deviating spending patterns and ‘Green and Gold Protests’ continue to be rife. Recent discussions with Qatari Investment Funds are yet to reach any formal agreement.
However, on Christmas Eve, Sir Jim Ratcliffe (of INEOS) was able to acquire a 25% stake in the club which will initially provide $300m dollars of investment to the club. Nevertheless, the fans and the club’s hierarchy continue to be a point of tension which makes the managerial role somewhat of a poisoned chalice as an impossible mediator between the two.
Manchester United reaches agreement for Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Chairman of INEOS, to acquire up to a 25% shareholding in the Company.#MUFC
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 24, 2023
However, to think that Ratcliffe’s investment is a magical fixer is unsurpisingly an absolute fallacy. Only this week, the club received a ⅕ rating on food hygiene. The stadium suffers with frequent flooding and infrastructure at Old Trafford and training complexes afar lag behind ‘Big Six Competitors’ despite United’s unparalleled presence on a global scale.
The club’s outdated facilities are not aiding growing disparities and their regression. Idealistically, Ratcliffe’s (and any prospective) investment is used to go towards redevelopment of the club’s facilities. Although, it seems implausible that $300 million would suffice for such a revolution. Reportedly, Ratcliffe is keen on Graham Potter as a possible replacement for Erik Ten Hag if he were to be dismissed. However, the credibility of these reports is unverifiable and may just be playing on fan’s credulity.
Hypothetically, Potter could make an apt replacement although his time at Chelsea does not bode well and is indicative of incompetence at ‘big fishes’ rather than overachieving Brighton which was the apotheosis of his managerial career thus far. Leftfield options are likely to receive very little support from onlookers after the failure of the experimental Ralf Rangnick and perhaps there would be no outright, unanimous frontrunner for the job.
It may perhaps be too early to cast judgement on Ten Hag but peripatetic changes at Man United seem imminent (Ratcliffe being the catalyst) and the manager may be one of a myriad of alterations to the club to return them to Ferguson-esque success. Yet, I would like to leave you with the following point of comparison:
Predecessor, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer managed 168 games in all competitions at the helm prior to his sacking with the team sat 8th in December (sound familiar?), following a 4-1 defeat to Watford. He secured 91 wins, drew 37 and lost 40 at a win rate of 54% and achieved a theoretical points per game of 1.845. Comparatively, Erik Ten Hag has now managed 56 Premier League games, winning 32, drawing 7 and losing 17.
Therefore, achieving a 57% win rate and a points per game value of 1.839. Albeit, it is noteworthy that Ten Hag’s figures do not include his success in domestic competitions. Additionally, Ten Hag’s European endeavours with United are not considered- and perhaps all for the better for him after this year’s dismal showing.
By: Max Nicholls / @maxnicholls14
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Soccrates Images – Getty Images