Premier League focus: What happens next for Erik ten Hag?

14 December 2023

Premier League focus: What happens next for Erik ten Hag?

It’s December and it’s 16 matches into the season. An out-of-form Manchester United sit in sixth place and with their manager under pressure, they face the daunting prospect of a trip to Premier League leaders Liverpool. (Stream all Premier League games live on Showmax Pro Mobile, courtesy of SuperSport.)

This was the situation Jose Mourinho faced in 2018 and it’s the exact same situation Erik ten Hag faces now.

Mourinho’s team went on to lose 3-1 at Anfield. It was his last game before he got sacked.

Could Erik ten Hag face a similar fate if United lose this weekend? If it’s similar his last trip to Liverpool where he suffered a 7-0 loss, it’s hard to see any other outcome.

For Manchester United, the most worrying part of it all shouldn’t be ten Hag’s role: it’s how the same problems have kept resurfacing in the post-Ferguson era no matter who the manager is.

All of the United managers in the last 10 years have dealt with muddled recruitment and a squad full of players that seem to lack the passion to live up to the club’s legacy. At what point does the blame lie with the manager and when does it shift to the club itself?

In terms of recruitment, ten Hag has to take some responsibility as he’s had such an obvious influence in choosing who has come in. Antony, Lisandro Martinez and Andre Onana have all worked with him at Ajax and came in at huge expense. Yet the manager still doesn’t seem to have a platform to build consistent success.

When it comes to “bad eggs” that he inherited, it can take a few transfer windows to get rid of all the unwanted players in a squad you’ve inherited. It’s even trickier when they are on long contracts and high wages that buying clubs need to match.

Ten Hag’s handling of Cristiano Ronaldo’s exit was a good sign that he’s psychologically up for the challenge of being unsentimental about such a clear out. Maybe it really is a case of the Dutchman simply needing more than a season and a half to correct a decade of wasteful transfer windows.
If his fate does depend on this weekend’s game and he does get sacked, the question is who would United turn to?

Unlike the time when they sacked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, there does seem to be more available options for them to turn to. Zinedine Zidane seems to be more strongly linked to the job than ever before now. Roberto de Zerbi has been hailed as the new tactical revolutionary in the modern game. Surely an ambitious Manchester United could lure him away from Brighton?

What they will surely want to avoid is another Ralf Rangnick situation, where there’s a prolonged period of a caretaker manager who isn’t really in a position to work towards the club’s future.

On the flip side, what if United get through their trip to Anfield unscathed – what next for Erik ten Hag?

United are not in the running for the Premier League title, they are out of the Carabao Cup and European competition completely and a top-four finish looks too fanciful at this stage. They do still have the FA Cup to look forward to, but it’s surely too risky for a club that size to pin all their season goals on a knockout competition like that.

With reports that he’s lost support of many in his dressing room, ten Hag’s most important port of call must surely be who he can ship out in transfer windows as opposed to who can come in.

It’s often hard to sell players in January as the market prices tend to be inflated, but any outgoing transfer that he can manage might go a long way to help the club’s future.

Essentially though, without a proper structural change at the club, these problems will keep resurfacing as they always have in the last 10 years. A takeover has been on the cards for a while and the supporters will hope it’ll bring the necessary change.

If ten Hag is still the Manchester United manager in 2024, managing amongst that period of change could be his hardest challenge yet. His fate may hang on what happens against Liverpool, but even if he survives, his future could get way more complicated.

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