Man Utd couldn’t have got a better candidate than Erik ten Hag, someone who can inject a sense of purpose and identity to this team.
In Erik ten Hag’s Amsterdam office, you will find a portrait of two contrasting but highly revered figures at Ajax: Johann Cruyff and Louis Vaan Gaal. Cruyff was a romantic for whom winning games was not an end in itself, an idealist who believed in the aesthetics of the game. Vaan Gaal, in contrast, was a pragmatist for whom winning games was more important than the manner of victory.
Cruyff remained aways at loggerheads with Vaan Gaal’s vision. He once said: “Van Gaal has a good vision on football. But it’s not mine. He wants to gel winning teams and has a militaristic way of working with his tactics. I don’t. I want individuals to think for themselves.”
While the effect of Cruyff is quite apparent in ten Hag’s set-up, he, at times, doesn’t shy away from adopting a pragmatist approach like Vaan Gaal, as he did against Juventus in the quarter-finals of UEFA Champions League 2019.
Further, lofty standards set up by Cruyff and Vaan Gaal are something that ten Haag wants to emulate. At Manchester United, his next club, he will have only Sir Alex Ferguson’s picture to hang. The managers preceding him don’t quite hold the public imagination, while those following him haven’t been a success.
At Ajax, he built a formidable squad from scratch, far away from the media’s constant glares. He will not get such privilege at his next job. His next job will be the most challenging, the most demanding, and the most ruthless. There will be incessant public scrutiny of his works, his every tactic, every move, will be vigorously dissected by self-proclaimed TV pundits.
Appointing ten Hag won’t ameliorate their deep-lying problems instantly. For that, any coach will need time and vision and a couple of transfer windows, where he can assemble the squad of his choice. However, in Ten Hag, Man Utd will get someone who has a proven record of inheriting a faltering team and taking it to new levels.
Post-Ferguson-era Manchester United never had any definite identity, and ten Hag is someone who can change that. A huge admirer of Pep Guardiola, the Dutch has based his high-flying Ajax team on the former’s philosophy.
“Guardiola’s philosophy is sensational and he has demonstrated this at Barcelona, Bayern and City. His structured attacking play is very attractive and I aim to implement this at Ajax,” he said.
Admittedly, at Manchester United, ten Hag won’t get the same financial laxity as Guardiola has been getting at City. But he is still more than capable of forging a team in his mould. United has often struggled to dominate the game in the midfield, with both Fred and Scott McTominay blowing hot and cold. Acquisition of someone as versatile as Declan Rice would solve most of their problems. Donny van Beek, who is currently on loan at Everton, had flourished under Ten Hag, and thus it shouldn’t come as surprise if he regains his mojo under the new manager.
Marcus Rashford’s middling return this season has been a matter of concern for United. Cristiano Ronaldo’s contract expires in 2023, and while his goal-scoring prowess has papered over United’s crack, the 37-year-old striker doesn’t look like a great fit for Ten Hag’s philosophy of high-pressing, heavy-metal football. Thus bringing in Darwin Nunez makes sense.
Further, the wingbacks play a crucial role in ten Hag’s set-up. While he might persist with Aaron Wan-Bissaka, there’s a definite need for an upgrade when it comes to left-back.
After years of swinging to and fro in Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s reign, a cesspool of mediocrity that has reigned during Ralf Ragnick’s stay, there’s finally something to look forward to. They couldn’t have got a better candidate than Ten Hag, someone who can inject a sense of purpose and identity into this team.