HomeFitnessBuy-in from players fuelled Erik ten Hag's Manchester United rebuild

Buy-in from players fuelled Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United rebuild

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As the green-and-gold confetti fell around Manchester United’s first trophy parade since 2017 (colours of sponsor Carabao we are assured, rather than a form of fan protest), it was worth reflecting on how Erik ten Hag’s methods were not immediately embraced by all his players. The vast majority welcomed his fastidious approach but some initially wondered if his direct style might prove too abrasive as the weeks and months went on.

Mitchell van der Gaag, described as “the real master of detail” for United training sessions, is also straightforward in his instructions and though both he and Ten Hag have a human touch too, it was not a given that United’s players would respond well to their hard rules policy.

Bringing the squad in for a running session on their day off, dropping Marcus Rashford to the bench for being late, sending Jadon Sancho to the Netherlands for extra training, publicising early dissatisfaction with Alejandro Garnacho, pointedly criticising performances at Brentford and Manchester City — these were not acts designed to win friends. They carried the risk of alienating people.

That happened, of course, with Cristiano Ronaldo, when it would have been easy for Ten Hag to soften his stance under the intense glare of the world’s most talked about club and the world’s most talked about player.

But Ten Hag has not compromised his principles, even when dealing in the raised profiles of Old Trafford. Crucially, though, he has also got results. That encourages buy-in from players, even those who may have harboured reservations.

After beating Barcelona, Ten Hag said of United’s improvements: “You need a strategy to build that but also you need results to get that strong belief in. I think this is another step because when you can beat Barcelona, one of the best teams in this moment in Europe, then your belief can be really strong then you are able to beat anyone.”

For all of the nights like Thursday however, silverware adds a vital layer, and Ten Hag expanded on that aspect after his team beat Newcastle 2-0 at Wembley.

“It shows something, silverware,” Ten Hag said. “It shows you are on a good pathway. It’s one cup, it is February, but it shows we are in the right direction. This has to be the inspiration, this has to be the motivation to keep going, to continue on this pathway, to improve. OK, be happy for 24 hours but not be satisfied, because satisfaction leads to laziness. And when you are lazy, you can’t win trophies.”

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There’s that disciplinarian streak again. Winning, though, encourages allegiance to the strictest of codes. Ten Hag lifted Ajax’s first trophy in five years in 2019 and success then became a habit. United players have that record and now the Carabao Cup to convince them that he knows what he is doing.

They had a beer in the dressing room and Sancho walked out of Wembley carrying a sound speaker the size of a holdall, blasting out music, but there were no major celebrations. Everyone was boarded on a flight from Luton by 10.15pm ready to fly back to Manchester for training on Monday, with attentions already turning to Wednesday’s FA Cup tie against West Ham.

Staff have been at pains to stress that while Ten Hag may have become only the second United manager in history to win a trophy in his first season, after Jose Mourinho, this was no moment for garlands.

Indeed, beforehand, the occasion was treated like a routine away game. United got the train from Stockport to Watford, then a coach down to the Novotel on Wembley Way, a nice if relatively normal hotel. There was no special five-star resort, although United were able to book it out entirely to ensure privacy. On Saturday night, Newcastle went for a walk round the Wembley pitch and Eddie Howe gave a team talk in dressing room. Ten Hag stuck to his ordinary match preparations.

Afterwards, so preoccupied was Ten Hag with moving onto his next target, he momentarily forgot to take with him the Carabao Cup that he had brought into the media suite, once he had finished his press conference. As he walked off, he was reminded by reporters. Returning to pick it up, he said: “I can leave it because next cup, eh? This one is in.”

A good joke and not the first he has delivered as United manager.

Ten Hag earlier demonstrated his jovial side on the pitch, dancing with Lisandro Martinez and Antony in that deliberately jerky manner made famous in the Netherlands through clips of the trio celebrating trophies with Ajax. “We have our history together, The two, Licha and Antony, in Amsterdam, we did some dancing,” Ten Hag said. “I hope we can do some more in the future. Therefore, we have to invest, sacrifice, every day.”

Right back to the grind again. Ten Hag, it seems, cannot let a moment of levity pass without reminding how that levity was achieved in the first place. The mindset of a serial winner, it would appear.

Erik ten Hag, Lisandro Martinez, Antony


Ten Hag, Lisandro Martinez and Antony recreate their trophy-winning jig from their days at Ajax (Photo: Andrew Kearns – CameraSport via Getty Images)

So that is why players are on board with his decisions, even when they may sting. When Rashford was dropped at Wolves for a 12.30pm kick-off, it can be revealed he was in the line-up as late as that morning. He was in fact late for the final pre-game meeting before departing for Molineux. Despite the close turnaround, Ten Hag switched Rashford to the bench for the ill-discipline of sleeping in. Rashford responded by scoring the winner after being brought on as a substitute and last week opened up on the episode with a ringing endorsement, and a clear description of how things were different last season.

“If I was a coach, I’d have done the same,” said Rashford. “Because if you don’t have standards in the training ground, how do you expect to go out on the pitch and win consistently? It’s impossible. Or if you’re gonna allow each other to slip or have an off-day and no one says anything about it, which is, at times, a position that we’ve been in. Once you’re in it, it’s difficult to get out of it because it becomes normal.”

Sancho is a bigger example. Care was at the heart of Ten Hag’s handling of the 22-year-old but there was an element of punishment, too. Sancho’s time-keeping was awry and that impacted his training levels, which had an effect on his fitness. Ten Hag cut him from United’s squad on November 3 and put him on a tailored programme in the Netherlands. He only returned on February 1. Sancho is one of the higher earners at United and a regular starter, but Ten Hag felt a serious intervention was required.

Now Ten Hag has laid down fundamentals and acted decisively on any breaches, players are given licence to challenge each other, too. At Wembley, as United’s squad began a lap of honour, Casemiro called out Bruno Fernandes over his failure to square the ball for either Scott McTominay or Sancho when through on goal late in the game.

Manchester United, Carabao Cup


United’s players lift the Carabao Cup at Wembley (Photo: James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

Martinez said last week that players under Ten Hag are given responsibility for self-governance. “For sure it’s not easy but I think you have to have personality because everyone wants to go one way: it’s to win trophies,” he said. “If you want to win trophies, you have to do the right things. And if you have to fight or you have to be strict with someone, you have to do it.”

Martinez, remember, was a player who lost his United place for winning a World Cup. He had one day partying in Buenos Aires but returned straight to Manchester on December 28 and he was desperate to play against Wolves and Bournemouth. But even with his shared “history” with Ten Hag he was not given preferential treatment. He played against Charlton in the next game but was back on the bench for the visit of Manchester City on January 14.

Ten Hag’s strength in these kind of calls comes from his own personality but also by being backed wholeheartedly in his vision by football director John Murtough. After Ronaldo’s interview with Piers Morgan, Ten Hag wanted him gone and Murtough provided total support. Unlike under Ralf Rangnick, the players understand Ten Hag has authority and longevity at the club, and that aids his control.

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It helps when you have players like Casemiro and Raphael Varane, winners of multiple Champions Leagues celebrating a League Cup like youngsters.

They have pride in less glamorous acts on a pitch, too. When Casemiro shepherded the ball out for a goal kick from Bruno Guimaraes at the end of the first half, he was surrounded by Varane, Martinez and Diogo Dalot in primal recognition. Varane also fist-pumped Martinez after he blocked Joelinton’s goalbound shot in the second period. These emotive comings together of defenders have been a theme of the campaign, a symptom of Ten Hag emphasising hard work as a defining quality of his team.

The match itself was attritional, with United outmuscling Newcastle. The irony of David de Gea being booked for time-wasting cannot be lost on Ten Hag, although of greater significance was the Spaniard hitting 181 clean sheets to pass Peter Schmeichel in the list of all-time United goalkeepers.

Wembley had a similar feel to Stockholm in 2017, the scene of United’s Europa League win, when Mourinho ground out a 2-0 victory over Ajax. Manager Peter Bosz left for Borussia Dortmund that summer, replaced by Jong Ajax coach Marcel Keizer, whose reign lasted 17 games before Ten Hag took over.

That time at Ajax shows Ten Hag can manage up as well as down. He lost Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt from his first good Ajax team, but he did not complain and instead created a new side that thrilled in the Champions League last season. He wished to explore new horizons but conducted himself professionally, and Edwin van der Sar, Ajax chief executive, speaks highly of him still.

He has continued in Manchester, understanding the limits that are placed on him even at a club of much greater wealth. He was told by Murtough and chief executive Richard Arnold that after going big in the market last summer, finances meant only loans were possible in January. Indeed, due to financial fair play regulations, Ten Hag has been informed he effectively has to sell to buy in the summer.

Rather than moan he got creative, leading the move for Wout Wegorst, who has now started 12 games for United. Weghorst has only scored one goal but he does contribute to the team and now he has the first trophy of his career, which will only add to his devotion to Ten Hag’s tasks. Marcel Sabitzer, who made a real impact off the bench at Wembley, was another shrewd temporary signing.

Of course, supporters will be hoping the picture shifts by the time trading opens in June, with new owners in place. Avram Glazer’s presence at Wembley adds intrigue to the story, however, another signal that he and brother Joel are reluctant to sell.

Glazer was booed by fans when his face appeared on the big screen. They sung anti-Glazer chants and hung several green-and-gold banners calling for the family to leave United but Ten Hag made sure to shake the co-owner’s hand, and said: “He was really happy for the club, as our owner. He wanted to be part of it. He was in the dressing room. Good he was here. Showed his intentions.”

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A negotiation tactic for higher bids from Sheikh Jassim or Sir Jim Ratcliffe or not, Ten Hag is treading a respectful line. “I don’t know, I’m not involved in that process but the way he is here, you feel he is committed. What he wants, that is not for me. I have to lead this team. Others in the club are involved in decisions about ownership.”

Ten Hag is also giving the right amount of respect to Sir Alex Ferguson. The current United manager invited the former United manager into the dressing room to share the experience.

But Ten Hag is not deferential to the point of reducing his own status. The Dutchman has too much of his own aura for that. It is evident in the way he commands the conversation around what this piece of silverware means. He knows it is not the end destination but a useful signpost to supporters and importantly players that United are on the right track.

(Top photo: Andrew Kearns – CameraSport via Getty Images)

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