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Erik ten Hag faces a tough task to turn Manchester United’s ghost ship | Erik ten Hag

Welcome to Manchester, Erik. We’ve been expecting you. Here it is at last, the final dig, the final mystery gift from Manchester United’s managerial fluke.

There is a game you can play with the managerial appointments of the post-Ferguson years. It’s such a polished nominating process that it has, to date, concocted five random, ill-fitting, hilariously swinging selections over the past decade.

At the end of the day, the fascination is not so much what the last hope can do with Manchester United, but what Manchester United will do to him, what quality, what weakness, what blind spots will be spotted and amplified in this harsh white light into something monstrous and cartoonish.

David Moyes, who came in a bit above his level, was recast after eight months on the job as a total impostor, a hollow-eyed passerby with an empty briefcase on his desk. Ole Gunnar Solskjær, still hired by the company, was transformed into a yes man, a gargoyle in the wax museum of Old Trafford.

Ralf Rangnick’s weakness has always been his remoteness. Transformed by the Hall of Mirrors at Old Trafford, Rangnick has become something of a footballing Martian, a baffled-looking time traveler, the world’s worst Doctor Who star. Everyone has a plan until they are appointed Manchester United manager. What will he do in Ten Hag? And yet, there is also hope. This is, by any reasonable standard, a sensible appointment. Ten Hag is a talented trainer and a man of substance.

For the first time since Alex Ferguson in 1986, Manchester United have found a manager who is qualified on his record but also still on the rise in his own career. Ten Hag is pleasantly serious. He has good influences. He seems at the cutting edge of technology in his ideas. Players have described him as a father figure and notably likable one-on-one, essential qualities in a team that constantly seem to teeter on the brink of some sort of collective personality breakdown.

There are rumors about Ten Hag’s age, the slightly misleading sentiment that he is a young head coach (in fact, at 52, Ten Hag is said to be the sixth-oldest manager in the Premier League. League if he took charge today). There was a 10-year gap between retirement as a player and a first head coaching job.

A good year at Go Ahead Eagles was followed by a few tricks at Bayern Munich II, not exactly a talent pool (his predecessor Mehmet Scholl is a television pundit; his successor manages the reserves at Borussia Mönchengladbach). Eventually, at 47, Ten Hag took Utrecht to the Europa League. Two years later his Ajax side beat Real Madrid 4-1 at the Bernabéu and that slow trajectory was set.

Ten Hag has a huge job to do to transform his new team into the winning machine of old. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA

Ten Hag has a reputation for promoting youngsters, working in a specific 4-3-3 system, but those who know him say he will build around what he has. His current Ajax squad has 10 regular outfielders. Six are 24 or younger. Three are over 30 years old. Jurriën Timber and Antony have already been identified as likely United signings. But Ten Hag also enjoys grizzled, on-set old pros. In that case, old man, you might be lucky.

The main task will be to break the cycle of mediocrity, to put a firewall between his own work and the layers of middle management inserted by the property. Rangnick complained that United have technical players who aren’t physical and physical players who aren’t technical.

But there is talent here. Football is a surprisingly simple business, the idea of ​​deep-rooted character rot always a little overdone, a case of reacting to the theater of defeat. Two years of disciplined management, stubbornness, insistence on following its own process could infuse even this ghost ship, this gothic mansion, some warmth, a sense of sharp edges.

At that point, of course, reality must set in. It’s not hard to see why Ten Hag looks like an attractive option for United’s board. As so often, it feels like a shortcut, a way of trying to reach a desirable endpoint without actually doing the necessary work.

Ten Hag in Ajax tracksuit
Even before Ten Hag took over at Ajax, the club had a clear internal structure and methodology. Photography: Peter de Jong/AP

This is a club that lacks method, structure, coherent culture. How to solve this? How about tackling the most visible part of Ajax, a club that has all those things? Ten Hag’s success is of course an expression of that Ajax culture, not its essence or key ingredient. Naming him is in a sense another Ranknick: a process manager in a club that has no process; another doomed attempt by this club-holed replicant robot to ape the human elements of a successful sports culture.

Similarly, nothing in Ten Hag’s resume says he has the ability to take a struggling celebrity club, some kind of cocktail party for the disgruntled A-lister, and make it work as a cohesive unit. . But then, who does? Zinedine Zidane? Gordon Ramsay? Volodymyr Zelensky?

If that sounds like a deeply strange task in a deeply strange sporting entity, perhaps there is some comfort in the fact that being Manchester United manager has always been difficult. Only three managers have won the league at Manchester United. It is a club with 42 major trophies, including 33 won by two men in two separate periods. The pattern, if we can find one, is stasis, decline, crisis, revolution. Matt Busby took on a club that had been blasted into dust by the Luftwaffe, Alex Ferguson a drunken ship without a league title in 20 years.

While Glazer’s ownership is rightly reviled, the fact remains that part of that delicate Manchester United gravity has always been that sense of showmanship, glitz, brand, event glamor that makes part of the club’s sense of itself, from the dapper Mr Busby to David Beckham rocking his hair in the August sun.

The Glazers have taken this to its macabre extreme. What we have here is the debauched version of late capitalism, all the human elements subsumed by the urge to sell that brand, to pound it until it breaks.

It’s hard not to wish Ten Hag well in this environment, to hope that from his fundamental footballing virtues, a culture of care and detail and collectivism, something cohesive can emerge. At the moment, however, the fear is more what this club could do to him in the next three years.