How in just two weeks Man United manager Ten Hag swung from a baddie awaiting the sack to a hero atop Red Devils

How in just two weeks Man United manager Ten Hag swung from a baddie awaiting the sack to a hero atop Red Devils


Having read media reports about INEOS figures speaking to various managerial candidates in the fortnight after his FA Cup win, Erik Ten Hag finally heard for himself about his future on Tuesday.

The season review – carried out by Sir Dave Brailsford, Jason Wilcox and Jean-Claude Blanc on behalf of Sir Jim Ratcliffe and which featured several conversations with potential successors, before advancing to the stage of possible financials with Thomas Tuchel and Roberto De Zerbi, had ultimately led back to the man in situ.

The decision-makers had cut communication after passing on their congratulations to Ten Hag at Wembley on May 25 but, 16 days later, they called him to say they would like him to continue in charge. That radio silence was intended to allow for objectivity in the INEOS process, but it also caused consternation for Ten Hag and meant the renewal of vows in this marriage of convenience required diplomacy.

The following day, a delegation headed by Brailsford flew to meet Ten Hag in Ibiza to talk things through properly and attempt to engender mutual respect in a relationship that had been severely tested. Because INEOS had, indeed, given the most serious thought to making a change.

There was contrition for how Ten Hag’s position had seemed so vulnerable and, crucially, discussions started on a new contract to affirm his status in the eyes of players and the public, albeit exact details need to be ironed out.

People briefed on the talks say the frank conversation, with humility on both sides, allowed for a genuine resolution and renewed energy to back Ten Hag with the improved environment Ratcliffe spoke about during his first media engagements after taking control. Sources spoken to for this article did so on condition of anonymity to protect relationships.

The clarity means United can begin meaningful work on transfers, with targets wishing to know the identity of the manager. The priority is a central defender, holding midfielder and striker, although cash is tight. Pre-season is due to start on July 8.

Inevitably, the substance of this reconciliation will be evidenced in actions during the summer and tested by results at the start of the season. Ten Hag must hope there is an echo of Sir Alex Ferguson about this reprieve, who escaped the sack at United by lifting the FA Cup in 1990 before going on to achieve success.

From an INEOS perspective, it is better informed of the managerial landscape, and while such intense succession planning was not ideal, it was brought about by arriving in mid-season and the team’s form. While abnormal in football, a post-season evaluation is customary in other INEOS sports and is to be expected after a challenging campaign. Ten Hag is felt by those familiar with the process to be strong enough to withstand the scrutiny and emerge with the same determination.

This is the full story of how a remarkable few weeks unfolded.

Events kicked off in earnest in Monaco on Tuesday, May 14. It was there, in the haven of the super-rich where Ratcliffe resides, that club executives including Brailsford, interim chief executive Blanc, and technical director Wilcox gathered to discuss what to do about a team heading for their worst finish in Premier League history. The consensus that day was for Ten Hag to be relieved of his duties.

It did not count as a final decision but marked the change in thinking of those in power at United. Previously, they had planned to keep Ten Hag for the next season to see if the manager could improve results with a different structure around him. But the 4-0 defeat away to Crystal Palace on May 6 following on from the chaotic penalty shootout win over Coventry City in the FA Cup semi-final seemed to detonate that hope.

These two performances deepened concerns within the hierarchy over coaching and tactical selections and indicated to them that rifts between certain players and Ten Hag might be beyond repair.

There was also developing tension between Ten Hag and the decision-makers over ways of working and a vision for the future. Ten Hag had a veto on transfers written into his contract, which appeared at odds with the structure INEOS aimed to implement, and he also wanted greater involvement in the medical department after a season that had been significantly hampered by injuries.

INEOS wanted the energy and positivity at Carrington to be better. Those in power believed a top manager should be able to inspire players as well as instill discipline. There was also a feeling that Ratcliffe, having shaken up the club since securing his 25 per cent investment on Christmas Eve, ultimately wished to have his own man in the dugout.

It can be revealed that in the days after the humiliation at Selhurst Park, executives even considered sacking Ten Hag before the Arsenal game on May 12. They debated whether installing an interim coach might deliver a bounce which could take them to the European places.

When Thursday of that week came and went, however, it was clear Ten Hag would stay on. Still, people at the club sensed Sunday’s game against Arsenal was a highly significant one for Ten Hag. The game went better than expected, ending in a narrow 1-0 defeat. Then followed the trip to Monaco where a decision was made to explore alternatives to Ten Hag. Incoming chief executive Omar Berrada and future sporting director Dan Ashworth were kept in the loop. Co-owner Joel Glazer was involved.

The next night, Manchester United beat Newcastle to keep Ten Hag in charge for the game away to De Zerbi’s Brighton, which his team also won.

For the decision-makers though, the question remained whether United had a better chance to beat Manchester City in the FA Cup final with or without Ten Hag, given how qualifying for Europe via that route would be important to improving their ability to spend this summer. Agents were told of a £50 million ($64.3 million) net spend, due to the Premier League’s profit and sustainability rules (PSR), although that figure rises now United are in the Europa League.

Paul Scholes publicly floated the idea of Steve McClaren, who has known Brailsford for more than 10 years, stepping in as caretaker had Ratcliffe decided to remove Ten Hag before the season was out.

In early spring, United’s preference was to keep Ten Hag into the start of the 2024-25 season at least given all the changes happening in the hierarchy. INEOS believed it would be beneficial if Ashworth, whose arrival from Newcastle is the subject of a legal dispute, was officially in place to help the selection process before hiring a new manager if they chose to. The cost of replacing Ten Hag, given his compensation, was also a significant factor given United’s financial position.

But as the weeks went on, the results and harmony deteriorated. Having been included in all preparations for the 2024-25 campaign, such as the tour to the United States and transfers, Ten Hag found himself left out of certain meetings after the 4-3 defeat to Chelsea on April 4.

Some discussions on recruitment happened without him, as did calls on who to retain and release, such as Raphael Varane. John Murtough’s departure from his role as football director on April 9 removed a key communication link for Ten Hag with the new hierarchy.

Murtough had grown to be at odds with the INEOS approach and his exit allowed others at United to have direct relationships with Brailsford. Deputy football director Andy O’Boyle has become more prominent in the reshuffle, assisting on key tasks, and director of negotiations Matt Hargreaves has increased latitude with agents.

Wilcox began work at Carrington once Murtough left and, together with Brailsford, undertook an analysis of life at the training ground. Every member of the squad had a one-on-one meeting. Sources briefed on the matter say Ten Hag would have liked greater consultation to provide his insight on the club. Some speculate he had reticence over INEOS implementing a United game model.

People sensed INEOS was looking at proposing a reshaping of Ten Hag’s coaching team, with attention on Mitchell van der Gaag, having concluded that the atmosphere at Carrington needed lifting. However, Van der Gaag is clear in his own mind about his methods, while Ten Hag is loyal to his No 2 and greatly admires his work.

Some observers saw this as a sign Ten Hag might not bend to the wishes of INEOS as anticipated, but in other ways he did adapt, becoming warmer with players and altering tactics in the final weeks.

Ten Hag likely sensed his future was under threat, but he did not pursue alternative opportunities. There was strong interest from Ajax and Bayern Munich, who placed him on their list to succeed Tuchel, but Ten Hag’s focus was on remaining at Old Trafford. Those aware of his views insist he wanted to succeed at the club.

Still, Ten Hag admitted United were enduring a “rubbish” campaign and Ratcliffe had said that failure to qualify for the Champions League would prompt a review on the manager. This was the backdrop to INEOS figures beginning to look at permanent alternatives to Ten Hag before the season was over.

  • The Athletic report
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