Erik ten Hag’s defiant outburst only makes his Manchester United position weaker

As Erik ten Hag left his press conference, he felt a sense of defiance. The Manchester United manager had come out swinging, and defended himself. It was his little bit back.

The problem was that it only makes him look weaker.

While fans might love it when a manager has a go at the media, that is rarely a sense shared within football. Mason Mount might have recalled Frank Lampard’s similar display just days before losing the Chelsea job.

Ten Hag is likely to be mere weeks from the same fate at Old Trafford. This won’t help. The view within football is that, as soon as a manager starts focusing on the media, it shows that it’s all getting to them; that they’re losing control.

That may be unfair. It may represent an imbalance. It’s just that a manager is generally expected to be above all of this. They shouldn't care what people say.

It doesn’t exactly speak to command of what’s happening, or that there is much optimism about what next.

All of this of course stems from United going completely out of control against Coventry City in the fortunate FA Cup semi-final penalty shootout victory. Ten Hag pointed to luck and complained that the coverage of the result was a “disgrace”.

The problem is that you can’t really argue against the reality of results. It isn’t “luck” if it fits into a pattern, and this has been precisely the case with United all season. Coventry City were just the latest team to shred United. Perhaps the only difference was that this time it was on the wings rather than through the centre. It was still just the total absence of any working tactical structure.

The common defence against this is that Ten Hag has had too many absences, especially key system players such as Lisandro Martinez.

Ten Hag said criticism of his team was ‘embarrassing’ (The FA via Getty Images)
Ten Hag said criticism of his team was ‘embarrassing’ (The FA via Getty Images)

There is an inherent contradiction there, however, that actually weakens the argument for the Dutch coach. Ten Hag was primarily appointed on the basis that he is a modern “ideology” manager of the type that Ajax coaches are supposed to exemplify. One of the core principles of that entire approach, though, is that you commit to the ideology regardless of the personnel. The entire premise is that the system is supposed to be independent of anything else, after all.

That isn’t a question of dogmatism, either. It is actually pragmatism and logic, too. As coaches within the Premier League would tell you - some of them when talking about Ten Hag - “ideology” or “system” isn’t something you can just switch on and off. It has to be developed over time. If a team doesn’t commit to it, they never internalise it.

The direct consequences of this can be seen after almost two full seasons at United. There is barely a structure at all, as teams just play through them. United have become one of the easiest sides to face in the league, with only individual quality sparing them worse results. On that, in a further illustration of how the manager is losing control, players are now privately complaining about their changed tactical roles.

Ten Hag’s other grand riposte to this is that United have qualified for three finals in two years, having already won one trophy. That record is good, but it points to something else that actually adds to the frustration.

Two of those cup runs came from the one spell where Ten Hag was displaying real promise. It was that period immediately after the 2022 World Cup and up to the 7-0 defeat to Liverpool. That was when you could see the promise of something more. United were themselves shredding opposition teams on the wings, and looked like they could be an exhilarating team.

Erik ten Hag believes he can work with the new appointments (Manchester United via Getty Imag)
Erik ten Hag believes he can work with the new appointments (Manchester United via Getty Imag)

It just couldn’t last. Worse, it has never really looked like coming back. That can be seen in the league table. That position also got worse at precisely the wrong time.

It was just as Ineos were settling into their roles that United beat Aston Villa at Villa Park in a match that could have been a turning point. It instead turned right back.

If you stand back and look at this in the way Ineos currently are, it’s difficult to see how Ten Hag has put up enough evidence to keep this job. There’s been almost nothing of conviction for three months. There have been no signs of life or plan. Instead, Ineos are understood to have been particularly perturbed about recruitment and the struggles of so many signings. It is just seen as incredible waste.

As was reported by The Independent weeks ago, there are many within football and around the club who feel the decision has virtually been made.

The only element that might save Ten Hag is the fact there aren’t that many absolutely convincing candidates. It is a transitional period for coaching, where it’s like football is moving between generations.

Ineos like Gareth Southgate. They like Graham Potter. They also liked Julian Nagelsmann, but he has committed another two years to the German national team. Another name that has now been raised around the club is Roberto De Zerbi.

The noise isn’t good for Ten Hag. For all he complains about it, though, there’s only one sure way to silence it: performance.

That’s where Ten Hag really needs to show defiance.