Erik ten Hag is facing the same humiliation Louis van Gaal suffered at Manchester United

Erik ten Hag - Erik ten Hag is facing the same humiliation Louis van Gaal suffered at Manchester United
Will Erik ten Hag still be in the Manchester United hot seat next week? - PA/Zac Goodwin

The endgame of Louis van Gaal’s brief, benighted tenure at Manchester United bears the eeriest parallels to what Erik ten Hag is enduring now. Every alarm signal from 2016 – the ineffectual signings, the peevish press conferences, the constant search for excuses in the injury list – finds almost an exact replica eight years later. In fact, the ordeals of these two Dutch managers are such mirror images that the duo could yet share the least enviable distinction of all, in finding themselves kicked out of Old Trafford straight after winning an FA Cup final.

Both men arrived on three-year contracts but became overwhelmed by systemic failure within two. Both could also be authors of their own downfall: Van Gaal contrived to make such world-class talents as Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Bastian Schweinsteiger look pedestrian, while Ten Hag has performed similar reverse alchemy with Casemiro, Jadon Sancho and Mason Mount. For all Ten Hag’s bullishness in public, claiming to have held positive talks about the future with Sir Jim Ratcliffe, we have heard it all before. Van Gaal was still insisting his job was safe just hours before he was fired.

His defenestration felt brutal. He had, after all, assured United of a place in the Europa League, a tournament they would win 12 months later under Jose Mourinho. Ten Hag has no such crutch in his humiliation, with United confronting, in the likelihood of defeat to Manchester City at Wembley, a campaign without European football for only the second time in 42 years. The chief complaint against Van Gaal was that United were ossifying on his watch, finishing fourth, then fifth in the Premier League. But even this was preferable, surely, to the Ten Hag trajectory of third, then eighth.

Louis Van Gaal celebrates with the trophy after winning the English FA Cup
Louis van Gaal only had an FA Cup win to show for his two-year tenure at Old Trafford, a reign that underwhelmed - EPA/Andy Rain

Ratcliffe is now poised to make the most consequential decision of his 14-year spell as a sporting investor. Largely, he has avoided any casting as the hatchet man. His less popular moves at United, including the axing of traditional staff trips to the Cup final and the emails berating the state of the IT department, have been a case of tinkering around the edges of a sclerotic club. It is sacking Ten Hag that will define his stewardship. He cannot tolerate 14 league defeats in a single campaign, a depth not plumbed since relegation half a century ago, as a mere bump in the road. He needs to stay true to his reputation in industry for never settling for mediocrity.

All the indications are that Ten Hag is doomed irrespective of the outcome against City, with United understood to be sounding out Thomas Tuchel, Mauricio Pochettino, Kieran McKenna, Graham Potter and Thomas Frank as potential replacements. Only the Dutchman’s most myopic disciples could accuse them of acting in haste. He has had two years to leave his imprimatur on this team, only a preside over a directionless rabble whose goal difference the league campaign was minus-one, a staggering 63 adrift of both City and Arsenal. That represents not an isolated lapse in form, but an unforgivable collapse in standards.

Even more alarmingly, Ten Hag appears oblivious to the degree of regression. He argued this week that United had been “very competitive” against City last October, a game they lost 3-0 at home. He declared they had been “very good” at the Etihad, too, somehow disregarding the three unanswered second-half goals. His diagnosis of United’s situation after the litany of recent horrors? “Very good things. Players coming up, values coming up.” It flew in the face of all the evidence of players going backwards under his leadership. As for values, the image of Antony, his £85 million marquee signing, taunting Coventry City’s inconsolable players after United squeaked through to the final on penalties told its own story.

Erik ten Hag
There has been very little to applaud during Ten Hag's two years at Manchester United - Getty Images/Stu Forster

This is the fundamental problem with Ten Hag: he strives to sound defiant, but too often he comes across as plain delusional. He talks of continuing with his “project”, despite United turning in displays devoid of any coherent vision. The stark truth is they are no closer to challenging City than when he took over. That is not just the product of an injury crisis in central defence but of the manager’s failure to communicate a clear philosophy. He can bemoan the misfortunes and the ever-rotating centre-half partnerships all he likes, but none of it justifies the sheer scale of systems meltdown. United had two of their most vibrant young talents on the pitch against Crystal Palace earlier this month, in Kobbie Mainoo and Alejandro Garnacho, and still they folded 4-0.

They have a soft centre, a susceptibility to panic at the slightest setback. You saw it in the anxiety that engulfed them in the madcap finale to their 4-3 loss at Chelsea. You noticed it in the 17 points they dropped from winning positions. This tendency towards implosion bodes ill ahead of their confrontation with a Double-chasing City. Any notion of a victory, of a second trophy to decorate his time in charge, seems far-fetched. Ratcliffe would have justification in being ruthless, in thanking Ten Hag for his efforts while acknowledging that United are trapped in a funk that only change at the top can solve.

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