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Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United review: The key areas that will determine his fate

Erik ten Hag and Sir Jim Ratcliffe shake hands at Wembley
Erik ten Hag shakes hands with Sir Jim Ratcliffe after the FA Cup final - Getty Images/Marc Atkins

Manchester United’s hierarchy are conducting a thorough season review this week, out of which they will decide whether to stick with Erik ten Hag - or sack their FA Cup winning manager.

Old Trafford sources have indicated that the review could run for a number of days, has no time limit as such and will involve proper discussion and reflection before the arrive at a critical decision.

Telegraph Sport delves into the issues that will determine the Dutchman’s fate.

Results and performances

United finished eighth in the Premier League with a record 14 defeats, 31 points adrift of champions Manchester City, their lowest league position for 34 years and the first time since that 1989/90 season that they ended with a negative goal difference. Only bottom club Sheffield United faced more shots than the 667 opposition sides had over 38 league matches against United. Their Champions League campaign was just as bad: out at the group stage after losing four of their six matches and conceding 15 goals in the process.

Across all competitions, United conceded at least three times in a game on 15 separate occasions. Despite all that, Saturday’s impressive FA Cup triumph over City earned Ten Hag his second trophy in as many seasons and ensured United would be playing Europa League football next term after an injury ravaged campaign that saw the manager field 15 different centre-half partnerships in the league alone.

Verdict

Ten Hag has described the season as “a mess” and, even accounting for the injuries that meant he was only able to field his best team once, in the 4-3 win over Wolves on Feb. 1, no one at Ineos is going to pretend eighth is in any way acceptable. Nonetheless, the Dutchman has demonstrated that, even in adversity, he can win trophies.

Playing style and tactics

Ten Hag wants United to be the best transition team in the world and that necessitates being compact out of possession. But his tendency to defend with a low block while still trying to press high with midfielders who push up to man mark routinely left large spaces for opponents to exploit. Even when injuries robbed him off his first choice defence and, with it, the ability to play out confidently from the back, Ten Hag refused to adjust. Jamie Carragher described United as “one of the most poorly coached teams in the Premier League” after the 4-0 defeat at Crystal Palace.

United’s successful approach against City at Wembley suggested they are still at their most effective defending deeper in numbers and hitting at pace on the counter. Sir Jim Ratcliffe and his Ineos team have been concerned about the absence of a clear playing style and identity - a notion at which Ten Hag has already taken umbrage. One of Jason Wilcox’s tasks as the new technical director has been to devise a coherent “game model” that ensures the club going forward do not oscillate between coaches of wildly contrasting styles and recruit according to a clear, cohesive strategy.

Verdict

This is likely to be one of the key areas of debate for chief executive Omar Berrada, Wilcox and Ineos’ director of sport Sir Dave Brailsford: do they believe in Ten Hag’s way of playing or, if they want to adapt their approach, is there the confidence the manager is willing, able and flexible enough to fit with those plans?

Dressing room relations

There have been occasional frictions, tensions and, at least in the case of Jadon Sancho, fall-outs between players and Ten Hag, who has stood accused of lacking the empathy to adapt his hardline stance at times. But he still has some staunch followers in that dressing room and, even as results nosedived, there has never been any of the toxicity that engulfed the final seasons of Jose Mourinho or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his interim replacement, Ralf Rangnick.

Verdict

Wilcox and Brailsford have both had conversations with players and there is no sense of a complete breakdown in relations with Ten Hag. It was clear at Wembley that this was not a dressing room that has abandoned its manager, even if his authority has been eroded to an extent by the uncertainty over his future.

Credentials and cost of potential replacements

United have been sounding out the representatives of an array of potential managerial replacements, including Brentford’s Thomas Frank, Thomas Tuchel, who is leaving Bayern Munich, England manager Gareth Southgate and Mauricio Pochettino and Roberto De Zerbi, who are available after leaving Chelsea and Brighton respectively. Kieran McKenna was another of those but the former United first team coach has now indicated he will be staying at Ipswich Town.

Verdict

This is likely to be a critical factor in any decision. If United were to dispense with Ten Hag, they would have to be convinced there was a better candidate out there who could also withstand the Old Trafford pressure cooker - and there are plenty of fans who are unsure there is and of the mind that the last thing the club needs is another managerial change. Ineos are unafraid to make unpopular decisions but a backlash is possible.

Might finances also be a factor? Sacking Ten Hag and his staff could run up an eight figure bill and they may also need to pay compensation to get a new man in. With the purse strings extremely tight, that is money being taken away to spend on transfers.

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