Inside Manchester United’s axis of power and how Erik ten Hag’s fate will be sealed

Jean-Claude Blanc, Dave Brailsford and Sir Jim Ratcliffe after a Nice match

Sir Jim Ratcliffe, it is fair to say, is not afraid of voicing an opinion. A number of Ineos executives involved at his Ligue 1 club Nice had a WhatsApp group and, on occasion, Ratcliffe would not be shy about sharing his bemusement, for example, about an interim manager’s left-field team selections.

Invariably, there was an explanation and Ratcliffe would accept it because he trusts the people put in place to run his myriad of businesses. But the point is if he has a strong view on something, he is unlikely to keep his own counsel. Manchester United staff were reminded of as much last week when they checked their inboxes to find a blunt email from the club’s new kingpin condemning the lack of cleanliness and tidiness at Old Trafford and their Carrington training base.

It is safe to assume, then, that Ratcliffe will have an opinion on Erik ten Hag and his suitability as United manager. And when the moment comes, he will probably not be reticent about sharing it. But do not mistake that for the Ineos owner calling the shots there. The future of Ten Hag, and those in his squad, are firmly decisions for the experts he is entrusting to rebuild United and, if they were the sort of individuals simply to dance to the billionaire’s tune, it is unlikely he would have employed them in the first place. Yes-men will not cut it and, more pertinently, are the last thing United need right now as they seek to unpiece a decade of wrong decisions.

Indeed, the axis of power will ultimately revolve around incoming chief executive Omar Berrada, new technical director Jason Wilcox and Dan Ashworth once a deal of some description is struck with Newcastle for the sporting director. As things stand, that situation is heading for arbitration this month.

With Berrada seeing out the remainder of his gardening leave following his departure from Manchester City in January, though, Ineos Sport’s Jean-Claude Blanc was drafted in as interim CEO at the end of last month until Berrada formally starts on July 13.

As one of two Ineos representatives alongside Sir Dave Brailsford on United’s football club board, Blanc’s longer-term involvement at Old Trafford will be in a more advisory capacity. But without Berrada and Ashworth physically on the ground working alongside Wilcox at this critical juncture, Blanc will provide an important bridge in the meantime. Not only will he give Berrada more eyes and ears on the ground, the 61-year-old Frenchman can provide a trusted voice, there to offer expert insight, make recommendations and tap into a wide network of contacts established over 16 years working in senior roles at Juventus and Paris St-Germain.

Blanc, who has a reputation for calmness in a crisis and strong interpersonal skills, knows only too well what it is like to walk into a maelstrom after taking over as Juventus CEO in 2006 with the Italian club engulfed by Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. New leaders of a business or organisation often talk about the importance of the first 100 days and Blanc, inheriting what he described as a “mountain of problems to deal with at once” at Juventus, would later admit how decisive that period was for the club. “In those 100 days, we took many good decisions,” he said, which included tempting in Didier Deschamps as manager and persuading a number of star players such Alessandro del Piero, Pavel Nedved and Gianluigi Buffon to stay at the club and play in Italy’s second division.

United do not have a match-fixing scandal to contend with, thankfully, but there is no hiding from the challenges at hand, on and off the pitch. Eighth in the Premier League table and in growing danger of missing out on European qualification entirely with little money already to spend, a host of overpaid, underperforming players to shift and a manager whose credibility and authority is waning by the week, United’s new hierarchy have their work cut out.

It is 78 days now since Ratcliffe’s deal for a 27.7 per cent stake in United was formally completed and they will hit that 100-day marker in the days after the FA Cup final against Manchester City on May 25.

As reported by Telegraph Sport, United have no intention of sacking Ten Hag before that Wembley showpiece but they should have established a very thorough dossier of information by then on the manager, his overall approach, relationship with the dressing room and the credentials and availability of potential replacements from which they will make a final decision after careful, considered reflection.

There are various components to this, which is where Wilcox very much comes to the fore. One of his principal tasks as technical director has been to establish the right “game model” – in other words, a coherent playing style and identity – from which decisions over the manager, signings and sales will flow – not the reverse. Linked directly to that, Wilcox is effectively auditing Ten Hag and his set-up and will report back on where he feels United’s problems lie this season and if the Dutchman – all things considered – is an appropriate fit for them going forward or if his position is deemed untenable. Armed with all that information, Ashworth as sporting director would ordinarily be the one who makes the final recommendation for the board but, as the wait for his arrival goes on, Wilcox, Berrada and Blanc will be key to determining Ten Hag’s fate, even if it is hard to believe Ashworth will not be consulted in some form.

Jason Wilcox arriving at Old Trafford
Manchester United's technical director Jason Wilcox has been tasked with defining the club's 'game model' - Matt McNulty/Getty Images

Brailsford has been conducting his own appraisal at Ratcliffe’s behest since December, which has included one-to-one meetings with players, and will make his own recommendations in terms of resetting the culture at Old Trafford and improving performance across the board. Like Blanc, it is firmly anticipated the former British cycling supremo’s role will become more withdrawn over time but that seems unlikely to happen until Ashworth and Berrada are in situ.

It was Brailsford and Blanc who were instrumental in the appointment of Berrada. They held informal meetings with figures from across the football spectrum as they searched for a replacement for Richard Arnold as CEO and Berrada’s name cropped up time and again in those conversations and ultimately paved the way for the approach to City. Berrada, in turn, was clear United should appoint Wilcox, who impressed him as academy director at City before he left to take over as Southampton’s sporting director last year.

With experience of negotiating complex transfers and contracts, such as Erling Haaland’s transfer to City from Borussia Dortmund, and Ashworth still waiting to start work at Old Trafford, Berrada is expected to assist Wilcox during the window.

Whether Ten Hag is still on board by then remains to be seen.

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