Man for the job: Ruthless Erik ten Hag a cut above at Manchester United

Ruthless aggression will define Erik ten Hag as he lays the smackdown on the Manchester United roster.

We often hear the famous saying, “There is nothing permanent except change.” And Erik ten Hag seems to be on a mission to implement the ideology at Manchester United, helping us realise the same with his latest contentious decision, which has ruffled some feathers again.

Harry Maguire is no longer the Manchester United captain after ten Hag stripped him of the position last week. And the decision, which has not surprised some Manchester United fans, has left the English international exasperated. At the same time, it might invite criticism from some quarters.

“Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.”

This quote from late American journalist Sydney J. Harris resonates with the contradictory sentiments of Manchester United fans. While some have hailed the bravery and ruthlessness shown by Erik ten Hag in moving on some of the pillars of previous Manchester United teams, others have panned his audacity.

But the initial response following Maguire’s axing has been positive, with Gary Neville praising ten Hag. And despite the experienced defender’s “disappointment”, the Dutchman’s decision has the potential to take Manchester United forward and make them a feared team again.

Despite the wide variety of critiquing of his decisions, ten Hag has shown that he is calculated rather than hasty in pushing his ideas. And Maguire’s dismissal is the latest in a long line of such calls, which bode well for Manchester United.

Erik ten Hag and his “Ruthless Agression” era at Manchester United began during the pre-season campaign ahead of the 2022/23 season. A stickler for discipline, the 53-year-old laid down the law in the early days of his reign as the Red Devils’ boss when he punished Alejandro Garnacho in July 2022.

The Argentine international turned up late for two team meetings and paid for it by losing some precious game time during the pre-season campaign. And the tough love paid off as the 19-year-old enjoyed a breakthrough season with Manchester United while becoming one of his manager’s favourite charges.

But that was just the start as the no-nonsense approach engulfed two living legends as the 2022/23 season unfolded. The first of these was Cristiano Ronaldo, and ten Hag’s merciless but fair treatment of an all-time great set the tone for the rest of the dressing room to fall in line.

The Dutch tactician maintained that Ronaldo was in his plans but was also adamant that he had to build up his fitness and sharpness enough to warrant a place in the starting lineup. But Ronaldo’s response to ten Hag’s methods was that of a petulant diva rather than a legend of the game.

The Portuguese international was visibly upset whenever he found himself on the bench. And once tensions boiled over, he typically threw his arms in the air and made a joke of himself. Ronaldo did himself no favours by marching down the tunnel at Old Trafford before the full-time whistle during a game against Tottenham Hotspur.

Rumours even suggested he was already out of the stadium by the time the other Manchester United players returned to the dressing room. A reprimand followed, and ten Hag suspended Ronaldo for one game. But despite seemingly being on a collision course, he maintained Ronaldo was in his plans.

The Manchester United manager had this to say in one of the early press conferences, “I am looking forward to working with him.” Ten Hag also insisted in a later presser, “He is in our plans. We want success together. We are happy with him. He will fit in every system or every style.”

But it was clear from the onset that Ronaldo’s style and regressing pace made him the antithesis of ten Hag’s philosophy. After all, he has always maintained that pressing is important in his gameplay. And with Ronaldo being a reluctant presser if at all, his days as a Manchester United starter were rightly numbered.

Fortunately for ten Hag, Ronaldo made his decision easy for him after an explosive interview with Piers Morgan. Some of his concerns were legitimate. But they lost all value due to the lack of professionalism he showed while attacking ten Hag and Wayne Rooney, among others.

Unsurprisingly, Ronaldo’s second stint with Manchester United ended in a whimper as the Red Devils terminated his contract in November. The irony is Ronaldo had started nine of the last 13 Manchester United games before his departure, yet proceeded to hit out at his manager. He even donned the captain’s armband in one of the appearances.

Nonetheless, the Manchester United legend was in the rearview mirror, and Manchester United looked like a better unit following his departure. But ten Hag had now made it crystal clear that the buck stopped with him. And even the talismanic Marcus Rashford was not safe from the manager’s ire after he turned up late for a team meeting.

With the Englishman scoring goals left, right, and centre, ten Hag could have easily overlooked the issue. But he stuck to his guns and left Rashford on the bench for a game against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Meanwhile, another legend was the subject of the next bombshell from the Dutchman.

David de Gea had been goalkeeping extraordinaire for Manchester United for over a decade. He had also won the club’s Player of the Year award more than anyone else. The Spaniard also holds the record of keeping the most clean sheets for Manchester United. Meanwhile, he won the Premier League Golden Glove in the 2022/23 season.

But records and honours do not hold a candle to ten Hag and his single-minded approach to sticking to his philosophy. That is not to say that he did not give de Gea the chance to prove his credentials. After all, he did not drop the 32-year-old for a single Premier League game. And he stuck by his side even after several howlers in the 2022/23 campaign.

Ten Hag was often supportive of the Spanish goalkeeper and spoke in the future tense while responding to questions on his situation at Manchester United. That led many critics to label him a hypocrite for not axing de Gea, even though the Spaniard did not fit the system he wanted to build at Manchester United.

In addition, with a long rebuild in front of him, ten Hag could not afford to move all the pieces at once in the last two transfer windows. So de Gea remained in his plans for the 2022/23 season. But finally, the switch flipped after his tame performance in the FA Cup final, where his error proved costly.

Ten Hag did not immediately reveal his intentions to axe de Gea. But as the weeks progressed, the uneasiness grew in the Spaniard’s camp. And he officially left Manchester United earlier this month after his contract expired. The means did not justify the end, as the Red Devils had agreed to a new deal before offering de Gea reduced terms. But it had to be done for Manchester United to progress in the upcoming season.

It has been clear as day that for Manchester United to build up play from the back, they need a goalkeeper who is comfortable with the ball at his feet. And with de Gea showing little to no inclination to change with the times, the change engulfed him instead. The 32-year-old will now make way for Andre Onana, who will soon become Manchester United’s second summer signing. And the latest curveball has struck Harry Maguire out.

The 30-year-old had already fallen prey to ten Hag’s ruthlessness when Lisandro Martinez replaced him as the first-choice left-sided centre-back. And with Maguire falling down the pecking order, he no longer served the purpose as the club captain. So while stripping him of the captaincy is another bold decision,

Manchester United could have easily mitigated the situation by selling the English international instead of taking the captaincy off him. But the decision is a timely reminder ahead of the 2023/24 season that ten Hag still takes no prisoners. That was one of the qualities that defined Sir Alex Ferguson’s trophy-laden reign as the Manchester United manager.

Erik ten Hag will realise that as he continues to shape the Manchester United squad in his image, he will need to deliver the results. But the early signs have been promising, as he helped end the Red Devils’ six-year trophyless run. In addition, Manchester United comfortably qualified for the UEFA Champions League while reaching the FA Cup final.

The expectations will rise further when the 2023/24 season officially kicks off. The hunger for the elusive 21st Premier League title has left Manchester United fans famished. And while his ruthless aggression has managed the change well, the time is now to deliver the goods. What happens next will define ten Hag’s legacy at Old Trafford. But he is showing the hallmarks of being a great Manchester United manager in the way he has handled the dressing room and shown progress on and off the pitch.

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