Erik ten Hag will do well to take a page out of Jurgen Klopp’s playbook to get his Manchester United rebuild back on track.
“Eras come to an end”- Erik ten Hag had no qualms about his ability to take Manchester United back to the pinnacle of English football when he took over at Old Trafford ahead of the 2022/23 season.
The Dutchman would become the latest name on a list of illustrious managers tasked with reaffirming the club’s position as numero uno. The task would not be easy, with the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool raising the bar over the last few seasons.
The fact that Manchester United’s biggest rivals are the torchbearers of English football is a difficult pill for the Old Trafford faithful to digest. But there could be little argument that massive amounts of work needed to be done for the side to become competitive.
As far as first impressions go, ten Hag said all the right things. But the performances on the field continued to baffle. Some smart summer additions and a tactical rejig or two later, the Red Devils finally found their stride.
Seven months on, the Dutchman led the club to their first trophy since the Jose Mourinho era. Alive in all competitions so far, there was even talk of a quadruple. The clamour lasted barely a week as Anfield offered ten Hag’s aspiring giants a glimpse of what they are up against.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) March 5, 2023
Manchester United arrived on Merseyside brimming with confidence and a smatter of arrogance. Clearly, the Dutchman and his recruits forgot that form goes out of the window when it comes to such games.
It was not a mistake that Liverpool would forgive as Jurgen Klopp’s men showed no mercy in reminding the Red Devils of the work ahead. A long hard road awaits ten Hag and co. And dissecting the second half showing on Merseyside accurately could determine their destiny.
Players coming out and apologising on social media or striving to do better holds little leeway unless it is backed up with performances on the field. The likes of Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes have strong social media backing. But the platform has more or less become a bulletin board for apologists.
It is imperative now more than ever that the players and the club do not wallow in self-pity or turn the situation into a soap opera. Pep Guardiola lost 4-0 to Everton in 2017 while Jurgen Klopp saw Liverpool get hammered 7-2 by Aston Villa in 2020.
While neither side can cover themselves in glory, the results did not define what their future held. Instead today, it is brushed off as a one-off rather than the crumbling of the foundations. It is essential that Manchester United toe the same line and not let the Anfield humbling derail the good work behind the scenes.
The term “mentality monsters” have been branded around Liverpool for some time now, and rightly so. Despite the recent 5-2 hammering vs Real Madrid at home of all places, Klopp’s men have not let the result get to them and impact morale. If anything, it appears to have rekindled their flame to set things right.
A lot of that depends on man-management, something ten Hag cannot afford to ignore. The Dutchman comes across as a difficult person whose word is the law. The genius lies in striking the right balance between education and inspiration.
The players at Old Trafford are not lacking in talent and have won some of the biggest accolades in world football. To write them off after the loss is inimical and a knee-jerk reaction. To get the best out of them and to have them keep going even when momentum hits a roadblock is the manager’s responsibility.
Whilst blame is laid on the ownership by some, the manager and the players are the ones responsible for the results on the field. After all, you did not see Liverpool players or fans deviate from the game plan just because an ‘FSG OUT’ banner was flown over their heads.
1. A 96th minute equaliser to salvage a 2-2 draw against West Brom in December 2015, leading to these much-mocked scenes, which nonetheless represent a key moment in the Jurgen Klopp story pic.twitter.com/FAPuoxbr1z
— Aveek Bhattacharya (@aveek18) December 4, 2021
It does not take a magician to throw money at the problem and hope it will go away. The onus lies in getting the players to perform beyond their limitations. The likes of Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Scott McTominay are not bad players. But being unable to get the best out of them should raise questions.
Ten Hag’s first season at Old Trafford has often been compared to Klopp’s debut campaign at Liverpool, more often than not to highlight how better the Dutchman is doing. Perhaps the right question that needs to be asked is if ten Hag can take the team Klopp inherited to the same levels.
Missing out on the likes of Darwin Nunez and Cody Gakpo were certainly blows. But the right question that needs to be asked is why someone like Antony cannot be moulded into players the club needs. Surely if Klopp can take a side that had Dejan Lovren to Champions League glory, ten Hag should be doing better with the likes of Maguire, Wan Bissaka and co.
Manchester United have never shrunk from spending money, and it would be a misnomer to claim so. Antony, Lisandro Martinez, Casemiro and Jadon Sancho all arrived for big money in recent times. The squad as it stands is not overachieving, but are in fact, under a manager who has been able to fashion a long-term plan, something unheard of at Old Trafford in recent years. Claims of the lack of investment have largely whitewashed their inefficiency at the managerial level.
— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) February 26, 2023
The loss on Sunday showed that while Manchester United have the swagger when they win, they lack the will to fight when the chips are down. The second-half showing was nothing short of embarrassing, with more than one player throwing in the towel too early.
Bruno Fernandes often finds himself at the wrong end of criticism. But as a skipper, he failed to show direction. Attitude reflects leadership, and having the skipper throw a hissy fit plays right into the hands of the opposition. To come off second best to every tackle, challenge, loose ball and second ball takes some doing.
Ten Hag did not help matters either by failing to alter tactics from the sidelines. Football ideology is well and good. But unless it is amenable to the situation, it can become self-destructing. Liverpool blew teams away with their gung-ho gegenpressing philosophy in the first few years under Klopp.
However, it was not until the German adopted a more pragmatic style of play that the end product started appearing regularly. Ten Hag faces a similar conundrum at this moment. He has seen the dizzying heights his ideas can take the club to. But does he have the humility to alter it to suit the situation?
Much was made of Jurgen Klopp’s emphatic celebrations in front of the Kop in 2016 after a 2-2 draw against West Bromwich Albion. Sniggers and mirth cannot drown out the message the gesture sent and helped Liverpool establish the mentality needed to fight until the final whistle.
Manchester United and ten Hag can learn more than one lesson from what happened at Anfield. Accountability starts from the top, and ten Hag needs a similar show of faith that galvanises his troops. While learning from your rivals can be considered undesirable, Manchester United have to remember that what does not kill them makes them stronger. The Red Devils are currently down but far from dead, at least not yet.
It will be difficult for Manchester United to live down the defeat, the secret lies in embracing it. Never again, not on my watch should be ten Hag’s motto for the now. After all, sometimes defeats lay bare more truths than victories sweep under the carpet. With easier games to come, Manchester United will soon be back to winning ways. But unless the warning signs from Anfield are heeded, ten Hag could become yet another casualty in the Old Trafford managerial roulette.