Kieran Shannon: Erik ten Hag has form when it comes to defying his critics

While this might be Erik ten Hag’s first Premier League rodeo it’s not his first time seeming to be out of his depth and being under siege
Kieran Shannon: Erik ten Hag has form when it comes to defying his critics

CALM UNDER FIRE: Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag. Pic: Ian Hodgson/PA Wire.

If there’s one consolation Manchester United can cling onto in these desperate times it’s that while this might be Erik ten Hag’s first Premier League rodeo it’s not his first time seeming to be out of his depth and being under siege.

Shortly into his tenure at Ajax, hundreds of their supporters were so incensed after a 3-0 away defeat to PSV secured the Eindhoven club the Eredivisie, they halted and ambushed the team bus on its return to Amsterdam. 

In their ire they chanted “Ajax is no longer Ajax”, demanded the resignation of CEO Edwin van der Sar, and the sale of Hakim Ziyech. A number of them even broke onto the bus, leaving several players understandably shaken.

As for ten Hag’s reaction? “When the world is on fire,” he once said, “you must stay calm and make the right choices.” 

So he got off the bus, spoke with the fans for a couple of hours, then set about the job of getting that bus and club to where it wanted to go.

In the four subsequent seasons no one but Ajax would win the league title after the club had gone the previous four seasons without lifting it. Ziyech and van der Sar were not only retained but they flourished before the former won a big move to Chelsea on his terms.

The point is this: At one point that job also looked too big for ten Hag only for him to prove he was the perfect fit.

Joel Veltman was on that bus engulfed outside the Amsterdam Arena, though, as fate would have it, he’d be on the Brighton bus and team that would condemn his old manager to such a disastrous Premier League start last Sunday week. 

“We knew he [ten Hag] had done a great job at Utrecht,” Veltman told FourFourTwo for a profile that magazine ran on his old coach upon his appointment at Old Trafford, “but at first everyone was like: ‘Okay, how’s he going to handle it at a bigger club like Ajax?’”

“It took some time for him to get used to a completely different environment in Amsterdam,” Aron Winter, ten Hag’s assistant at Ajax, also told FFT for that piece. “Everyone has an opinion about what happens at Ajax. He needed time to settle.”

Now ten Hag finds himself operating at a considerably higher, unforgiving altitude and temperature than he ever was in Amsterdam. Back then he was merely managing the Manchester United of Holland. 

Now, even if we sound a bit like Gary Neville — and Conor Moore — we’re talking about Manchester United itself, where not just everyone in the country but almost everyone in the world has an opinion about what happens at Old Trafford. And right now that world, to paraphrase ten Hag, is again on fire, and though he didn’t start it and didn’t light it, he’s the one left trying to fight it.

So far he’s made an underwhelming stab of trying to quench it. If anything he’s inflamed it further, or at least its dressing room, by not staying calm and not making the right decisions and seemingly absolving himself of all blame for the Brentford performance. 

“It was nothing to do with tactics,” he’d tell reporters, presumably extending to his curious deployment of Christian Eriksen in an unfamiliar defensive midfield role. His championing, recruitment, and selection of Lisandro Martinez appears to have created a problem instead of solved one. 

Already the Argentinian centre-half seems too small for this particular league, leaving many to wonder is his manager himself also ill-equipped for it, or at least its biggest club.

Certainly if United’s owners and fans had put a primacy on one’s knowledge of the Premier League and opted for a known quantity, then Mauricio Pochettino would be their current manager. In one poll the Daily Mirror conducted back in April of 10 former United players, eight expressed the view that Poch would have been their choice. 

But conversely in another poll that one of his supporters — Gary Neville — conducted among the fans themselves, 80% preferred ten Hag over the Argentinian. 

In their eyes and supposed wisdom, he routinely won silverware; Spurs, even if they were the best of Spurs under Poch, had remained that most Spurs of all things Spurs — trophyless. As if winning a Carabao Cup should trump placing second in both the Champions and Premier League — and as if Manchester United, after the past half-decade or more, can still sneer and look down upon the setup at the Tottenham Stadium.

That debate and point now though is as irrelevant as it is irretrievable. Whatever about being the best choice, ten Hag was a worthy candidate and appointment, and above all, their eventual choice. For once the club has to abide by those famous, haunting words of their old great leader and stand by their new manager.

Especially when he has such a track record of turning things round and excelling when he’s given the time to settle.

Ten years ago in his first head coaching job at Go Ahead Eagles, results were also underwhelming at the start. “The boys had to buy into it [his ways],” a former player of theirs has said. “By training more, we improved.”

By the end of the season they had won promotion to the Eredivisie, only for ten Hag to take something of a demotion himself and become head coach of Bayern Munich’s reserve team. Tobias Schweinsteiger, Bastian’s older brother, was one of their players and saw what ten Hag had to contend with beyond absorbing so much of what Pep was doing with the first team. 

“There were a lot of egos, players who were young and talented and thought they were stars, so there were some [early] struggles,” he told FFT. By the end of the season he was convinced Ten Hag was the best coach he’d ever encountered.

At Ajax he would eventually get the chance to sign a batch of new players as well as the necessary time on the training ground. United have no other choice but to follow the same path.

The owners may be more a hindrance than a help and will ultimately need to be ousted before United resume their former status and glories but sport is full of examples of coaches who didn’t wait around for the perfect set-up or circumstances to turn things around.

Nor has ten Hag in the past. Five years ago his Utrecht team trailed AZ Alkmaar 3-0 after a first-leg Europa league play-off. On the eve of the return leg ten Hag’s son was in a life-threatening car accident. His players did not expect to see him at their final training session. But he did show, coming straight from the hospital. “My son has miraculously survived,” he’d tell his players. Now they could produce a miracle of their own.

They would too.

The biggest of his career though is needed right now.

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