Had it been under another Manchester United boss, the response would have been unequivocal. “#OleOut”, “#SackLVG” or “#MourinGO”. Take your pick. There hasn’t been a United boss since Sir Alex Ferguson that has got away with his team collapsing without supposedly deserved sacking trending on social media. Well, not until now. Because, even in the wake of some poor performances and a squandered two points against Tottenham Hotspur, fans of the Red Devils believe in Erik ten Hag.
It is a faith he has earned of course. Ten Hag brought home a first trophy since 2017, lifting the Carabao Cup back in February. The former Ajax manager has also steered his men to the FA Cup final while they sit fourth in the Premier League. Ten Hag deserves to be insulated from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. He’s getting it right, so far.
But Louis van Gaal qualified for the Champions League in his first season and won an FA Cup in his second. His reward was word leaking out about Jose Mourinho taking his shop before the champagne corks had even landed on the Wembley turf.
Mourinho got a bit more leeway thanks to his cult of personality, particularly online. But even as he racked up trophies, the standard of football drew scorn. When the results dipped, fans weren’t willing to countenance his negative tactics.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer divided the fanbase, but the naysayers were often the loudest. A runner’s up position and a Europa League final appearance spoke of progress. But the vocal minority had already decided he was a “PE teacher” and deemed his achievements irrelevant. Therefore when the results dropped off, they were quick to tear Solskjaer asunder.
I have omitted David Moyes because, a Community Shield win aside, there was never tangible success to dissipate. But Ten Hag’s three permanent predecessors each offered something in the way of trophies or discernable progress towards wider goals. Each man was dropped like a bad habit when the sky got a little cloudy. For ‘LVG’ and Mourinho, that point came when the trophies were no longer there to justify the playing style. Meanwhile, Ole never convinced a percentage of the fanbase unbowed by his playing achievements and unconvinced by his coaching credentials.
But Ten Hag has buy-in from fans as well as players. Imagine Van Gaal, Mourinho or Solskjaer chucking a two-goal lead against Tottenham Hotspur, as United did on Thursday. Imagine one of Erik’s predecessors following a cathartic cup win with a 7-0 drubbing at the hands of United’s greatest rivals, Liverpool. Would another manager have been allowed to survive a tame Europa League exit at the hands of Sevilla or a pathetic display against Newcastle United in the league?
United’s recent form has been disappointing. Their performances have often ranged from average to dismal, even in victory. But Ten Hag is rarely questioned, aside from the odd grumble about his substitutions. For the first time since Ferguson, armchair managers are willing to concede that the incumbent United boss knows more about football than them.
Achievements have helped of course. But coming second in the league did little to help Mourinho or Solskjaer while winning trophies didn’t bail out Jose nor Van Gaal. There is more to Ten Hag’s unquestioned leadership than an EFL Cup on the mantle.
There is an acknowledgment that Ten Hag has come in with a plan and a process through which to achieve it. While Solskjaer was sometimes guilty of relying on positivity and “vibes” while Mourinho ruled with fear. Ten Hag can pull both of those levers but ultimately his best tool is a set of standards that no one can drop below. The fact one of the first players publicly dealt with for not meeting these standards was Cristiano Ronaldo helped set the tone. If he won’t tiptoe around the most famous footballer on the planet, then no one is safe.
Couple this with a style that is more aesthetically pleasing than some of his forebears and signings that everyone can get behind, like Casemiro and Christian Eriksen, and you can see why Ten Hag is shown grace. There has long been an acknowledgment that the modern Manchester United are a major rebuilding project. But Ten Hag is the first manager who has actually been afforded the space to complete that rebuild. While the 7-0 was almost unforgivable, there probably will be other nights like the Spurs capitulation or the poor showing against Newcastle. In Ten Hag though, United finally have a manager they’re willing to stick by through the bad times.
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