“Chelsea ran through 13 full-time managers (not including caretakers) while I was at United, and Manchester City went through 14 (not including caretakers),” Manchester United’s legendary former boss Sir Alex Ferguson recalled in his 2015 memoir ‘Leading’.
“The Premier League is littered with examples of poor hiring practices. Take Liverpool in 2010 after they sacked Rafael Benitez. The owners looked around and fastened on Roy Hodgson, who had just taken Fulham to the UEFA Cup final. Liverpool hired Roy and within six months they had fired him… It is all so silly, since there is no evidence that frequent sacking of a manager leads to better results.”
So often, Ferguson’s words are taken as fact. And in this regard he’s got personal experience to back him up. The Scot was in charge at Old Trafford for over 26 years and rewarded United with 13 league titles and two Champions League wins among 38 major trophy successes.
But as Erik ten Hag gets set to become United’s sixth managerial appointment in nine years since Ferguson’s departure, the truth is that the legendary spell enjoyed by the club’s greatest-ever manager between 1986 and 2013 is very much the exception that proves the rule.
Ferguson is one of only three Manchester United managers ever to win an English league championship, following Ernest Mangnall (two) and Sir Matt Busby (five). In comparison, Chelsea have been led to titles by four different bosses, Manchester City by six, Liverpool nine. Even Everton have won the league under six separate managers.
Recency bias tells us that every club should be searching for an Alex Ferguson when history suggests that what should be more sought after is a solid structure within which a number of managers could seek to be successful.
United spent decades dancing to Fergie’s tune, but when there are so few who could ever hope to emulate his feats it makes far more sense to try instead to reproduce what Liverpool achieved under four successive managers in Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish, or what City have produced under Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini and, most significantly, Pep Guardiola.
So while Ferguson’s assertions regarding the managerial merry-go-round have been somewhat undermined by his club’s appointments over the last nine years, Ten Hag’s biggest task at Old Trafford will be ensuring that United know what their plan is for long beyond the length of his contract.
United have been the ultimate boom and bust club throughout their history. They had gone 41 years without a league title before Busby’s first success in 1952 and suffered another 26-year drought leading up to Ferguson’s Premier League breakthrough in 1993. What they cannot do is rely on the emergence of another one-in-a-generation boss, otherwise another long spell without league success could be on its way.
And Ten Hag himself is highly unlikely to be the answer. He could be one piece in the puzzle, but only if the structure is right.
What Liverpool had for 20 years was the ‘Boot Room’ mentality of the entire backroom staff pulling in the same direction and a board willing to support the vision. City in recent years have had the foresight to go with the riches in backing Mancini, Pellegrini and Guardiola with a serious blueprint including a game-leading academy structure and state-of-the-art facilities.
As much as the appointment of a new manager deserves to take much of the attention right now, United need to be reviewing their entire structure at every turn too. John Murtough and Darren Fletcher are relatively new hires as football director and technical director respectively, and the reports that a deputy football director could be brought in soon are promising. It means they are looking at every level in their bid to address the issues of the last nine years.
Ten Hag has won admirers in recent years thanks to his great work at Ajax, but his multiple league titles have also come within a structure which has seen general director Edwin van der Sar head up a well-orchestrated support system for the head coach. And the 52-year-old will expect much the same once he signs on the dotted line with United.
Whatever Ten Hag achieves, he is unlikely to be another Alex Ferguson. Nobody is. But the least the club can do is learn from their own history and realise that they need to give their new man as much support as possible rather than hang around forever waiting for another miracle worker. If they can get it right behind the scenes, the identity of the manager becomes that bit less important.
*18+ | BeGambleAware