The cases for and against keeping Erik ten Hag at Man United

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Erik ten Hag in, or Erik ten Hag out? Manchester United fans are either one or the other. A miserable season at Old Trafford has prompted a referendum on the Dutchman’s future, and the former Ajax coach is at risk of being sacked this summer.

Tasked with overseeing football operations after buying a 27.7% stake earlier this year, new United co-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe and his team have remained tight-lipped about their plans for the manager, though saying nothing at all has only fanned the flames of supporter debate. Ten Hag enjoyed a relatively successful first season in the job, winning the Carabao Cup, reaching the FA Cup final and finishing third in the Premier League to earn UEFA Champions League qualification.

This season, though, it has been a different story. United were dumped out of European competition before Christmas after finishing bottom of their Champions League group and, with four games left, they can finish no higher than fifth in the Premier League. The one highlight has been an FA Cup campaign which will end with a second successive final against neighbours Manchester City at the end of May, but there have been far more negatives than positives.

There’s a case to sack Ten Hag, but also an argument to keep him and there are entrenched sets of fans on both sides.


The case for Ten Hag to go

Finishing in the top four has usually been the minimum requirement for United managers and after Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Burnley, that’s no longer mathematically possible.

Sitting sixth heading into the weekend, they could yet finish below Newcastle United and Chelsea, and anything less than seventh would make it United’s worst finish in the entire Premier League era. Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Newcastle and Brighton are their four remaining games and amid a run of form that’s seen United win just twice in nine league games, there are no guarantees.

Deconstructing their season by the numbers makes for horrific reading.

United have conceded 77 goals in all competitions — already the most in a single campaign for 45 years — while also struggling to score at the other end. Their 52 league goals is the joint-lowest of any team in the top half of the Premier League and the same number as Brentford, who are 16th. They conceded 15 goals in six group games during a disastrous Champions League campaign as they finished bottom of Group A, managing just one win in four games against FC Copenhagen and Galatasaray.

Ten Hag’s style of play has also been questioned consistently since he arrived in 2022, with many fans believing that his approach relies heavily on individual moments of skill rather than a well-thought-out tactical blueprint. The aggressive press of United’s forwards combined with a low defensive block often leaves acres of space in United’s midfield, and opponents have enjoyed plenty of freedom to shoot at André Onana.

United have conceded 602 shots in the Premier League this season, a number exceeded only by Sheffield United and Luton Town. Sheffield United have already been relegated and Luton, currently 17th, are on course to follow. Burnley are the league’s lowest scorers, but in Saturday’s draw at Old Trafford, they managed 16 attempts on goal. Newport County, who finished 18th in League Two, had 17 shots in their FA Cup tie in January.

The United fans not in favour of keeping Ten Hag will tell you that these issues aren’t isolated to this season. Since the Carabao Cup final in February 2023, United have lost 33% of their games, including a humiliating 7-0 defeat to Liverpool in Anfield.

Ten Hag hasn’t won many friends with his involvement in United’s recruitment either, particularly his decision to push for the £86 million purchase of Antony from former club Ajax. The Brazilian winger has so far been an unmitigated disaster, contributing little on the pitch and creating a huge hole in the club’s finances.

The case to stay

Ten Hag will tell you that the biggest difference between this season and last is the number of injuries suffered by members of his first-team squad. United have had more than 60 separate cases of injury or illness this season totalling more than 1,300 days of absences. His defence has been hit particularly hard, forcing Ten Hag to use 13 different centre-back combinations, including using midfielder Casemiro in the centre of defence in the last three games.

Lisandro Martínez has been available for only 11 games while Luke Shaw has been restricted to 15 appearances, meaning Ten Hag has been missing the left side of his defence for the most of the season. Martinez and Shaw have been able to start together just five times. United kept more Premier League clean sheets than anyone else last season, leaving Ten Hag a fair argument that his tactical plan isn’t the reason for his side’s vulnerabilities, which are far more connected to the personnel at his disposal.

Despite problems keeping players fit, Ten Hag can also point to United’s improvement in front of goal. Since the turn of the year, they’ve scored 44 goals in 19 games at an average of 2.3 per match, leading him to say after the draw with Burnley that his team were one of the most “entertaining” in the league.

It should not be forgotten that on his arrival from Ajax in 2022, Ten Hag inherited a team that had just finished sixth with a dysfunctional dressing room full of ego and short on discipline. He’s had to navigate off-field issues involving Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Antony while also dealing with the ownership saga that ended with Ratcliffe buying his minority stake.

In the face of it all, he’s reached three cup finals in two years. By lifting the 2023 Carabao Cup, he won the club’s first trophy for more than five years. There’s an argument that with one trophy, another cup final and a third-place finish in the league, he overachieved in his first season, and because of that it was always going to be difficult to build on it with more progress.

Financial restrictions haven’t helped his squad-building. It should be remembered that in January 2023 he was only allowed to bring in Wout Weghorst and Marcel Sabitzer on loan, while in the last window he was told there was no money available to bring in an additional striker to help Rasmus Højlund.

Højlund (21), Kobbie Mainoo (19) and Alejandro Garnacho (19) have formed a core of young players given valuable experience and responsibility by Ten Hag which the Dutchman believes will pay off in the future.

Ratcliffe himself has made the point that perhaps United’s off-field structure — not the manager — has been to blame for the repeated failures since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. If Ten Hag stays, he would benefit from working with a new backroom team consisting of CEO Omar Berrada, technical director Jason Wilcox and incoming sporting director Dan Ashworth.

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