Once a model of coaching stability in Alex Ferguson’s long trophy-filled tenure, Manchester United hired a fifth full-time manager in nine years since his retirement by bringing in Erik ten Hag from Ajax.
Ten Hag’s arrival was announced by United on Thursday, with the 52-year-old Dutchman joining at the end of the season to 2025. He is tasked with awakening a fallen superpower in European soccer that is enduring its longest trophy drought in nearly 40 years.
“I am hugely excited by the challenge ahead,” ten Hag said. “I know the history of this great club and the passion of the fans, and I am absolutely determined to develop a team capable of delivering the success they deserve.”
Adopting the attacking philosophy of the great Johan Cruyff, ten Hag succeeded in bringing the good times back to Ajax, leading the biggest team in the Netherlands to two Eredivisie titles – it could be three in a few weeks – as well as the Champions League semi-finals in entertaining style in 2019.
Returning United to its former heights is set to be an even bigger job, given the team won the last of its record 20 English titles in 2013 – Ferguson’s final season of his 26-year reign – and hasn’t won a trophy since beating Ajax in the Europa League final in 2017. United hasn’t endured such a trophy drought since the early 1980s and has slipped way behind rivals Manchester City and Liverpool despite continuing to spend heavily on players.
Nowhere was this decline more evident than this week, when United was thrashed 4-0 by Liverpool to go along with its rival’s 5-0 win at Old Trafford in October.
The three-time European champion might not even return to the Champions League next season. United is three points out of the Premier League top four with five games remaining and is already assured of ending a season without a trophy for the fifth straight year.
“In our conversations with Erik leading up to this appointment, we were deeply impressed with his long-term vision for returning Manchester United to the level we want to be competing at, and his drive and determination to achieve that,” said John Murtough, United’s football director.
United has been led by interim managers Michael Carrick and currently Ralf Rangnick since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was fired in November. The club has been speaking to candidates over recent weeks – Paris Saint-Germain coach Mauricio Pochettino was reportedly also on the shortlist – but it settled on ten Hag, who might be the biggest managerial gamble in United’s turbulent post-Ferguson era.
Aside from a two-year spell with Bayern Munich’s reserve team (in 2013-15, when Pep Guardiola was in charge of the first team), ten Hag has coached only in the Netherlands – with Go Ahead Eagles, Utrecht and most recently Ajax since 2017.
As such, he is untested in the Premier League and in handling the egos of some of the biggest players in world soccer – and United has some of them in Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes.
Pogba is, however, out of contract at the end of the season and is set to leave as part of what could be a major shakeup of a playing squad that needs rebuilding and strengthening in key areas like central midfield and up front.
An advocate of the 4-3-3 formation that is so popular in the Netherlands, ten Hag tries to play attractive, attacking football in the manner of the teams coached by Cruyff, whose shadow and philosophy hangs over the club like Ferguson’s does at Old Trafford.
Since Ferguson’s departure, United has gone with the man he hand-picked as a successor, David Moyes, and then managers with bigger profiles in Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho. None of them worked out and nor did Solskjaer, although he at least got United to a second-place finish last season.
Ten Hag joins with United now at perhaps its lowest ebb since Ferguson’s retirement and his first big decision might be what to do with Ronaldo, a striker who keeps scoring goals – with 15, he is third on Premier League scoring list – but whose work rate and mobility is not at the level of forwards at other big clubs.
Can he get the best out of United’s younger forwards, such as Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, and bring through youth players like he has at Ajax?
“Erik has proved himself to be one of the most exciting and successful coaches in Europe,” Murtough said, “renowned for his team’s attractive, attacking football and commitment to youth.”
Before all that, ten Hag will look to sign off at Ajax with another Dutch league title. With five games remaining, Ajax leads second-place PSV Eindhoven by four points.
“I’m happy that it has been finalized and that it has been officially announced,” he said. “That clarity is important. But I only have one interest now and that’s these last five games. I want to finish my time here on a positive note, by winning the league.”