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Erik ten Hag Is Getting A Crash Course In Manchester United Dysfunction

Erk ten Hag
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Even people who don’t care about Manchester United must admire the multiple ways in which the folks in charge circle their own tree, hike up a leg, and void themselves. Even with Barcelona buying players with the Spanish version of Confederate money and Paris Saint Germain dealing with the problem of shoveling money at a problem it has never solved by buying a bigger shovel, Man U is still the most gigantic urine-saturated oak in the middle of the glade.

So of course they would hire a new manager and tell him that the new mandate from on top is downplay expectations. As typed by ESPN’s Rob Dawson, new manager Erik ten Hag came into a demoralized yet empowered room of players realizing that until he could infuse the team with his guys he would have to deal with the guys inflicted upon him, and chose the sensible route of fluffing before folding. Only in the Man U boardroom, they wanted him to lose the room as quickly as possible to make it clear to the outside world that the players are what ruined the Manchester United juggernaut. Dawson:

United finished sixth in the Premier League last season, 13 points outside the Champions League places and a whopping 35 points behind champions Manchester City. It prompted some Old Trafford staff members to advise Ten Hag to keep early expectations “realistic” while the bulk of the squad remained the same, but the new United boss was bullish about his team’s hopes for the new campaign over the summer. He also chose to talk up the players he inherited — including problem areas of the squad, such as central midfield — in a bid to repair morale within the dressing room after coming to the conclusion it has been severely damaged by a miserable season under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick.

So they hired Ten Hag after a decade of prodigious underachievement by club standards and immediately gave him a mandate to fix it his way as long as his way coincided with their way. Go on, Erik, tell them they suck and then tell the outside world that they’ve been told they suck. It’s good for their character. Oh, and when they quit on you and we have to fire you in four months, we can bring in Jesse Marsch to shoot helium up their shorts again because we need them to feel good about themselves.

This in a nutshell explains Manchester United under the Glazer boys. They almost know not quite enough to save themselves from themselves, which is a self-cannibalizing exercise of epic proportions. The fact is, this is a job that requires the front office to get completely out of the way because they have had this long to make Man U not a laughing stock and instead have turned it into the entire Edinburgh Fringe. Instead, they want to tell their new hire that while they admired his work, they really mean for him to do their work. It’s like the Miami Dolphins, only they’ve stopped just short of offering their coach bribe money to deliberately lose games. It’s also like the old Buzzcocks lyric from “Sixteen Again”: “If you can’t think once, then don’t think twice.”

Look, there is no crime in not knowing what you’re doing. Rob Walton bought the Denver Broncos for nearly $5 billion without knowing how to pronounce Roger Goodell’s name, which is either a spectacular lack of knowledge of what you’ve just bought or a deliciously diabolical way to let Goodell know that the CEO doesn’t worry about the night janitor’s kids’ names. But the key to not knowing what you’re doing is to know that you don’t know what you’re doing, and the trick that follows must be to hire someone who does and then let them do what he or she needs to do to save your worthless and ignorant asses.

And maybe by ignoring the top of the org chart Ten Hag is saying just that—Look, you guys have a fulltime job walking into your own bathroom door without opening it first, so I’m going to do this the way I think best. Otherwise, why hire me? It’s an interesting gambit that allows him to keep his dignity while updating his resume right after Boxing Day. Because the truthiest truth of them all is, whether dim, stupid, blind or birdbrained, the decision makers will make decisions, and the thing the Man U kids are best at deciding is how to undermine its own hires. Ten Hag is its eighth manager in nine years including interims, which is more than the Sacramento Kings in the same amount of time. The idea that Manchester United’s board is doing a poorer job than Vivek Ranadive ought to be a hell of a lot more sobering than it seems to be.