Erik ten Hag is basically the Man Utd interim manager and Sunday his first real audition
Manchester United’s latest attempt at salvaging anything from their Premier League campaign sees them take on Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford this Sunday. It marks their first home game of 2024 but, more importantly, the first Sir Jim Ratcliffe will attend in person as a potential saviour. Erik ten Hag would be wise to impress in front of his new boss.
The pair have already met, as part of the INEOS founder’s visit of both Old Trafford and Carrington, where he interacted with players and coaches, as well as holding an all-staff meeting.
Even if it is the billionaire on the charm offensive and PR 101, it is a marked difference from anything the Glazers have done over the last 19 years and can only be viewed in a positive light.
Ratcliffe has been accompanied by Sir Dave Brailsford and Jean-Claude Blanc, the Director of Sport and CEO of INEOS respectively, for much of these excursions, and both of these men were in attendance for United’s 2-0 FA Cup third round win against Wigan Athletic on Monday night.
Blanc is in the running to replace the now-departed Richard Arnold as the club’s new CEO, while Brailsford is currently leading an audit of the entire operation, with both to be on United’s football board moving forward.
But Ratcliffe’s presence at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon is the one that will carry the most weight and signify a changing of the guard at Old Trafford, or at least fans hope it will.
Speaking on his discussions with Ratcliffe and Brailsford, Ten Hag said: “We had a long meeting, many hours we sit together, and, on many issues, we are on the same page, so it was very positive.
“I think from both sides it was a very constructive meeting and we look forward to working with them.”
What else would he say in truth? While it could just be a turn of phrase and English is not Ten Hag’s first language, if those comments are to be read from a mischievous point of view, you are left asking which issues divided them.
Excuses for United’s dire season might be one – both in terms of results and performances.
Those words might be positive but none of them can override the negativity of 14 losses by the turn of the year – the most United have suffered since 1930/31.
Off-field issues and injuries are mitigating factors, but none will hold up when it comes to judging whether Ten Hag is the right man to take United forward in the INEOS era, particularly if the second half of the season does not see a significant improvement.
The Dutchman is more or less an interim manager as things stand, and the next six months constitute an audition for his own job, with the goodwill and credit amongst the fanbase running on empty. The ‘admiration’ that Ratcliffe once supposedly had for him must also be similarly dwindling.
He has been handed lifelines with an easy draw in the FA Cup – Newport County or Eastleigh await in the fourth round – and the still-closable gap to the top four/five in the league.
Despite their shambolic form, eighth-placed United sit only eight points behind their opponents on Sunday. Their chances of closing that to five have been increased by Spurs’ lengthy absentee list for the clash.
Already without James Maddison since November amongst others, Ange Postecoglou has lost Son Heung-Min to the Asian Cup and Yves Bissouma and Pape Sarr to the African Cup of Nations.
Cristian Romero is out for several weeks, while auxiliary centre-back Ben Davies injured his hamstring in their 1-0 FA Cup win against Burnley.
Micky van de Ven could make his return in his place at Old Trafford, but he has not played in two months, and it represents a risk to throw him in right away, and even then, he will surely be rusty.
Postecoglou is unlikely to complain, more likely to say “come on, mate”, but that is half of his first-choice XI out for the game.
United have their own injury woes, with 13 players absent on Monday. However, they are likely to have Christian Eriksen, Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire back in contention for Sunday, and have more front-line players available than the north Londoners.
It is not quite “Lads, it’s Spurs” (Fergie’s most damning quote ever?) but with it also being a home game, it represents yet another opportunity for Ten Hag to try once again to build some momentum and move away from the boom and bust nature of this season.
That inconsistency began with the 2-0 loss at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium back in August, hot on the heels of the Mason Greenwood forced U-turn.
Anything but a win this time and United can near-pack in any idea of qualification for the Champions League next season – most already have ruled them out of contention.
A majority also certainly view Ten Hag as a dead man walking, with his current stay of execution only granted due to INEOS’ audit and plan to resolve structural issues above him before any final decision is made on his future.
That decision will be made all the easier with another day of darkness on Sunday in front of Ratcliffe. Time to perform, Erik.