The curtain came down on Manchester United’s season this week, in a typically confusing manner which perfectly encapsulates the poisonous lack of forethought which has plagued the club for years. Ralf Rangnick, the interim manager, announced he would not be taking up his consultancy role with the club and is leaving the club two years earlier than planned.
While the German, who is known to be one of the brightest tactical minds in the world and capable of implementing the sort of vision that has been missing at Old Trafford, has not been able to positively impact the season’s trajectory, many fans appreciated his honesty and openness to the problems he was facing, and felt he understood what was going on.
It always felt a little strange to hire somebody more proficient in a boardroom-level role to coach the team, but there was method in getting him involved, particularly because when he was announced as the man to keep the managerial seat warm as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s replacement was found, it was said he’d slip into a more familiar position at the end of the season. But then came the Austria job; that seemed off, but still Rangnick said he would stay and juggle responsibilities. Now, though, he won’t have to worry about that.
As time went on, Rangnick’s consultancy brief became more and more ambiguous. He wasn’t becoming a director, as he had for for the Red Bull group, where he oversaw the development of clubs like RB Leipzig and Salzburg with great success, and the entire point of his presence appeared less obvious. His departure actually feels like a natural end to what has been a bumpy few months; the noises from upstairs suggest the gratitude for his honesty has not been shared with the fans, and that has been rumoured as a reason that he will not stay. What initially looked like being a shrewd, long-term move in November has ended up proving another poorly thought out mess with very little substance.
The club will say, having found their new man in Erik ten Hag, that the slate is clean and they can start again. He will have money to spend and time to implement his ideas, at least that will be the plan; but it is hard to envisage a world where he keeps a positive discourse without some early signs of genuine progress, even if that very culture of engulfing upset is exactly what may stop him in his tracks. Ten Hag is one of the most progressive coaches in Europe; he is also adept at changing to sit his surroundings, mainly because, at Ajax, he often had to deal with high profile departures every year. But core principles remain; the biggest question surrounding his arrival is the midfield, already in need of a complete rebuild but without a semblance of what he needs to make it work.
Sceptics would say Ten Hag is coming in to fundamentally change Manchester United’s core philosophies. Sir Alex Ferguson made them a ferocious attacking force, whereas the Dutchman will look to build up play with deep-lying playmaker, who will not only control the tempo with his passing, but also his running and energy levels, too. That was particularly evident in the 2019 Ajax side who went all the way to the Champions League semi finals when Frankie de Jong ruled the roost.
It is about intense and varied build up, not allowing oppositions either to settle into effective low blocks or to press effectively. De Jong’s ability to create all over the pitch was absolutely crucial to breaking through the lines, and he was afforded the space to be effective because wingers stayed wide, much like at Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s side, at least in the early years, would tilt the pitch by pulling opponents to one flank and quickly switching the play to the other. Ajax were very similar, and the space De Jong had was key to that.
Now at Barcelona, De Jong is a supposed target for Ten Hag. Joan Laporta, the Catalan club’s president, has said he wants the midfielder to stay. It will be difficult for Ten Hag to reunite with him at Old Trafford, but his performances for Ajax proved why that position and that type of midfielder were so important.
With Manchester United floundering and looking to make strides in yet another new direction, it is clear they need to give Ten Hag time and understanding in his new job. The best way to set the tone is to focus on the midfield early, and shape it in the way he wants. De Jong fits the bill, and somebody of his ilk is required to hit the ground running. This is a long road, but starting in the middle is key.