Man Utd’s Dilemma: ten Hag or Poch?
Stanley Murphy-Johns assesses the two primary managerial candidates for Manchester United and their potential to bring the club’s interminable nightmare to an end.
Last week Gary Neville tweeted a poll asking Manchester United fans whether they would prefer to have ten Hag or Pochettino as their manager next year. The result of this poll was 82% in favour of ten Hag, with around 219,000 people voting. Now I’m not suggesting that Gary Neville’s Twitter is the be-all and end-all of footballing opinions, but that is quite a significant sample of fans who seem to prefer the Premier League unknown to a proven quantity. So in this article, I’m going to try to figure out why.
Let’s start with the relatively unknown quantity: Erik ten Hag. The Dutch manager is doing an incredible job with the only club in the Netherlands, two points above PSV and having just been knocked out of the Champions League. He burst into international consciousness when he took Ajax to the semifinals of the Champions League in 2019, with some stand-out wins against Real Madrid and Juventus. Since then, he has remained an impressive manager, with Ajax putting on fascinating displays on the European stage despite their massive player overhaul after 2019. Ten Hag plays attacking and aggressive football, leaning towards a 4-3-3, relying on his wingers to apply pressure, while his defensive midfield manages the length of the pitch. On paper, this aggressive style works brilliantly with the Man Utd style, making the football as engaging, fast, and cutting edge as possible.
However, it would be remiss to suggest that ten Hag’s and Man Utd’s styles would perfectly fit. Famously in 2019, ten Hag explained that he wanted to ‘annoy the big clubs.’ And recently, Louis Van Gaal has weighed in, arguing that ten Hag needed to be at a ‘football club’ rather than a franchise like Man Utd. Perhaps he’s a character who benefits from being the underdog, and at Manchester United, even in their terrible current state, you are never the underdog. Perhaps Van Gaal was implying that ten Hag would be overwhelmed by the pressures of being the manager of one of the biggest clubs in world football. He’s unproven in the Premier League, but his record is impressive at Ajax. He appears to be Ralf Rangnick’s first choice which could be important if Man Utd are to achieve any coherent changeover as they step into the 22/23 season.
So far, Mauricio Pochettino’s managerial career could have him seen as the ‘nearly man.’ He almost dragged Tottenham to Champions League glory and lost out to the miracle Leicester side in the league the year before. Then, after leaving Tottenham, he was linked to United repeatedly but wasn’t brought in. His PSG career has been shaky at best, but PSG is a money factory, not a football team, and Thomas Tuchel’s success since leaving them proves this. Pochettino could most likely be enticed back to the Premier League at the end of this season, considering the thankless task at PSG and the affection he has for the English game.
Like ten Hag, he plays an attacking style of football, but with a focus on a quick press reasonably similar to the gegenpress employed by Jürgen Klopp. He is also known for his willingness to invest in young talent. All of this aligns with the supposed aims of Manchester United. Although similar to ten Hag, it is not necessarily that simple. Pochettino is an intriguing figure, a man who seemingly should have won a trophy in his time with Tottenham, eventually leaving to manage in a league where within two weeks, he was able to lift the first silverware of his managerial career. The stresses of the PSG job are apparent: the arduous task of moulding a team out of 11 ridiculously high-paid superstars of the game. Despite this, there is an absence of pressure in his day-to-day life. He will win the league, he will most likely win a domestic trophy, and he will get paid an incredible amount of money to do so. Manchester United holds no guarantee of silverware, especially not soon. Perhaps he would prefer to stay at the world-class club with no expectations than travel to a mediocre club with the expectation of champions.
The media portrayal of these two figures in Britain is also worth mentioning. Ten Hag is represented as this exciting young up-and-coming manager, while Pochettino is presented as this experienced hand. Given this strange portrayal, it’s important to remember that Pochettino is actually the younger of the two men.
Over the past two weeks, it has been reported that the United higher-ups have met with both men. Ten Hag’s English has allegedly improved, while Pochettino appears happy enough to part with PSG at the end of the season. So it does seem to be shaping up into an intriguing battle between the two managers. Personally, I am past the point of believing that a manager can fix the mess United finds itself in. In what world can a managerial appointment reverse the damage caused by decades of mismanagement and delusion? Perhaps they would get stuck in, begin to brush away the cobwebs, and pull skeletons from United’s closets. But if they were to get stuck in, what makes anyone think the fans would give things time to turn around before asking for the next guy? Modern football is fast-paced on and off the field, decisions are made off the cuff, and public opinion spreads like wildfire. United needs time and patience, but instead, they search for their fifth quick-fix in ten years.