Erik Ten Hag (file pic). Alamy Stock Photo

Are Man United suffering from giving the manager too much power?

A poor start has seen the Red Devils lose three of their opening five Premier League matches ahead of tonight’s Champions League clash with Bayern Munich.

THERE WAS a prominent school of thought during the 1990s as the Premier League was starting up.

Football clubs, many commentators argued, should essentially be run like dictatorships.

The manager must solely be responsible for every important decision.

The two managers regularly cited to back up this assertion were Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger — coaches who seemingly had complete control over the way the football clubs were run at Arsenal and Man United, and who enjoyed great success in the process.

At this point, the concept of a ‘Director of Football’ or another individual helping out with the pivotal decisions tended to be scoffed at.

The prevailing logic suggested that badly run clubs delegate. 

Liverpool’s decision in July 1998 to appoint Gerard Houllier as joint manager along with Roy Evans in particular was viewed as a cardinal sin by critics at the time, who would have felt vindicated when Evans departed the club just four months later.

Yet the idea that a manager is the only one behind the scenes that matters is no longer a popular or viable notion.

Part of the reason why Pep Guardiola was attracted to Man City in the first place was the prospect of working alongside intelligent, integral people he knew and trusted from his Barcelona days –Director of Football Txiki Begiristain and Chief Executive Officer Ferran Soriano, both of whom are highly influential background figures at the Etihad.

Another good example is Brighton, who have been exceeding expectations relative to their budget for years now.

As much of an impact as Roberto De Zerbi’s innovative coaching style has had, the Italian certainly cannot claim sole responsibility for the club’s impeccable recruitment in recent years.

The signing of Evan Ferguson as a teenager, for example, was primarily due to the work of John Morling, the club’s former academy manager and ex-head of emerging talent at the Football Association of Ireland.

The Seagulls have subsequently become the byword for a well-run club owing to their ability to continually overachieve and find talented new players at bargain prices while selling others in big-money deals.

And while De Zerbi deserves immense credit for what he has done since taking over almost exactly a year ago, the framework was already in place for him to succeed.

You get the sense that whoever took over from Graham Potter would have been in a very healthy position to build on previous work while maintaining the club’s ethos.

At Man United, on the other hand, there is absolutely no sense of this continuity between managers.

They are a club who have essentially failed to move on from the Alex Ferguson era, as more than one former player has suggested.

The problem is the Red Devils still buy into the cult of the personality, rather than pursuing a long-term vision or coherent strategy.

This philosophy can be seen in their managerial appointments, whether it’s a glitzy, famous name (Jose Mourinho) or a club legend (Ole Gunnar Solskjaer).

Erik ten Hag was the overwhelming choice among fans to succeed Solskjaer following the disastrous caretaker stint of Ralf Rangnick, and so as much as anything, whether it was the right or wrong appointment, the decision felt like a much-needed concession to an increasingly disgruntled fanbase.

Similarly, signing Cristiano Ronaldo in August 2021 appeared to be another attempt to appease the widespread hostility and growing supporter protests.

Buying Eric Cantona proved a masterstroke for United in the 1990s, but the days when football is as simple as merely signing a superstar to solve a team’s problems are over.

Moreover, speaking on his podcast recently, club legend Gary Neville made an interesting point: “Manchester United have again allowed the manager to influence the signings and that is my concern with the club,” he said. “They have got no strength at the very top.”

Such a statement would be seen as sacrilege during the Alex Ferguson era when the manager was perceived as the only one with legitimate authority to influence signings.

Yet Neville is simply acknowledging the reality of modern football, which Man United and the Glazers seem reluctant to embrace.

The likes of Lisandro Martinez, Antony, Tyrell Malacia and even Sofyan Amrabat were clearly bought on the demand of Ten Hag, rather than being part of a coherent long-term strategy. All four were players the coach knew from Dutch football.

By contrast, high-earning stars signed during the Solskjaer era, such as Ronaldo and Harry Maguire, were suddenly cast aside.

In the same way, Solskjaer made some dramatic changes following the Mourinho era, and Mourinho overhauled the squad that Louis van Gaal had established.

Now, the club is following a similar trajectory during the Ten Hag era as it did under Mourinho and Solskjaer — a promising start and an acceptable first season before their good form gradually disintegrates and the manager ultimately gets the boot.

United will always have a collection of talented players capable of pulling off impressive results in the short term, but the lack of stability behind the scenes means they will inevitably fall short when attempting to match the consistency of Man City and other top teams in the long run.

And a heavy defeat by Bayern Munich on Wednesday night could lead to questions being asked surrounding Ten Hag’s future.

But in contrast with De Zerbi, you could argue Ten Hag has never stood a chance. He inherited a mess that needed to be cleaned up and reimagined for the umpteenth time rather than an efficient system and set of non-negotiable principles to abide by.

It is surely what the Dutchman meant when he spoke recently of finding a “no good culture” at United.

The Glazers are uninterested in developing a philosophy and long-term vision. Whoever eventually succeeds Ten Hag will probably be allowed to make more radical changes and spend millions, only for this tiresome cycle to begin all over again.

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