The decision to remove the captaincy from Harry Maguire follows the pattern of reckless moves by Erik ten Hag as he tries to manage change at Manchester United. We analyze his approach when key people from Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side leave…
By Adam Bate, commentary and analysis @ghostgoal
12:25, UK, Monday 17 July 2023
Erik ten Hag’s decision to remove Harry Maguire as Manchester United captain is just his latest big call. Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t last long. David De Gea, the club’s long-time goalkeeper, is also gone. He has been ruthless in dealing with change.
“There is nothing more difficult, more dangerous to perform, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in introducing a new order of things.” That quote belongs to the infamous diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli. Ten Hag has had to play some politics for himself.
They say the secret to change is not to focus energy on fighting the old, but to build the new. He has had to do both, construct his new idea and at the same time remove the pillars of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s United. No wonder Ralf Rangnick said it would take six years to achieve it.
Thereby he has been criticized from all sides. It would have been a bigger statement to move any or all of these players on immediately after his arrival. Instead, he has waited for the right moment, aware of the need to deliver results as well as change.
Allowing events to play out as they did divided opinion. “I don’t think it’s been great management,” former captain Roy Keane said of the Ronaldo affair. Referring to the decision to allow De Gea to leave without a proper farewell, Rio Ferdinand, another former skipper, declared himself “disgusted at how the club have handled this”.
Inevitably, there will also be sympathy for Maguire in losing the captaincy. But Ten Hag deserves the credit this time.
He has been ruthless, but he has been patient. These two qualities are far from synonymous, but the pace of change feels well judged.
Doing it faster would have been risky.
To slow it down would have undermined his principles.
None of these players were suited to his vision. But they were the biggest earners in the club. One was the captain. The others were true United legends, the two men who have won the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award more than anyone else.
His approach with Ronaldo set the tone.
The veteran forward was neither willing nor able to execute Ten Hag’s preferred style. “For me, pressure is an important factor. What I demand from my team is that they press.” The Dutchman would have been aware of the collision course from the start.
Outwardly, it was not obvious. “I look forward to working with him,” he said initially. “Cristiano is not for sale. He is in our plans. We want success together.” He later added, “We’re happy with him. He’ll fit into any system or any style.”
He didn’t. Ten Hag probably knew it, but Ronaldo was led towards the exit instead of being pushed. At the time of his last appearance for the club, the Portuguese had actually started nine of the previous 13 matches. Ronaldo was still outraged. Others less so.
De Gea’s departure has been less incendiary, but the pattern has been familiar. “I’m really happy for David, he’s a great goalkeeper. He’s only 31, he’s fit, he can go even further, he was already impressive for Man United and will be in the future.”
Those comments came in November, even after De Gea had shown difficulty adapting to the new demands. Ten Hag continued to maintain that his goalkeeper would stay, although the language changed. “I wouldn’t say he’ll always be my No. 1.”
Ten Hag acknowledged that it was too complicated to change the goalkeeper immediately, the priorities lay elsewhere.
De Gea was good enough to win games. But the coach will have been aware that Andre Onana is a better fit due to his superior ability with the ball at his feet, which is crucial to the build-up play that Ten Hag is keen to implement. It was the right time to make a change.
With Maguire, it has been similarly delicate. To strip him of the captain’s chair immediately would have been provocative. Now it can be seen as pragmatic, a natural consequence of his declining importance, perhaps United’s fourth or fifth choice centre-back.
Maguire can be a dominant defensive figure, but he struggles to move the ball quickly and his lack of pace is a problem when trying to play with a higher line. Even his manager’s preference for a left-footed player on the left side of defense was a challenge.
Again, Ten Hag’s words are open to interpretation. “Let’s say I’m happy he’s here and when we needed him, he did his job,” he said at the end of last season. “But it’s also a decision he has to make.” Another awkward situation is reaching its conclusion.
The next step could be the most interesting.
Ten Hag had to do all of this while achieving the results that would secure buy-in from players and supporters and convince them that progress was being made. The club’s six-year wait for a trophy was ended. Champions League qualification was achieved.
Now this United side is more clearly reminiscent of a construction he himself has made. Onana is the third of his former Ajax players to join him at Old Trafford. Two more former Eredivisie players have also entered. There is no denying his impact on recruiting.
That brings its own pressure. Progress is never linear, but this support gives hope. Ten Hag has been trusted to implement this change, this new order of things. It has been deftly done, the balance struck. But the legacy of Ronaldo and De Gea is certain.
It is the following that determines the legacy of Erik ten Hag.