If there are doubts in the Manchester United dressing room around the appointment of Erik ten Hag as the club’s next manager then they centre on his strength of personality, rather than his skills as a coach and a tactician.
Ten Hag has proven himself to be an outstanding training ground manager, not just at Ajax but also in achieving relative success with two of Holland’s less glamorous clubs in Go Ahead Eagles and Utrecht.
What he hasn’t done yet is show the character required to manage players of the standing he is about to encounter at Old Trafford. In a dressing room that has been pulling in different directions this season that is the only concern around his suitability for the job.
Some at United felt a strong personality was required to shake this squad out of its stupor and in Ten Hag they have someone who has generally been seen to be a little more taciturn in his time in his home country. He still has to show he can manage the egos of World Cup and Champions League winners.
But what he will certainly bring to the squad is a renewed focus on detailed work in training at Carrington. That has always been one of his strengths and many of his former players have praised his ability to improve them as players and knit them into a team through that forensic eye for detail.
Ten Hag signed off as Ajax manager on Sunday and immediately stepped up his preparations for taking over at Old Trafford. While he is remaining in the Netherlands this week he is spending his time focusing on United, eschewing a post-season trip to Curacao with Ajax to plan ahead with his new team.
He’s already met football director John Murtough and spoken to some of the United players and while results might tell a different story this season, he believes there are good players to work with at the club.
“From [Monday], my focus will be on United, and I will of course get deep into things there,” he said.
“What I have to say about it is, the detailed analysis still has to begin, I still have to work with the team, but let me be clear that at United there are a lot of good players around.
“We have to make them function as a team.”
For all the concerns, that last line should be music to the ears of this United squad, who haven’t functioned as a team for a long time now.
Even when they were performing well under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this United side rarely looked like a cohesive team, in the way that the teams at the top of the Premier League and excelling in Europe do.
Solskjaer’s United were built on moments from excellent individual players rather than any grand plans as a team. It was a lot more freewheeling than the micro-control that most modern coaches at the highest level exert over their players.
The appointment of Ralf Rangnick was aimed at altering that, but United failed to spot the flaw in that plan. The 63-year-old German might have successfully created gegenpressing teams in the past, but he’d coached for only two of the previous 10 years and was an unknown in the Old Trafford dressing room.
He wasn’t helped by the loss of Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna, which forced Rangnick to bring in coaches who simply weren’t up to it, but as a collective, they have never convinced the dressing room.
This is a group now in desperate need of some high-level, modern coaching. Ten Hag is right in that there are good players in that squad, but few teams in the history of the Premier League have been less than the sum of their parts.
United’s squad will be casting envious glances to the Etihad and Anfield, where Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have created team-based systems that have allowed individuals to thrive in a set structure, where they know their own roles down to minute detail.
That’s been lacking at Old Trafford and is a major reason why so few United players have improved in the last two or three years. They’ve gone backwards partly because the tuition simply hasn’t been good enough.
Ten Hag and his coaches can begin to change that this summer. If his work on the training ground impresses sufficiently, the concerns about his strength of personality will quickly be forgotten.