Manchester United manager Erik ten Haag will be hoping that after his side’s narrow win over Burnley on Saturday, he has gradually begun to win the battle for Premier League results this season. Off the field, however, the Dutchman is still battling against what he believes is a falling level of professionalism at Old Trafford.
Following their public rift following the decision to banish Jadon Sancho from the first-team squad – his latest stint with just one player – Ten Haag said he inherited a squad with “no good culture” ending at the club in the summer of 2022. His treatment of Sancho — since the disciplinary measures handed down to Cristiano Ronaldo, Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho — has become an exercise in showing the England forward who’s boss and who he won’t be, until he apologises.
Message for everyone else? “Don’t mess with the manager.”
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In ten Haag’s view, if the dressing room doesn’t have the right attitude, the team can’t possibly succeed – hence, his quest to win trophies begins. Explaining the decision to send Sancho off, Ten Haag said it was not for the manager’s benefit but “for the team’s” – meaning that while Sancho’s absence may mean he lacks options, the long-term gains far outweigh the short-term. period pain
The battle for control of the dressing room is familiar to every football manager, not least United’s ten Hague predecessors. In September 2015, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney decided to sit down with their manager Louis van Gaal, after an underwhelming start to the season, because, as Carrick put it, “everyone wanted to get better.”
Towards the end of Jose Mourinho’s reign in charge of United, the Portuguese coach repeatedly clashed with midfielder Paul Pogba. In September 2018, Mourinho removed Pogba from the vice-captaincy after the Frenchman publicly questioned why United could not play a more attacking brand of football. The pair were also involved in a training ground bust, which played out in front of the media, when Mourinho believed the midfielder mocked United’s League Cup defeat to Derby County in a social media post. After three months of intense tension between the pair, and on the day Mourinho was sacked — partly because he no longer had the support of most of the players — Pogba posted a cryptic message on social media, including a funny picture of himself, before quickly deleting it. Captain This” with the message.
Mourinho’s sacking from United in December 2018 marks the second time in three years he has been dropped by a club whose players have turned their collective might against him. The Portuguese manager had already been sacked by Chelsea in 2015 when Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo explained that the decision was made due to an “obvious disagreement” between the manager and the players. Following Mourinho’s departure, captain John Terry was forced to defend his teammates who had conspired to give the squad coach the boot for the suggestion.
“We are aware that there are rumors of player power at the club, but I want to make it clear that this is not the case,” Terry wrote in a column on the Matchday programme. “We leave all the decisions to Mr Abramovich and the board, and know that our job as players is to focus on getting results on the pitch.”
“Player power” – a catch-all phrase used to describe a dressing room that seems to have more authority than the manager – is a complaint that has often been leveled at Chelsea, particularly during Roman Abramovich’s spell when he had 13 managers in 19 years. Former Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel once suggested that it is the players’ right to voice their opinion if things are not going well with the manager. But speaking in 2019 after leaving Man United, Mourinho insisted that such an attitude represented a major problem within a squad.
He said, in modern football, there is a problem between coach and player. “We are no longer at a time where the coach, by himself, is strong enough to deal with the teaching relationship, and sometimes to fight with players who are not the best professionals.”
And this, essentially, is where Ten Haag finds itself. The 53-year-old said he was brought in from Ajax because “the club asked me to set some standards and that’s what I did — it’s my job to control the standards.” So far, he has been backed by Man United CEO Richard Arnold and director of football John Murtaugh.
Ten Hague were at the center of Ronaldo’s decision to terminate his contract, believing he was often underestimated by the Portugal striker. Now, according to sources, the club are ready to take a huge financial hit on Sancho – a £73million signing in 2021, who has 2½ years left on his £350,000-a-week deal – if there is no way back and the decision is made. The player must leave.
It was a similar approach to squad discipline by former Man United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who facilitated David Beckham’s move to Real Madrid in 2003 as he said in his autobiography: “David thought he was bigger than Alex Ferguson.”
“The moment a Man United player thought he was bigger than the manager, he had to go,” wrote Ferguson. “You can’t put a player in charge of the dressing room. That was the death knell for him.”
In 2010, Ferguson went a step further and agreed a deal with United that ensured he would always be paid more than any player, cementing his place at the top of the pecking order. By then, though, Ferguson had won 11 Premier League titles and twice the Champions League. Ten Hague, by contrast, had a relatively successful start to his tenure with a Carabao Cup success under his belt, but has yet to reach — or achieve — the same level of power and influence.
Ten Hag, according to a source, is concerned about the attitude of some of his players and, personally, at least, Sancho’s punishment is being held as a warning that there will be no room for those who do not pull in the same direction. Meanwhile, Sancho is out in the cold and Ten Haag’s battle with the dressing room shows no signs of letting up.