Erik ten Hag took the initiative on his Manchester United unveiling. Those in the front row of the Old Trafford press suite received introductory handshakes from the latest manager to step behind the wheel of this monster truck with a faulty engine.
His smile was broad, his arms open – a notable and surely deliberate change from the furrowed brow and folded arms he held for most of United’s match at Crystal Palace. After sitting through 90 minutes of angst in the stands at Selhurst Park on Sunday, Ten Hag’s message on Monday seemed clear, right down to his cream suit: forget last season, sunshine days are ahead.
“Excited to be here,” he began, after sitting down. “Looking forward to working at this club. I feel welcome. It’s my home and I want to achieve success. ”
The next 20 minutes were a window into the way Ten Hag will work. His answers were staccato and, for the most part, guarded.
Asked first what areas he had pinpointed for improvement, he replied: “I have made an analysis and I think we are in the lead of the process now with this start. I observed. I will set of course conclusions but I keep it now for myself. ”
That theme would continue when the subject of Cristiano Ronaldo was brought up. Does the 37-year-old fit into Ten Hag’s project?
What do you feel he can bring?
“Ronaldo? Goals! ”
Will you be looking for leadership from him?
“I talk first with Ronaldo before I talk with you.”
Short answers, scant detail, and although that may have initially seemed because he was speaking in his second language, those familiar to him in the Netherlands report his press conference persona was the same there. Ten Hag has a plan but he is not about to tell us; he will save the finer points for his players.
There was no waffle – aside from the stroopwafels laid out by way of welcome.
Maybe, after Ralf Rangnick’s candour caused discomfort in the boardroom and the dressing room, that is how United would like things.
Nevertheless, it was possible to see why those with understanding of how Ten Hag’s talks with Tottenham Hotspur went last summer suggested that his English had scope for improvement.
All that matters, of course, is that his message gets through to the United players and they buy in. His Ajax side played with a clear “concept” and that is what he insisted he would bring to Old Trafford.
To help, he has Mitchell van der Gaag, who speaks seven languages, and Steve McClaren, whose communication has always been good, even allowing for a Dutch detour. The pair were confirmed by United as Ten Hag’s assistants after spending the previous afternoon together at Selhurst Park.
Van der Gaag was standing outside the press suite as Ten Hag spoke and for those who feel United’s players need a jolt, it can only be regarded as beneficial that he carries the look of a Bond villain with his thick-rimmed glasses and firm expression.
It was Ten Hag’s first visit to Old Trafford, curious as that may seem, and later on Monday afternoon, he was also introduced to Carrington, his base for the foreseeable future.
Ten Hag and his team plan to work a few more days before taking a break. He will speak to his players when they report for pre-season, some at the end of June, the majority in the first week of July before the squad fly out to Bangkok for their first friendly against Liverpool.
It appears inevitable Harry Maguire will be one of the first to see Ten Hag, who said on the captaincy: “Next season is a different season but he did a great job. He’s a great player. He achieved already a lot. I’m looking forward to working with him. “
Ten Hag is set for talks with Rangnick via Zoom this week but he deflected a question about the current framework for the German’s two-year consultancy. “That is on the club,” he said.
Ten Hag has already spoken to another former United manager. He met Louis van Gaal at the premiere of the 70-year-old’s documentary. Van Gaal publicly warned Ten Hag not to join a “commercial club” like United. As with other opinions, Ten Hag vowed to listen but “draw my own line”.
He insisted: “I’m convinced it will not be the case. I spoke with the directors about it but football is one, two, three in this club. Every club is commercial and needs the revenues to be top to do what is necessary. But football is one, two, three in this club. ”
As long as it is not United sixth again again next season, Ten Hag will gain credibility. Ambition was where he scored highly at his unveiling. His deep Dutch accent carried a certain conviction.
He won consistently with Ajax, building two different teams, and had authenticity about repeating the success in Manchester. “I do not see it as a risk,” he said when asked about the possible jeopardy of his own reputation amid the dysfunction at United. “This club has a great history and now let’s make a future. It will be exciting to do that. ”
Ten Hag shut down circumspection about the patience he will be afforded. “I do not think about that at this moment,” he said. “What we’re thinking is: ‘This is a project and it takes time.’ But I also know at this club, and at other clubs like Ajax and Bayern Munich, that at the top, there is never time. ”
Teams such as Palace, Brighton and Watford have been an impediment to that aim this season, but ultimate aspirations mean toppling Manchester City and Liverpool. Ten Hag believes that can happen even while Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp remain in charge.
“I admire them both,” Ten Hag said. “They play fantastic football, Liverpool and Manchester City, but you will always see an era can come to an end. I am looking forward to a battle with them. ”
(Top photo: Ash Donelon / Manchester United via Getty Images)