Home » Erik ten Hag has played the impossible hand he has been dealt brilliantly

Erik ten Hag has played the impossible hand he has been dealt brilliantly

by Darragh Fox

There are few things in football more precious to a manager than time. A selection of proficient players at your disposal is fundamental. A clearly articulated philosophy enabling this group to execute your plan on the pitch is integral. A carefully designed training routine, recreating the routines and patterns required on game day, is vital. A healthy dose of luck at the right moment can be the difference between pretenders and contenders. Yet this combination of essentials are rendered futile without the luxury of time.

A successful manager utilises time in a bipartite fashion; time to be able to mould the team in their image, and time to be able to effectively manage fatigue. Without the ally of adequate time, a manager will be unable to impart their ideas and a team will begin to experience tiredness and, subsequently, injuries and poor performance. Managers picking players with overworked legs and undertrained minds will always struggle.

Patience and persistence is therefore paramount to transform a team; particularly one fresh from the competitive nadir Manchester United suffered last year. An historically poor season saw the club fail spectacularly across every conceivable metric of performance, while the relationship between the fans and players deteriorated towards a state of depressing apathy. The result was the club’s worst season in Premier League history.

Erik Ten Hag, the man entrusted with salvaging a sinking ship in the summer, was presented with a job of enormous difficulty. He was always going to need the benefits of time to improve a dire situation. Which, ironically, is what has engendered the recent crumbling of form; Ten Hag’s success on the pitch has created a lack of time off it, as fixture congestion has reached unprecedented levels.

Since March 1st, Manchester United have played ten league games. They’ve won four of those while drawing two and, most worryingly, losing four. Liverpool, as a comparison, have won seven league games, with two draws and two losses, in the same period. Champions League qualification, which had seemed a comfortable certainty, has quickly morphed into a painfully precarious prospect.

Prior to the cataclysmic defeat at Anfield at the beginning of March, United were ten points clear of Liverpool with a better goal difference. They now sit a solitary point ahead of their rivals with a much worse goal difference. A game in hand remains Ten Hag’s ace in the hole, but the abject defeat on the weekend to West Ham gives little credence to the idea that United will capitalise upon this advantage. The season appears to be in free fall with the Dutch manager relying on players like Wout Weghorst and Tyrell Malacia to be his parachutes. The Falling Dutchman indeed.

Yet it is not necessarily the performances on the pitch in this period which reveal the truth of the downturn in form. Rather, it is the number of performances Ten Hag’s men have been forced to churn out which explicates the situation. Since March 1st Liverpool have played 13 games; United have played 17. This comparison holds true accumulatively across the entire season, with the total games played standing at 48 versus 57. Ten Hag and his band of tired men have traversed an extra 810 minutes of football compared to their Liverpudlian counterparts so far this year. And this extra work load has been condensed into a World Cup-shortened time frame.

Club football took an unprecedented pause in the run up to the twelve days of Christmas (43 days to be more precise) as FIFA permitted the most blatant articulation of sportswashing in footballing history to occur in Qatar. Morality aside, the shifting of the prestigious tournament has created an anomalous season for managers to deal with, particularly ones as successful in cup competitions as Ten Hag has been. The Dutchman revealed the struggles of the schedule in a recent interview (source: The MEN) following the disappointing Europa League quarter-final loss to Sevilla:

‘I think also we rotate during the whole season, but this season is crazy with the World Cup in between, and many of our players were present there.’

Last season, between the incompetent hands of Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Ralf Rangnick (Michael Carrick’s impressive interim cameo should not be included in this critique), Manchester United played 49 games in all competitions across 281 days. This equated to a game every 5.74 days. By the end of this season however, with four league games and an FA Cup final left to play, Ten Hag will have overseen 63 games in 257 days. This averages out at a game every 4.01 days. Arsenal, having crashed out of every cup competition early to focus on the league, have averaged a game every 5.2 days as a comparison.

Last season Manchester United won a solitary cup knockout match. This year they have won fourteen, beating Newcastle at Wembley to win the Carabao Cup in the process for their first trophy in six years. The Dutch manager has managed to convert his newly adopted side from a team unable to contend in any competition, to one that has succeeded in virtually all of them. No other side in the five major leagues across Europe have played as many games as Manchester United this year. Ten Hag is beginning to become a victim of his own success, marshalling a threadbare squad who are producing results their legs cannot seemingly match.

This unrelenting schedule is the simplest explanation for the decline in performance over the past two months. It is not the only factor -Ten Hag must take responsibility for some of the selection choices he has made (Weghorst consistently starting in the number ten role while Bruno relocates to the wing sticks in the mind), while bad luck has been rife – but it’s undoubtedly the most impactful.

Raphaël Varane and Lisandro Martinez, the bedrock of stability upon which the team is built, was lost in a chaotic Europa League match, with both players ruled out for the majority of the run-in through completely innocuous incidents. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Christian Eriksen, Antony and Alejandro Garnacho, among others, have also missed games in the last few months with injury. Ten Hag spoke earlier in the season (via Goal.com) of the difficulties of players being consistently unavailable, revealing how rare a full-strength squad is:

‘In just one game we had the squad available totally and I was able to pick my team, from a tactical approach, perfectly – that was against Manchester City at home this season. Every other time it’s been one player suspended, injured, or unavailable through illness.’

Yet it is not merely injury that rears its ugly head in a season as long as draining as this one. General fatigue, inducing substandard performance, is also playing a role.

Manchester United have looked like a team running on fumes in recent weeks; the energy and vibrancy present earlier in the season has been lost, with players reverting towards bad habits as their bodies tire. The ponderous and ineffectual football which characterised last season has been far more evident in the last few months than Ten Hag will be happy to admit.

Which reveals the final effect of inadequate time on team performance: a lack of meaningful time on the training pitch; a lack of opportunity to coach out the undesirable traits of a team while promoting their strengths. A season involving a competitive match every four days leaves virtually no space in the schedule for actual training. Manchester United have been devoid of world-class coaching in recent years, with simple, borderline reductive, styles of football being espoused at Carrington. Ten Hag, armed with a carefully cultivated philosophy, was tasked with changing this.

The effect earlier in the season was tangible as the team began to utilise the ball with an authority and adroitness which appeared antithetical to last year. This progress has plateaued as the season has progressed, however. The lack of time available to Ten Hag to be able to focus solely on coaching on a weekly basis, rather than recuperation or individually tailored preparation, has been pernicious to the quality of football on display. It also explains the decisions the Dutch manager has made in relation to personnel or style, appearing to opt for effective compromises rather than unrealistic ideals.

How can a manager help his team effectively recuperate, effectively prepare for matchday, and effectively cultivate a completely new style of football within three days of training? It’s a question with a resounding answer. It borders on the impossible.

Which merely serves to underscore how good a job Erik Ten Hag has performed at helm of Manchester United this season – he’s been nearly impossibly good. He must, therefore, be given more of that oh so valuable resource every manager craves; he must be given more time, regardless of how his team finish the season.

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