There was a superficial confidence and bonhomie to Erik ten Hag when he met the press on Friday to talk about the start of the season that will define his professional career.
Football director John Murtough stuck his head round the door before it started to check all was OK and someone asked whether he had Frenkie de Jong, United’s summer-long transfer target, hidden round the corner. Laughter all round.
This is what it is like pre-season. No one has lost any games. And if there is a new manager in charge, human nature’s inclination to optimism makes you think it surely cannot be as bad as it was before.
That was before questions on Ronaldo leaving before full-time at last Sunday’s friendly brought a tetchy response. ‘There were many players who left but the spotlight is on Cristiano and that is not right,’ said Ten Hag. ‘So do your research, many players left.’
This is standard managerial press conference psychology: attempt to deflect an extremely difficult personality issue by making it a general collective problem. Except that this is Ronaldo, so unless United win every game from now until the end of the season, his name will come up at every press conference until his agent Jorge Mendes conjures an acceptable move or United kick him out.
That exchange had the tone of the new teacher laying down the law with a particularly lively Year 11 group, the frowns interspersed with some levity designed to hint that he could be the fun teacher if only everyone gets into line and shows him respect.
He was asked about the obligation to attack and producing winning, attractive football. ‘You are talking like a Dutchman!’ he said, smiling. ‘They always want to play brilliant football. That is why I’m here and I like it. You want to win and you want to win in a certain way: proactive, brave, adventure.
‘It is what belongs to the culture of Manchester United and we want to bring it in. But at the end of the day, if you cannot win in a good way, in an entertaining way, you still have to win. That is the mentality, attitude, we bring in.’
He also entertained the jaunty line of optimists everywhere, when asked about United’s failure to develop their young players.
‘Don’t look back, look forward,’ he said. ‘I see the potential with many players and yes I’m convinced I can develop the team. Then we will see individuals develop. I have to analyse [the past], that’s clear but now we have to move forward. The past you cannot change but you can change the future.’
All of the above is true and yet could also be David Brent at his breezy best. And at United the past is always with you. This time next year it will be 10 years since Sir Alex Ferguson left and 10 years since United last won the title. That is hardly jumping the gun. It is not remotely bold to affirm that United will not win the Premier League this season. The question in play is whether it will be another 10 years before they challenge again?
The highlights of the last 10 years could fit in on one of those 30-second TikTok clips beloved by social media gurus at United: Jose Mourinho’s Europa League/League Cup double of 2017 (the tin-pot double); Louis van Gaal’s FA Cup win of 2016; and maybe a quick clip of the heady optimism engendered by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s comeback at Paris Saint-Germain.
United now live for the odd victory over Manchester City and Liverpool and a top-four finish. Leicester City have a more impressive trophy record over the last 10 years. Into this fray comes Ten Hag, a fine coach in Holland who did wonders with Ajax and yet has not coached in a major European league. United might counter that nor had Ferguson in 1986.
And yet to build success in a league vastly more competitive and developed than the one Sir Alex had to conquer, you would want to give Ten Hag the best chance possible by meticulously preparing the ground for him. Leave no stone unturned. After all, it has been clear since March that this was the direction United were heading.
You might imagine all the key players would have been signed before the Asia/Australia tour. That the Ronaldo issue would be sorted one way or another. That the squad would be considerably better than this time last year.
None of the above is true. Anthony Martial, rejected by Sevilla during his loan spell, was the biggest hope pre-season until he was injured. Ten Hag is said to have made one thing clear when he was offered the job; he needed Frenkie de Jong, his former Ajax player, so that he could play in the style he wanted.
That was a complicated move, with United stung by overpaying in the past and Barcelona withholding some of De Jong’s deferred wages, so that the player will not move until he is paid up. And yet if this was the most important transfer of the summer, the onus was on CEO Richard Arnold and Murtough to get it done. They have not done so yet and Scott McTominay and Fred cannot play the way Ten Hag wants from midfield. Christian Eriksen may yet end up there.
The transfers done so far, Lisandro Martinez, Tyrell Malacia and Christian Eriksen, have the feel of supplementing the squad rather than changing the paradigm, though Eriksen may prove inspired.
Ronaldo will rumble on as an issue all season. Every exasperated sigh, every frown as he leaves the pitch will be micro analysed and, judging by Ten Hag’s reactions thus far, the manager is going to become increasingly frustrated by that.
And it is not actually Ronaldo’s fault that he is the biggest beast in United’s jungle, when compared to owner Joel Glazer, CEO Richard Arnold and Ten Hag. It is a situation Sir Alex never allowed to happen. That this situation exists is a function of United’s decline over the last nine years.
They re-signed Ronaldo from a position of weakness and desperation and, in the 13 years since he had left Old Trafford, the player had grown into a phenomenon almost as big as the club itself and a figure much more powerful than the manager. That never ends well.
On Friday you could not help but recall another optimistic manager walking into these press conferences with the same air of confidence and intent nine years ago. He too was untried at this level yet, because of dithering in the summer transfer market, vainly hoping that Barcelona would sell them Cesc Fabregas, his big signing for the new season ended up being Marouane Fellaini, one of his former players.
Watching Ten Hag on Friday it was difficult not to be reminded of David Moyes, a good man and fine coach chewed up by what United have become.
It has taken Moyes almost 10 years to recover his reputation from the United experience. You hope for better for Ten Hag. Yet you fear the worst.