Manchester United considered the credentials of eight different managers before choosing Ajax coach Erik ten Hag to become the fifth permanent appointment since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013.
Sources have told ESPN that Mauricio Pochettino, Luis Enrique and Julen Lopetegui were alongside Ten Hag on the final four-man shortlist compiled by United’s football director John Murtough, but the prospects of hiring Bayern Munich’s Julian Nagelsmann, Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel, Leicester City’s Brendan Rodgers and former Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane were all considered following the firing of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer last November. In the cases of Nagelsmann and Tuchel in particular, it became clear almost instantly that neither would be a realistic target.
Ten Hag, whose Ajax team face PSV Eindhoven in the KNVB Beker final on Sunday, is likely to be confirmed as United’s manager before the end of the month, with ESPN reporting on April 6 that the 52-year-old had emerged as United’s No 1 choice to succeed Solskjaer, who has been replaced by Ralf Rangnick on an interim basis until the end of the season.
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While United’s owners, the Glazer family, will hope that their long search for a manager capable of restoring the club to dominance in England and Europe is finally over — some would argue the search dates back to Ferguson’s retirement and the decision to replace him with David Moyes — the process that has ended with Ten Hag being on the brink of moving to Old Trafford has appeared anything but smooth. It has involved two chief executives, the failed stop-gap appointment of Rangnick and early front-runners seeing their prospects damaged, or ended in the case of Rodgers, by the poor results of the clubs where they are currently in charge.
But sources unconnected to United have told ESPN that, away from the negativity surrounding the team’s results and the upheaval caused by Ed Woodward’s departure in January and the installation of Richard Arnold as his successor as chief executive, the process to hire a new manager has been impressive, strategic and well-constructed by Murtough, who settled on Ten Hag after a detailed search for the best candidate available.
« It’s important to consider the available options, » a source told ESPN. « Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp aren’t available and United were never going to get Nagelsmann out of Bayern. Tuchel is a real asset to Chelsea too, so he wasn’t a credible option either. So you look at the market, who is capable and gettable, and United have considered them all. They haven’t overlooked anybody they should have spoken to. »
When Solskjaer was dismissed on Nov. 21 following a run of seven defeats in 13 games, the initial favorites to land the United job were Paris Saint-Germain’s Pochettino and former Liverpool manager Rodgers. Antonio Conte, available after leaving Inter Milan last summer, was not considered because, a United source told ESPN, his demanding and detailed approach would not work with the Old Trafford squad.
United were keen to assess the best domestic option and, at the time, that was Rodgers, whose success in making Liverpool title contenders in 2014 before winning multiple trophies in Scotland with Celtic, followed by FA Cup success last season at Leicester, had earned him fans within the United hierarchy. Pochettino, meanwhile, was well regarded by Woodward, who had twice considered appointing the former Tottenham Hotspur boss to replace Louis van Gaal in 2016 and Jose Mourinho two years later. Rodgers quickly fell by the wayside, however, as Leicester’s results nosedived, while Pochettino’s contractual situation at PSG — he is signed up until June 2023 — ruled out a swift appointment.
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United instead opted to hire Rangnick to buy them time to undergo a « thorough and detailed search » for the next manager. That search would be led by Murtough and technical director Darren Fletcher. Woodward, having announced his plans to step down in the wake of the failed Super League plans last April, had a marginal role. Both Ferguson and Rangnick, sources have said, have had minimal involvement in the process. Woodward’s departure in January brought clarity to the process, however. With Arnold not burdened by the mistakes of previous appointments — Woodward signed off the hiring of Van Gaal, Mourinho and Solskjaer — the change of leadership brought a new sense of purpose and accelerated the final process.
Arnold wanted a new manager confirmed before the end of the season, and he tasked Murtough with finalizing a shortlist. Nagelsmann was discounted as impossible to get, while Rodgers had faded from the race long before Arnold had assumed the role of chief executive. Zidane, meanwhile, was seriously considered until it became clear to United that the only club role the former France midfielder was likely to return to management for was PSG. Tuchel, meanwhile, only emerged as a possible contender in the wake of Roman Abramovich’s decision to sell Chelsea after being sanctioned by the UK government due to his links to Russian president Vladimir Putin. It was a brief process to assess Tuchel’s likely availability, with sources saying that United were given no encouragement that he would leave Stamford Bridge. That left the final four: Ten Hag, Pochettino, Enrique and Lopetegui — and it quickly became a final two due to Luis Enrique and Lopetegui being ruled out.
In Luis Enrique’s case, sources have said that United believed he had all the necessary credentials as a multiple trophy winner with Barcelona, but that « the World Cup killed them » because the Spain coach had no intention of leaving his post before the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which starts in November. Sevilla coach Lopetegui was always an outsider, but considered because of his tactical and technical abilities. Sources have said that a concern within Old Trafford was that United risked hiring « another Unai Emery » by appointing a coach with a successful track record at smaller clubs, but one unproven at the very highest level. While Emery has won four Europa Leagues with Sevilla and Villarreal — he has also guided Villarreal to this season’s Champions League semifinals — his inability to succeed at PSG or Arsenal indirectly impacted Lopetegui’s candidacy with United and the 55-year-old, perhaps sensing he was not a serious option, withdrew from the race to replace Solskjaer over a month ago.
So that left United to decide between Ten Hag and Pochettino and both men were regarded as impressive enough to be appointed. Both had their negative aspects, however. Ten Hag’s inexperience at the highest level, in terms of managing a club of United’s size in a league as high-profile as the Premier League, may yet prove an insurmountable problem in the months and years ahead. Murtough has known the 52-year-old since his time as Utrecht coach between 2015-17, however, and sources say that there are no real concerns over his temperament and ability to step up to a job as big as United.
With Pochettino, the issue was twofold. Intelligence within the game continues to suggest that Real Madrid will make a move for the Argentina this summer, despite Carlo Ancelotti still being on course to win LaLiga and reaching the Champions League semifinals, and United were wary of being out-maneuvered by Real at the eleventh hour. There was also the threat of PSG demanding a huge compensation package for their coach, who many expect to leave in the summer regardless, or the French club effectively putting Pochettino on gardening leave for the remaining year of his contract if he attempted to force a move to United.
In terms of coaching credentials and top-level experience, Pochettino was regarded as a safe bet by United, but ultimately, the attraction of Ten Hag was that he is deemed as a rising star and one not yet tainted by failure. He has delivered repeated success at Ajax, built a young and exciting team and shown an ability to exceed expectations in the Champions League. There is a freshness to Ten Hag that appealed to United and, despite reports that he was holding out for assurances over his control of the football side at Old Trafford, sources have said that the reality has been a much more straightforward negotiation with the Dutchman and Ajax.
Time will tell if United have got the right man or if they will, sooner or later, be accused of hiring the cheapest, easiest option. With a €2 million release clause at Ajax and a readiness to develop young players, he may turn out to be a less expensive option than Pochettino, but the appointment will only be judged by what happens on the pitch. If he wins, Ten Hag will be regarded as priceless to a club that has made far too many expensive mistakes.