Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag will hope that after his side’s narrow win over Burnley on Saturday, he’s slowly starting to win the battle for results in the Premier League this season. Off the pitch, however, the Dutchman is still fighting his war against what he believes is falling levels of professionalism at Old Trafford.
Speaking after his decision to exile Jadon Sancho from the first-team squad following their public rift — merely his latest head-to-head clash with a player — Ten Hag said he inherited a squad with “no good culture” when he took over at the club in the summer of 2022. His treatment of Sancho — following on from 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 he won’t be allowed back until he apologises.
The message to everyone else? “Don’t mess with the manager.”
In Ten Hag’s view, if there isn’t the right attitude in the dressing room, then the team can’t possibly be successful — therefore, his quest to win trophies begins there. Explaining his decision to banish Sancho, Ten Hag said it wasn’t for the manager’s benefit but “for the team” — the implication being that even though Sancho’s absence might leave him lacking options, the long-term gains far outweighs the short-term pain.
The battle to control the dressing room is one every football manager is familiar with, not least Ten Hag’s predecessors at United. In September 2015, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney took it upon themselves to sit down with their manager, Louis van Gaal, after an underwhelming start to the season because, as Carrick put it at the time, “everyone wanted to be 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 stripped Pogba of the vice-captaincy after the Frenchman publicly questioned why United couldn’t play a more attacking brand of football. The pair were also involved in a training ground bustup, played out in front of attending media, when Mourinho believed the midfielder had mocked United’s League Cup defeat to Derby County in a social media post. Three months of simmering tension between the pair followed, and on the day Mourinho was sacked — partly because he no longer had the support of the majority of the players — Pogba posted a cryptic message on social media, including a smirking picture of himself accompanied with the message “captain this” before it was quickly deleted.
Mourinho’s dismissal at United in December 2018 was the second time in three years he had been dumped by a club amid stories of player wielding their collective power against him. The Portuguese manager had already been sacked by Chelsea in 2015 when Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo explained the decision was taken because of “palpable discord” between the manager and the players. In the aftermath of Mourinho’s exit, captain John Terry was forced to defend his teammates over suggestions the squad had conspired to get the coach the boot.
“We are aware there have been rumours of player power at the club, but I want to make it clear that is not the case,” Terry wrote in a column in the matchday programme. “We leave all 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 appears to have more authority than the manager — is an accusation that has been frequently levelled at Chelsea, particularly during Roman Abramovich’s spell as he went through 13 managers in 19 years. Former Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel once suggested it was the players’ right to voice their opinion if all was not well with the manager. But speaking in 2019 after leaving Man United, Mourinho insisted that such an attitude within a squad represented a major issue.
“In modern football, there is a problem between the coach and the player,” he said. “We are not in a time anymore where the coach, by himself, is powerful enough to cope and to have a relationship of education, and sometimes confrontation, with players who are not the best professionals.”
And this, essentially, is where Ten Hag finds himself. The 53-year-old says 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’s been backed by Man United CEO Richard Arnold and football director John Murtough.
Ten Hag was at the centre of the decision to terminate Ronaldo’s contract, believing that he had been undermined once too often by the Portugal striker. Now, according to sources, the club are prepared to take a massive financial hit on Sancho — a £73 million signing in 2021, who has 2½ years left on his £350,000-a-week contract — if there’s no way back and the decision is made that the player has to leave.
It’s a similar approach to squad discipline was held by former Man United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who facilitated David Beckham’s move to Real Madrid in 2003 because, as he said in his autobiography: “David thought he was bigger than Alex Ferguson.”
“The minute a Man United player thought he was bigger than the manager, he had to go,” Ferguson wrote. “You cannot have a player taking over the dressing room. That was the death knell for him.”
In 2010, Ferguson went one step further and agreed a contract with United that guaranteed he would always be paid more than any player, reinforcing his place at the top of the pecking order. By then, however, Ferguson had won 11 Premier League titles and the Champions League twice. Ten Hag, by contrast, has had a relatively successful start to his tenure with one Carabao Cup success under his belt, but has not yet reached — nor earned — the same level of power and influence.
Ten Hag, according to a source, remains concerned about the attitude of a couple of his players and privately, at least, Sancho’s punishment is being held up as a warning that there will be no room for those not pulling in the same direction. Meanwhile, Sancho remains out in the cold and Ten Hag’s war with the dressing room shows no sign of letting up.
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