Manchester United examined the credentials of eight different managers before selecting Ajax manager Erik ten Hag as their 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 in the latest four-man shortlist put together by United’s director of football John Murtough, but the prospects include Bayern Munich’s Julian Nagelsmann, Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel and Brendan Rodgers from Leicester City and former Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane have been considered following the sacking of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer last November. Especially in the Nagelsmann and Tuchel cases, it became clear almost immediately that neither would be a realistic goal.
Ten Hag, whose Ajax side face PSV Eindhoven in Sunday’s KNVB Beker final, is expected to be confirmed as United manager before the end of the month. ESPN reported on June 6 1st choice to succeed Solskjaer, who was replaced on an interim basis by Ralf Rangnick until the end of the season.
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While United’s owners, the Glazer family, will hope their long search for a manager capable of restoring the club to dominance in England and Europe is finally over – some would argue that the search is on Ferguson’s retirement and the decision to replace him goes back to David Moyes – the process, which ended with Ten Hag on the verge of a move to Old Trafford, was far from smooth. It has involved two chief executives, the failed appointment of Rangnick and early frontrunners who have seen their prospects damaged or, in Rodgers’ case, ended by the poor results of the clubs they are currently in charge of.
But sources unconnected to United have told ESPN that apart from the negativity surrounding the team’s results and the upheaval caused by Ed Woodward’s departure in January and the appointment of Richard Arnold as his successor as chief executive , the process for hiring a new manager has been impressive, strategic and well constructed by Murtough, who chose Ten Hag after a detailed search for the best candidate available.
“It’s important to consider the options available,” a source told ESPN. “Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp are unavailable and United never wanted to get Nagelsmann out of Bayern. Tuchel is a real asset for Chelsea too so he wasn’t a credible option either. So you look at the market to see who is.” capable and achievable, and United have considered them all. They didn’t overlook anyone they should have spoken to.
When Solskjaer was sacked on November 21 after a run of seven defeats in 13 games, the first favorites for the job at United were Paris Saint-Germain’s Pochettino and former Liverpool manager Rodgers. Antonio Conte, who was available following his departure from Inter Milan last summer, was not considered as his demanding and detailed approach would not work with the Old Trafford squad, according to a United source ESPN.
United were keen to identify the best domestic option and at the time that was Rodgers whose success saw him make Liverpool title contenders in 2014 before lifting multiple trophies in Scotland with Celtic, followed by FA Cup success in last season Leicester admirers within the United hierarchy. Pochettino, on the other hand, was well-liked by Woodward, who had thought twice about appointing the former Tottenham Hotspur boss to succeed Louis van Gaal in 2016 and Jose Mourinho two years later. However, Rodgers was quickly left behind as Leicester’s results plummeted, while Pochettino’s contract situation at PSG – he is signed until June 2023 – precluded a quick appointment.
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United instead opted to hire Rangnick to buy them time to conduct a “thorough and detailed search” for the next manager. This search would be led by Murtough and Technical Director Darren Fletcher. Woodward, who announced his retirement after the failed Super League plans last April, played a marginal role. According to sources, both Ferguson and Rangnick had minimal involvement in the process. However, Woodward’s departure in January brought clarity to the process. With Arnold unburdened by the failures of previous appointments – Woodward signed on to hire Van Gaal, Mourinho and Solskjaer – the change in 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 hired Murtough to finalize a shortlist. Nagelsmann was dismissed as impossible to come by, while Rodgers was out of the running long before Arnold took on the role of CEO. Zidane, meanwhile, was under serious scrutiny until United realized 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 after Roman Abramovich decided to sell Chelsea after being sanctioned by the British government over his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. It has been a short process to assess Tuchel’s likely availability, with sources saying United have received no encouragement that he would leave Stamford Bridge. That left the bottom four: Ten Hag, Pochettino, Enrique and Lopetegui – and it quickly became the last two as Luis Enrique and Lopetegui were ruled out.
In the case of Luis Enrique, sources said United believed he had all the necessary credentials as a multiple trophy winner with Barcelona but that “the World Cup killed them” because the Spanish manager had no intention of leaving his post before the 2022 World Cup abandon in Qatar, which begins in November. Sevilla coach Lopetegui was always an outsider but was considered for his tactical and technical skills. Sources said one concern at Old Trafford was that United risked hiring “another Unai Emery” by appointing a manager with a successful track record at smaller clubs but who failed to prove himself at the top level. While Emery has won four Europa Leagues with Sevilla and Villarreal – he also guided Villarreal to this season’s Champions League semi-finals – his inability to find success at PSG or Arsenal indirectly impacted Lopetegui’s bid at United and the 55-year-old out, perhaps suspecting he wasn’t a serious option, withdrew from the race over a month ago to replace Solskjaer.
So United had to choose between Ten Hag and Pochettino and both men were deemed impressive enough to be called up. However, both had their downsides. Ten Hag’s inexperience at the highest level when it comes to managing a club the size of United in a league as high profile as the Premier League could prove an insurmountable problem in the months and years to come. However, Murtough has known the 52-year-old since his time as Utrecht manager between 2015-17 and sources say there are no real concerns about his temperament and ability to take on a job as big as United’s.
Pochettino was about two things. In-game intelligence continues to suggest Real Madrid will switch for the Argentine this summer, although Carlo Ancelotti is still on course to win LaLiga and reach the Champions League semi-finals and United feared being outmaneuvered by Real become eleventh hour. There have also been threats that PSG will demand a huge compensation package for their manager, who many believe will leave him in the summer anyway, or that the French club will effectively put Pochettino on garden leave for the remainder of his contract year if he tries to force a move to United.
In terms of coaching credentials and top-level experience, Pochettino was seen as a safe bet by United, but ultimately Ten Hag’s appeal was that he was seen as a rising star and not yet stricken with failure. He has found repeated success at Ajax, building a young and exciting team and proving his ability to exceed expectations in the Champions League. Ten Hag has a freshness that appealed to United and despite reports he was awaiting reassurances about his control of the Old Trafford football team, sources said the reality was a much more straightforward negotiation with the Dutchman and Ajax.
Time will tell if United have the right man or if sooner or later they will be accused of hiring the cheapest and easiest option. With a €2m release clause at Ajax and a willingness to develop young players, he could turn out to be a cheaper option than Pochettino but the appointment will only be judged by what happens on the pitch. If he wins, Ten Hag will be seen as priceless at a club that have made far too many costly mistakes.