Man United state of play: How close is a Ten Hag sacking?

Despite Manchester United‘s thrilling 4-3 FA Cup win over Liverpool, manager Erik ten Hag remains under pressure. Victory over Jurgen Klopp’s side at Old Trafford on Sunday gave the Dutchman a statement win, but the question of whether he’s still the right man for the job won’t go away.

A successful first year following his arrival from Ajax in 2022 has been followed by a disappointing second season in which his team have been dumped out of European competition before Christmas and left to play catch-up in the race to qualify for the Champions League as they sit sixth, nine points off Aston Villa in fourth. There’s still the possibility that the FA Cup will provide a second piece of silverware in as many years, to go along with last season’s Carabao Cup, but Ten Hag also has to deal with the arrival of new minority owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe.

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Ratcliffe and his team have assumed control of all football operations, leaving Ten Hag vulnerable if the 71-year-old British billionaire decides he wants to bring in his own man.

Two things usually cost managers their jobs: poor results and new owners. Unfortunately for Ten Hag, he’s facing both at the same time.

What’s Ten Hag’s job status at Man United?

Ten Hag signed a three-year contract when he joined from Ajax, which is due to run until 2025. A source has told ESPN that while he understands his job isn’t secure, he also doesn’t believe Ratcliffe and his team have already made the decision to terminate his deal.

Ten Hag has been fully involved in planning for both the next transfer window and the organisation of the summer tour of the United States but, according to sources, he hasn’t been given any formal guarantee that he will continue as manager.

As previously reported, United have been approached by representatives of a number of managers with the idea of pitching their client for any vacancy that might come up. Meanwhile, Ratcliffe’s right-hand man, Sir Dave Brailsford, is continuing to do his due diligence regarding a host of candidates.

With United into the semifinals of the FA Cup and just 10 league games left, it’s possible an underwhelming season could still end with a trophy and Champions League qualification. Brailsford, however, is set to make his decision based on a number of different factors, rather than judging Ten Hag on how the final few weeks pan out.

One additional issue for Ratcliffe and Brailsford to consider is the cost of sacking the manager. Money is already tight while the club try to navigate financial fair play regulations, and the compensation due to Ten Hag and his staff could run beyond £10 million.

What is Ratcliffe looking to change at Old Trafford and Carrington?

Empowered by Ratcliffe, Brailsford is looking to first change United’s off-field structure and then find the best people to fill each role. Omar Berrada is coming in from Manchester City to take over as CEO and Dan Ashworth will arrive from Newcastle United as sporting director. There’s also likely to be a new technical director, head of recruitment and head of performance.

Brailsford, according to sources, views the manager’s job as an important cog in the machine rather than an all-powerful overlord, which might complicate things for Ten Hag. The manager has been allowed a lot of influence since his appointment — particularly when it comes to signing players he’s managed in the past like Antony and Lisandro Martínez — and he might find Brailsford envisions a different future.

Having a manager who is happy to report into a sporting director opens the door for candidates like England boss Gareth Southgate, whom Ashworth knows well from their time together at the Football Association, and former Chelsea and Brighton manager Graham Potter, whom Ratcliffe tried to entice to his Ligue 1 club OGC Nice last summer.

United have been known for giving their managers a lot of power in the past — probably too much — and for Ten Hag to stick around, he might have to accept a watered down version of the role he currently occupies.

What is Ten Hag thinking?

He’s got some credit in the bank after winning the Carabao Cup and finishing third last season, but Ten Hag accepts this campaign hasn’t been good enough. The Dutchman has made the point — in private to Brailsford and in public via the media — that the season has been derailed by a crippling injury list. He’s insistent that results and performances have been good when he’s had enough of his best players available.

Lisandro Martínez, Luke Shaw, Casemiro, Mason Mount, Rasmus Højlund have all missed chunks of the season, and there have been times when Ten Hag has had to operate without a striker or a left-back. The defence has been particularly hard hit, forcing Ten Hag to use 11 different centre-back combinations.

When the treatment room began to clear in January, United won six of their first seven games of the new year, but the 3-1 defeat to Manchester City in March was a chastening reminder of how far behind they still remain. If United were to win the FA Cup and qualify for the Champions League, Ten Hag would expect to stay on. But for Ratcliffe, even that might not be enough.



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So what happens next?

At the very least, Ratcliffe and Brailsford, in consultation with Berrada and Ashworth, have a decision to make.

A year ago, a new owner swooping in and sacking Ten Hag would have been universally unpopular with United fans, but support for the 54-year-old has waned significantly since the start of the season. There are some who think he’s earned the right to work in the more-progressive club structure being put together by Ratcliffe, but others believe he needs to go immediately.

Right now, Ratcliffe needs Ten Hag to get his team into the Champions League and provide a financial boost ahead of a crucial summer. But the overall vision for Man United’s top brass is to get back to challenging for Champions League, not just playing in it. Unfortunately for Ten Hag, he has not yet convinced his new bosses that he’s the man to do it.