This series of articles started when there were 13 days until Manchester United’s next game against Brighton at Old Trafford.
13 days to make the necessary adjustments to remedy a poor start. 13 days to implement tactical changes which will improve the team’s performance. 13 days to regain and rally the spirit which was carefully cultivated last season.
13 days to fix United’s season essentially.
Over these 13 days, The Peoples Person team are looking at 13 areas United can look to improve upon before their next Premier League fixture. An article a day until Erik ten Hag’s issues have drifted away.
In the series so far, we have covered both the individual improvements United can make, as well as different tactics the Dutchman can employ to improve the collective.
Today’s article focuses more on the intangible side of professional football.
The Motivation of Fear
A former United player once remarked Sir Alex Ferguson “ruled by fear.”
Lee Sharpe, who played over 200 times under the Scottish manager, revealed players would go as far as hiding in the toilets to avoid Ferguson’s path. “One of the things that was always in the back of your head was you can’t let the manager down … there was definitely an air of fear around the club,” Sharpe contends.
While there was undoubtedly more to Ferguson’s indomitable reign than simple fear, the fact he evoked such a response in his players was a testament to the tight control he possessed over his dressing room.
There were many reasons why new arrivals would feel the need to perform at their highest level in such an environment.
The club was far and away the biggest in England, and a player’s wage packet would reflect this. The possibility of even more financial reward came through continued success.
This created an almost palpable culture of winning in the dressing room. Trophies were an expectation, not an ambition.
The quality of the players was commensurate with this success. The standards they exuded were unparalleled, and they were quick to ostracise you if you did not conform.
Yet, if all of those motivating factors were not sufficient, the fear Ferguson was able to generate in his dressing room would certainly do it. Players would be willing to run through doors for their manager because the alternative of a scorching hair dryer would be more painful.
The Scot was able to strike the correct balance, however, between a paternal figure and a harsh taskmaster. Leaning too heavily in either direction can create imbalance; the type which men in their twenties with more money than sense will be prone to exploiting. Ferguson’s players saw him as a father figure because he made United a family, but he was a Dad you would not dare to cross.
The unsuccessful tenure of Ole Gunnar Solskjær demonstrated the failings of being too soft on players. The unsuccessful, albeit inversely, attempts by Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal illustrated the issues with being overly harsh.
Ferguson was able to consistently strike the perfect equilibrium. Ten Hag must now do the same.
A Dressing Room In Disrepair
The Dutchman arrived in Manchester and was confronted with a debacle.
United were fresh from their worst season in Premier League history with a fan base who had developed an abject apathy for the current squad.
Standards were low; fitness levels were low; morale was low; the quality and effectiveness of football was low. The club itself being low felt the most accurate description.
Ten Hag was entrusted with a significant budget to bring in new recruits, but he was quick to stress every pre-existing player would begin with a fresh slate under him. The horrors of the previous season would be forgotten and every player started afresh.
Each of the signings made that summer – Tyrell Malacia, Christian Eriksen, Lisandro Martinez, Antony and, in particular, Casemiro – brought with them a desire and willingness to fight for the shirt. Ten Hag appeared to recognise the need for more commitment on the pitch and was willing to pay for it off it.
The Dutchman sought to quickly establish a new expectation of standards.
Time-keeping, commitment and effort would be prerequisites under him. These were baseline values every United player would abide by, regardless of their status.
While coaching and tactical improvements would have been central to Ten Hag’s first season in England, the foundation of his side’s success can be found in the improvements in attitude, camaraderie and work ethic he instilled in the dressing room.
United finished the season in 3rd, comfortably securing Champions League football, and were winners of the Carabao Cup – the club’s first trophy in six years.
It was a reasonably successful season by normal standards; it was a resounding triumph relative to the year before.
Laying Down A Mark Of Authority
At certain points during this season Ten Hag moved quickly and decisively to assert his authority on his new squad.
The Dutchman, when confronted with a behavioural issue, left United’s dressing room in no doubt of who the manager at Old Trafford was. And, in the spirit of Ferguson, the players responded positively.
Whether this was fear of Ten Hag, or a growing respect for his commitment to upholding the new standards, the United team appeared galvanised when their manager made a contentious decision.
At the beginning of the year, following a disappointing opening day loss to Brighton and the infamous demolition away to Brentford, Ten Hag was preparing his side to face bitter-rivals, Liverpool. There was a feeling it would be lambs sent to the slaughter.
What transpired, however, was a gutsy performance and a 2-1 win, which acted as a propellant for the salvaging of a sinking ship.
Ten Hag made the bold choice to drop Cristiano Ronaldo and Luke Shaw, in favour of Anthony Elanga and Malacia – players whose enthusiasm was surpassed only by their work rate.
The gamble worked; the Dutchman was validated. His side would go on to win the next five games in a row. An idea which had seemed impossible as his players trudged off the pitch at the end of the Brentford game.
A few months later, Ronaldo would be dropped once again, following a public outburst of frustration against Tottenham Hotspur. The Portuguese forward refused to come on as a substitute in the final few minutes of the game, believing his status as an experienced player to be beyond such a choice.
Ten Hag replied with a response his players were slowly learning to accept.
At the turn of the year, Marcus Rashford was forty-five seconds late to a team meeting before a game against Wolves. The forward was immediately dropped to the bench, despite having scored in the previous two games.
Rashford would come on as a substitute in the second half, however, scoring the only goal as United ran out 1-0 winners. The 25-year-old revealed later that he was extra-motivated to do well for his teammates following the incident, feeling he had let them down by not being available to start.
United would go on to win 13 of their next 17 games, losing only one, and culminating in the successful day out at Wembley against Newcastle.
Ten Hag’s standards were set in stone, regardless of status. And the players were responding to them.
Making A Statement
United have not begun this season in the positive fashion which characterised large parts of last year, however.
There is a growing sense of negativity emanating from various sources at the club over a variety of issues.
There is profound fatigue from a weary fan base over the odious ownership at Old Trafford has regained intensity following rumours the Glazers have reversed their decision to sell the club.
These feelings of discontent have been further enflamed following allegations made against certain members of the squad off the field, with the club’s response to these incidents a source of concern for many employees and fans.
On the pitch, there has been little respite either.
Two shaky wins against Wolves and Nottingham Forest have been interspersed with disappointing defeats away to Arsenal and Spurs. United have not played particularly well in any of these matches and are somewhat fortunate to even have six points from a possible twelve.
Ten Hag’s side sits twelfth with a negative goal difference.
The Dutchman needs a response from his players – the type which characterised the aftermath of negative moments last season.
This is what made Jadon Sancho’s attempt to publicly ruin his United career, in the aftermath of the Arsenal game, such a surprisingly useful situation.
Ten Hag explained the winger’s absence from the match-day squad as stemming from issues with standards in training. Sancho retorted on X (formerly known as Twitter) with a rejection of this assessment:
“Please don’t believe everything you read! I will not allow people saying things that is completely untrue, I have conducted myself in training very well this week. I believe there are other reasons for this matter that I won’t go into, I’ve been a scapegoat for a long time which isn’t fair!”
Ten Hag was reportedly left “bitterly disappointed” by these words. A full breakdown of this saga can be found here, but the Dutchman should, in fact, be feeling a sense of optimism, not disappointment.
Other members of United’s dressing room are thought to be irritated by Sancho’s attitude in training. They mirror the frustrations of their manager and have been left “dismayed” by the winger’s response.
In the aftermath, United released a statement detailing Sancho would be made to train separately from the first team while a “squad discipline issue” was resolved.
Sources at Old Trafford indicate Ten Hag will not allow the winger to return until he has apologised for his actions. He must stick to this decision with full gusto if Sancho continues to be unrepentant, making an example out of a player whom he has made every effort to help.
It’s the type of hard-line decision which United’s manager has made before, to great effect. The fact it concerns a player, many of whose teammatesx` are equally frustrated with, only strengthens the Dutchman’s position.
Sancho is the ideal sacrificial lamb for Ten Hag to reassert his authority over the United dressing room and demand the type of response which proved so effective last season. This begins with an improved performance against Brighton on Saturday and a continued run of form to help United climb the table.
United face Burnley, Crystal Palace and Sheffield United after this weekend. It’s the perfect time for a Ten Hag lighting bolt to his dressing room.
It appears Sancho could be set to make his most significant contribution in his otherwise disappointing Old Trafford career, by simply not playing.
CONCLUSION – Sacrifice the weak to strike fear into the strong.