‘Ten Hag has set out his position, Ratcliffe will soon outline his’

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Senior figures at Manchester United have begun conducting an end of season review, with one item dominating the agenda – the future of manager Erik ten Hag.

The club never discovered whether they were right to sack Louis van Gaal after he won the FA Cup in 2016.

At 64, his best days in management were behind him. The only frontline job he did after leaving Old Trafford was to answer an SOS call from the Netherlands hierarchy to qualify the national team for the 2022 World Cup, where they lost to eventual winners Argentina in the quarter-finals.

The situation is different with his compatriot Ten Hag.

As he got himself on the front foot in the aftermath of a well-deserved 2-1 victory over last season’s Treble winners in Saturday’s FA Cup final, Ten Hag made it perfectly clear what would happen if co-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe decided he didn’t want the 54-year-old to continue.

“If they don’t want me, then I will go somewhere else to win trophies because that is what I do.”

It was a bold statement, one to make even the most successful, decisive and clear-sighted businessmen take a moment to think, let alone a group who have assumed all the responsibility for football decisions at one of the world’s biggest clubs, with all the scrutiny and social media frenzy that entails.

Ratcliffe’s Ineos group also presently has limited football experience at United, given their chief executive Omar Berrada and intended football director Dan Ashworth are yet to complete respective periods of gardening leave.

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag shakes hands with minority owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe after the club's FA Cup win against Manchester City

Getty Images

Ratcliffe will have known the day would come when his words alone would not placate the outside world, friend and foe alike.

Even on Saturday morning, the situation looked quite straightforward. He did not bring Ten Hag to the club. This season’s football has been dreadful. Injuries were an excuse but United have finished too low in the table and performed too badly, too often, for the manager to be excused. A Wembley meeting with Manchester City would underline the gulf in class. Ten Hag could be dismissed, a replacement installed and everyone moves on.

But the manager and his players shredded the script with their performance.

Ten Hag got his selection right, his players followed the gameplan, two youngsters of immense promise – straight out of the United tradition – scored and United won the FA Cup. It meant the Dutchman joined Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Matt Busby and Ernest Mangnall as one of only four men who have won trophies in successive seasons at United.

Veteran defender Jonny Evans said he hoped Ten Hag would remain. “You want a manager who shows trust and belief,” said the Northern Ireland skipper.

“I’ve only got really good things to say about him.

“Over the last month, he has shown incredible tactical flexibility. Sitting off and counter-attacking is not the style he sees himself coaching but he has recognised the right time to do it and has done it.”

It is against that backdrop – and five trophies in four and a half years with Ajax – that Ratcliffe, directors Sir Dave Brailsford and Jean-Claude Blanc, plus technical director Jason Wilcox must make their call.

When a story emerged in the Guardian on Friday that Ten Hag was to be sacked no matter what the outcome of the final, it committed to print rumours that were swirling round Manchester.

United offered no comment either way. There was no call to the manager or his representatives to assure them the report was wrong.

It was known the club intended to conduct an end of season review in the week after the City game, after which a decision on Ten Hag’s future would be made.

Whatever the decision taken, it is a massive call and there are competing arguments.

A couple of months ago, the feeling was veering strongly towards keeping faith with Ten Hag.

Much of Brailsford’s early work since Ratcliffe’s co-ownership was announced on Christmas Eve has centred on putting the right structures in place, including the appointment of Wilcox and Ashworth – though the latter’s appointment is yet to be confirmed amid a compensation stand-off with his current club Newcastle.

No manager, it was felt, could deliver positive results on a consistent basis without the right support mechanisms in place.

But then came a shambolic three-week period in April which included conceding an injury-time leveller at Brentford, defeat at Chelsea after leading when heading into injury time, and needing penalties – and a tight offside call – to beat Championship side Coventry in the FA Cup semi-final, despite having raced into a 3-0 lead.

They struggled to beat Sheffield United at Old Trafford, needing two late goals, and as recently as 6 May were humiliated 4-0 at Crystal Palace.

Not only was Champions League qualification – which Ratcliffe put so much store by in an interview with BBC sports editor Dan Roan in February – gone, it appeared there would be no European football at all for only the second time since 1981-82.

United lost more games this season, won fewer and conceded more goals than any other campaign in the Premier League era.

End of season victories over Newcastle and Brighton got them to 60 points and an eighth-place finish. But it was the still club’s the lowest league position and points total in 34 years, when they ended up 13th, with 48 points, in the 1989-90 season.

As in 1990, salvation from a tortuous campaign came through an FA Cup victory. Unlike 1990, it was achieved against the strongest possible opponent.

In his favour, Ten Hag has dealt with a succession of major issues head on, asserting his authority as he went.

He was critical of Cristiano Ronaldo’s behaviour in private and public long before the Portuguese star’s early exit from the club.

He called out what he felt were sub-standard training performances by Jadon Sancho, then demanded an apology for an inflammatory social media post by the £73m England international – and refused to pick him when it didn’t come, before allowing a loan to Borussia Dortmund.

He was never able to select Mason Greenwood, the striker he thought was being allowed back into the fold in August after attempted rape and assault charges against him were dropped, only for United to change their minds and eventually send him out on loan to Spanish side Getafe.

Ten Hag had to deal with Marcus Rashford’s massive dip in form, a chronic injury list that at one point included six central defenders and both his left-backs, plus new signing Mason Mount and forward Anthony Martial for extended periods.

Veteran midfielders Casemiro and Christian Eriksen suddenly looked old and vulnerable and £81m wide-man Antony failed to adapt to his second season, having been given leave of absence in September to deal with allegations of assault, which are still to be dealt with, and which the Brazilian denies.

Against this backdrop, United have won trophies in successive seasons and Ten Hag has joined an illustrious group in achieving it.

Now a decision has to be made on what happens next.

Alternatives have been sounded out. Thomas Tuchel and Mauricio Pochettino are out of work. Kieran McKenna isn’t but Chelsea and Brighton also covet the former United coach, who has achieved back to back promotions with Ipswich. Brentford’s Thomas Frank has plenty of admirers at Old Trafford.

Ten Hag has set out his position.

Pretty soon, Ratcliffe will outline his.

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