Erik ten Hag and Sir Alex Ferguson parallels becoming harder to ignore
Reading manager Paul Ince described Manchester United as having their presence back under Erik ten Hag after his side's 3-1 FA Cup defeat, drawing comparisons to the Sir Alex Ferguson era he played in when the club were winning Premier League titles.
After seven months in charge, there are hallmarks of Ferguson’s decisive management in Ten Hag’s decisions as he has turned the club around, putting them in contention for four trophies in his rookie season in English football.
Ruthless on Ronaldo
Ferguson was no stranger to getting rid of his high profile players, with the departures of David Beckham and Jaap Stam two cases. Those two were arguably at their peak when they left, while Cristiano Ronaldo is in the final years of his career, although he was still the most high-profile player in the Premier League. Dropping him was unthinkable when he returned to Old Trafford but he was on the bench for Premier League games as United started getting results after their disastrous start to the season.
Ferguson tore strips off his players in the dressing room when they did not execute his plans, getting in the faces of the wrongdoers. Ten Hag showed his anger after the 4-0 humiliation at Brentford at the start of the season by ordering players into their Carrington HQ the day after the defeat for an intense running session. The Dutchman joined them for the session too, ordering his squad to run 13.8 kilometres - the distance Thomas Frank’s team ran more than them.
When Harry Maguire came on for the final minute of the Manchester derby, he turned to the crowd in the dying moments of the win and gestured for them to raise the volume levels. He is still the leader in the squad despite no longer being a regular starter. Ten Hag has managed this situation well. Maguire wants to play but when he spoke to reporters at the World Cup, he discussed fighting his way back into the reckoning rather than looking to move. Bryan Robson started twice in the season United won their first Premier League title.
“There is no stuff coming out about fragmentation in the dressing room,” was an important observation from Ince. United players’ dissatisfaction behind the scenes has often eked out during the post-Ferguson era. Just one example is players ignoring analysis sent to them via email during Louis van Gaal's tenure, not realising coaches had software to tell them if their clips had been watched. It is easier when the team is winning, but United have closed ranks during their run of good results this season.
In a Harvard thesis on Ferguson’s management, he was quoted saying: “For a player—and for any human being—there is nothing better than hearing ‘well done.’ Those are the two best words ever invented in sport.” Ten Hag has given his players praise when it is due but has also been firm when needed. Marcus Rashford is in the best form of his life but did not escape punishment when he overslept and was late for a team meeting. He was dropped to the bench against Wolves, and made a match-winning contribution from the bench. Ronaldo was dropped from the squad after refusing to come off the bench against Tottenham.
Ince and Roy Keane were a devastating combination in central midfield during the 1994 title win, which was one of the best teams under Ferguson. Ten Hag spent £65million on Casemiro, at the time seen as expensive for a 30-year-old but looks like money well spent after his match-winning performances. He has developed a partnership with Christian Eriksen, who arrived on a free transfer. It was a concern that Eriksen left Old Trafford on crutches after the Reading win, as he has been one of United’s best performers this season.
Casemiro: Ten Hag is putting Man Utd on the pathway towards trophies
As the winner of five Champions League titles, it is worth noting when Casemiro talks about the strides Manchester United are making and how their progress is even more significant given how settled their rivals have been.
The Premier League has been a duopoly in the last five seasons, with Manchester City and Liverpool in a rhythm of winning under Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. United started from scratch in the summer, Erik ten Hag arriving and making radical changes to the first-team and the culture of the club.
Casemiro has been part of the turnaround, his £65million price tag raising eyebrows in the summer as the Brazilian had turned 30, yet he has brought the class shown at Real Madrid during his decade at the Bernabeu. He says the move has seen him roll back the years and that he feels like a teenager.
"When you arrive at a new club, you always dream of making history, especially if we see the greatness of this club,” Casemiro said. “We know the history. But of course, I was aware of needing some time to adapt and of the rivals having a long-term plan before ours, like Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool, they all have managers that have been there for a while and, therefore, they have an advantage.
“I'm happy with my adaptation here, my teammates and the staff are really helping me, also with the English language, it's been quite hard but I'm really trying to get better. Everyone here has been lovely with me and since the first day I feel at home here.
“I appreciate all the effort that the club has done to bring me here, John (Murtough, United’s director of football) included. I'm very comfortable at Manchester United, extremely happy to be here and enjoying every moment like a 15-year-old kid! But the most important is to see the team growing."
The Brazilian scored twice in the FA Cup win over Reading on Saturday evening. Former United midfielder Paul Ince was in the Reading technical area and he says Casemiro will be judged on the big games, not against Championship sides. But there is excitement over what he has brought to United and the partnership he has forged with Christian Eriksen, who worryingly left Old Trafford on crutches after a tackle from Andy Carroll.
"Last time I scored twice in the same match was against Sevilla at Bernabéu and we won 2-1,” said Casemiro. “I'm happy about the Reading game especially for helping the team. My main job is to give more balance to the defence, help my teammates, give more quality to the build-up, but to score is also important and satisfying."
"I'm grateful for the compliments I've been receiving, but the key to all of that is: I'm really enjoying myself here. I'm very happy and I do feel at home. So I want to thank the fans, the players, the staff, the board. I can only be grateful. We know we're progressing within a plan, step by step we're building a well-structured team and this is important. To win titles in the future, you have to build a solid foundation."
While United are still in four competitions, Casemiro still regards the season as one where the club is building in the first season under Ten Hag.
"We have to see what the reality is and we are still a club under construction,” he said. “Of course we are already respected, the opponents know we're strong, that we have good dynamics, the manager is doing a good job, the players as well.
"Manchester United is a big club in my opinion, if we look at the titles, it's the biggest in England. In our lives we have to have goals and challenges. It was a challenge for me to keep growing and developing in my career. The job is on with a lot of humility by knowing there's a lot to improve, but all the players need to be congratulated now. We're on a good path. This is the way to win titles, but we need to keep growing."