There are a lot of eyes on Erik ten Haag at the moment and as a result there are a lot of different ways of looking at his position at Manchester United.
On the one hand, he is leading the Premier League’s most efficient team with the most points in the last five games of any division. Ten Hag has won 30 of United’s 50 games at Liverpool, the best record of any manager in their history.
On the contrary, he is still the Premier League manager the bookies believe could lose his job next – albeit a less convincing but important one after Saturday’s 1-0 home win at Luton Town. Depending on who you ask, Ten Hag is struggling to implement a consistent style of play, making curious choices, or not taking his ideas to a completely skeptical dressing room.
Which of these interpretations is closest to the truth? Perhaps one way to tell is by just keeping your eyes on Ten Hag, watching closely how he performs on the touchline. Especially when he plays United next time he won’t be there.
He was shown a third yellow card this season after a bit of a harsh rematch with assistant referee Neil Davies for a late tackle yesterday and his one-match suspension for the club’s season will remain at Everton. It will continue after the final international break in 2023.
So what will United be missing at Goodison Park on November 26?
Ten Hag was left alone with the players and staff before the game. After storming into the stands and punching with mascot Fred The Red, he sat down in the dugout. But he sat for 40 seconds after the whistle to start the game.
The Dutchman immediately took up position on the edge of the technical area, which is where he usually spends any 90 minutes, although once there he wasn’t the most animated in numbers.
True to form, for much of the first half the ten hag stood with his hands in his pockets and occasionally those hands left those pockets to convey non-verbal instructions – an open palm urging Marcus Rashford to move more. A wave that calls for a ball to be played overhead.
But what else can a manager do when a match is on? There are really only two opportunities to get detailed instructions in the game – when talking to substitutes about to come and during stoppages of play.
Christian Eriksen’s injury created a good chance late in the first half. While Eriksen was still playing, Ten Hag first began to inform his replacement, Mason Mount, with all eyes on the field.
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As the change was made, Scott McTominay discussed United’s build-up game. He had time for a word with Alejandro Garnacho about taking the ball further to the left wing. All three players were engaged and listening intently, not giving the impression of an unhappy, uncertain dressing room.
Maybe because all three have entered the field. As Harry Maguire struggled with knocks early in the game, Ten Hague called on Raphael Varane to warm up. Varane, the 2018 World Cup winner, had an angry smile on his face as he rose from his seat wearing his orange bib.
Read what you want there. On the plus side, the player who won four Champions Leagues with his former club Real Madrid would prefer to start games rather than come on as a substitute – a more preferable interpretation than the alternative.
After the Manchester derby defeat at the end of last month, the ten-year-old has been curious about Varane’s move away, but it has been repeatedly discussed in press conferences by the United manager. Figures close to Varane, who did not want to be named to protect ties, accepted the decision was tactical and pointed out there was always a way back for a player under the Ten Hag. Gon confirms.
Decisions to drop players of Varane’s caliber are always questioned, but they are justified by results alone. It may have been the fastest ten Hags moved all day when the half-time whistle went against Luton, who had won just one of their 11 league games last season. Only Maguire beat him back out of the tunnel.
Ten Hag will not link up with Maguire and Varane in the Man United defence.
It was the last game of the second half for the United manager, and another brief ovation went unnoticed by the fans because the game had already started.
But from then on Ten Hag became more active.
Once in United’s defensive third, Luton was bent over and yelled at for possession. He kicked it into the box after a cheap corner.
The ten-year-old returned to his dugout seat briefly to talk to assistant Mitchell van der Gag, but quickly got to his feet and beat the gaze of the spectators behind him. After a concussion, he returned to the technical position.
It was from there that he saw the only goal of the game, though, and those hands were back in those pockets shortly after when Victor Lindelof hit what would become the winner. Only once did the players get back into their own for the game did he try to issue more instructions than the recent bark of Sergio Regillon.
Rasmus Højlud’s absence from the field with a suspected hamstring injury allowed for a more in-depth discussion.
At that stage, Ten Haag called a mental trust and sent fitness coach Charlie Owen to talk to Højlund’s replacement, Anthony Martial, while he discussed his options with van der Gag, coach Eric Ramsay and newly appointed head of sports medicine Gary O’Driscoll. .
It is this mental belief that has led United to Everton in the manager’s two weeks away. Ironically, Ten Hague returned to his technical position in favor of Ramsey in the final stages and called for a discussion centered around United’s form.
Then there was the yellow card.
At the end of the first half, ten Hags were protested by the same assistant, which led to the Luton support chanting “He’s going to cry in a minute”. Once he kept his composure, he couldn’t do it a second time.
The ten-year-old was lashing out at Davies minutes after the incident but was in a more glowing mood at his post-match press conference. “There’s a point where you have to accept decisions,” he said. “We have a very competent coaching staff. They will take over.”
It won’t be easy because United don’t look like a side that can easily beat anyone at the moment. This victory is more a result of avoiding a crisis than a performance to inspire confidence. The last time The Hague won any game outside the Carabao Cup by two clear goals was in May.
United’s last win was in April. Many still believe they can finish in the top four, one point clear of Newcastle at the top of the league and five points behind Tottenham, who were unbeaten a week ago.
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As before, different ways of looking at the same situation.
Beyond this difficult period and for those who want to see Ten Hague on the touchline at United’s home for many years, there are still reasons to believe it will happen. And those who don’t will now get their wish — at least for one game.
(Top photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images)