OPINION: With his back against the wall Ten Hag showed why INEOS should stick with him

When the wolves are circling in and are showing no signs of mercy, you have two options - fight or flight. On Saturday, Erik ten Hag chose to fight and by doing so, proved to INEOS why he deserves more time at the club.

Manchester United have admittedly looked uninspired and a team out of their depth this season. The second campaign of Ten Hag's tenure at Old Trafford was one loss away from being shambolic.

But after 48 hours of relentless speculation in the media over his future, (in which it was reported the club would sack the Dutchman no matter what happened at Wembley) Manchester United's players responded with a strong message - we are playing for our manager and we are going to win him the FA Cup. And they did. 

Ten Hag speaking to the media after United's FA Cup win
Ten Hag speaking to the media after United's FA Cup winFlashscore, AFP

They went to Wembley with last year's humbling at the hands of their city rivals firmly in their memories and outclassed Manchester City. Ten Hag led his side to an inspired performance and considering the circumstances, to one of the great wins in United's prestiged history.

For all the defeats, all the injury setbacks and all the media criticism, Ten Hag produced a managerial masterclass in his hour of need, outwitting the great Pep Guardiola.

Ten Hag swamped the midfield to numb City's creators

The former Ajax boss set his side up to be defensively compact and by opting with an extra man in midfield instead of a centre forward - United were able to frustrate City and prevent them from creating their usual magic.

Fundamental to that tactical success was Sofyan Amrabt, a man who just a few weeks ago was just making up the numbers in the United squad. The Moroccan (who starred at the 2022 World Cup) was brilliant at Wembley. He was always at the right place at the right time, nipping in ahead of onrushing attackers and making key blocks.

The other star of the midfield was teenager Kobbie Mainoo who (aside from scoring what turned out to be the winning goal with barely believable calmness) showed maturity well beyond his years in both defensive transitions and with the ball at his feet.

Every single player did their job off the ball and United looked by far the most organised and disciplined they had all season.

Where has Wembley Manchester United been? 

Which does begs the question - where has this been? And it is a fair one because as much as Ten Hag points to the club's unprecedented injury crisis, (which has seen 15 separate injuries in the centre-back position alone) he has also made mistakes.

Why for example did it take him to the final couple of weeks of the season to increase Amrabat's game time and add an extra body in a midfield that was getting overrun week in, week out? Why was he so persistent in playing Marcus Rahsford and Antony when it was evident they were having below-par seasons? And why did he not set his team up to be more compact if, like he said, he didn't have the players available to play his way? 

Being a Premier League manager is a learning curve even for the very best

The Dutch coach was exceptional in his first season but his second season has been a learning curve in the ruthless nature of the Premier League. If you don't have the players to play the system you want in England's top flight, then you have to be adaptable or you will pay the price. And Ten Hag may still pay the ultimate one - his job. 

However, every manager new to the Premier League makes mistakes and has to go through a similar process to what Ten Hag has. Mikel Arteta's first two seasons at Arsenal were less successful than the Dutchman's and Pep Guardiola didn't have it all his own way at first for Manchester City. The point is, that learning from mistakes is a key process in elite management.

Ten Hag's trophy record speaks for itself

If INEOS remove Ten Hag now, they will not only be going against the will of the majority of fans, they will be denying a man who has won two trophies in two seasons of continuing to build something and grow as a Premier League coach. 

United's extraordinary Wembley triumph felt like a pivotal moment under a manager who has won as many trophies as serial winner Jose Mourinho did at Old Trafford. In fact, Mourinho and Ten Hag are the most successful post-Ferguson managers in terms of silverware.

A defiant Ten Hag came out fighting about his managerial record in the FA Cup Final post-match press conference. 

"If they don't want me anymore -  I will go anywhere else and keep doing what I { have done} my whole managerial career - winning games and winning trophies."

It would not surprise supporters of Ten Hag if INEOS sack him and he goes to a far more stable club to achieve great things - making his biggest critics in the media red-faced. 

Ten Hag has developed a core group of players United can build a future around

And as with any process, setbacks are to be expected, Ten Hag isn't perfect and some of his players who have already outlived two managers, are far from perfect. But there is a core group of players, some who are experienced leaders and some who are exciting talents, who have a big future at the club and are 100% behind their manager.

Just look at the way Lisandro Martinez lifted Ten Hag in the air after the full-time whistle went at Wembley.

Players like Martinez, Mainoo and Alejandro Garnacho adore and believe in Ten Hag. Do INEOS really want to risk creating dressing room unrest which could bring back the toxicity and in-house fighting that has reigned supreme in recent years? 

INEOS have a big decision to make - stick or twist?

I can see a future under Ten Hag which doesn't end in disaster but instead builds towards greatness. With a proper footballing structure, Ten Hag can focus on the training ground as Dan Ashworth and Co. build him a squad more fitting with his ideals.

If there is no sign of improvement by around October, then by all means part ways with him. By then there might be more on the market than what is currently available. Mauricio Pochettino is the best of an underwhelming list of possible replacements and the word in the media is that Thomas Tuchel is the favourite to replace Ten Hag. That is far from inspiring. 

According to The Athletic, INEOS' end-of-season review will factor in Ten Hag's first two campaigns at the club before coming to a verdict on his future. If they weigh up everything that should be considered then I think there is an obvious and right course of action.

United fans are already on thin ice after years of poor decision-making by the Glazers, so it could be a long road to redemption for INEOS if they part ways with a popular manager. However, if they show patience with Ten Hag then there will be a positive mood around Old Trafford which could help to build momentum ahead of a critical season coming up. 

In a real-life game of blackjack, INEOS will be holding all the right cards if they choose to stick and not twist. 


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