THE off-field news at Manchester United just keeps on coming. Last week the club officially announced Erik ten Hag as their new manager for 2022-23, the latest figure chosen to bring back the glory that once flowed as plentifully as ship canal water. This week, as David Moyes, the first figure selected post-Ferguson to perform this role, managed West Ham in their first European semi-final tie since the mid-1970s, Manchester United were playing a largely unimportant league game with Chelsea, and were lucky to escape that with even a single point. Meanwhile today it was announced that interim manager Ralf Rangnick would be managing the Austrian national team next season, while operating as a football consultant for United, the sort of scenario once reserved for overly ambitious football management computer games on the Commodore Amiga.
No Premier League team has played as many league games as Manchester United this season, almost as if they are sprinting morosely for the close season, despondently eager to file 2021-22 as another unfulfilled chapter in the post-Ferguson era. 2022-23 will the 30th anniversary of United’s first Premier League title and the 10th anniversary of their 13th and last one under Ferguson. Everyone knew replacing arguably the greatest manager in the sport’s history would be difficult, but this hard?
Replacing and upgrading managers can be a fiendish business and it’s one that Manchester United didn’t have to think about for almost 30 years. Certain clubs get singled out and even mocked for a willingness to change things as soon as it’s obvious that things aren’t working. It was, then, fitting that United faced Chelsea this midweek, because no club in Premier League history has upgraded their coaching options as well as the 2021 Champions League winners.
Thomas Tuchel’s arrival at Stamford Bridge midway through last season has become almost the gold standard of how to change managers without blinking. The German came in and melded a group of players into a Champions League winning outfit in a matter of weeks. It’s hard to believe now but there were plenty who thought that Rangnick could have the same impact at Manchester United this season. He was the interim but the players just weren’t that into him. Contrast that once again with Chelsea, who pulled a similar move in 2009 when they made the decision to replace Luiz Felipe Scolari with Guus Hiddink. Did that one work? Yes.
In fact, if we look at the impact of all new managers (10+ games) at the traditional Big Four clubs in the Premier League era then Hiddink’s points per game increase of +0.66 is the best switch ever made by a concerned boardroom. And Chelsea managers are in second and third place too, with the Antonio Conte era and Jose Mourinho’s first spell in charge of the club both seeing a ppg increase of more than 0.50. So while the sacking of club legend Frank Lampard last year provoked more anger than usual from Chelsea fans used to seeing a high turnover of managers, they absolutely didn’t direct any of that resentment at Tuchel, because they knew that a rapid improvement under a new coach is not uncommon.
Manchester United’s period of continued dismay since Ferguson retired in 2011 is often compared to Liverpool in the 1990s, two clubs who almost thought the glory days would never end and then had no constructive response when they did. So it’s interesting to see the late Gerard Houllier in fifth place on the graphic above. He was the Liverpool manager who finally broke the negative spell that had the club in its grip for much of the 1990s. Houllier’s assistant Phil Thompson, speaking in Simon Hughes’ excellent book Ring of Fire, knew what they had to do: “There was indiscipline at the club. Gérard and Roy had been dragged apart by the players who had too much power. Re-instilling the discipline was a big responsibility and it was going to be an arduous task.”
That was 1998, eight years since Liverpool had last been champions of England. Next May, as mentioned above, will be 10 years since Manchester United were champions of England. That’s unless ten Hag’s United win the Premier League in 2022-23 at his first attempt. Which almost certainly won’t happen, because the club’s squad – as highlighted by Rangnick – needs a huge overhaul. But if ten Hag can be a Houllier for United and make a decisive break with club’s glorious past, then they just might have a future to look forward to once more.