Inside Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United reprieve: Tuchel, De Zerbi and the key meetings

A board meeting in Monaco and a face-to-face in Ibiza bookended an astonishing four weeks where Erik ten Hag came back from the brink as Manchester United manager.

Having read media reports about INEOS figures speaking to various managerial candidates in the fortnight after his FA Cup win, Ten Hag finally heard for himself about his future on Tuesday.

The season review — carried out by Sir Dave Brailsford, Jason Wilcox and Jean-Claude Blanc on behalf of Sir Jim Ratcliffe, and which featured several conversations with potential successors, advancing to the stage of possible financials with Thomas Tuchel and Roberto De Zerbi — had ultimately led back to the man in situ.

The decision-makers had cut communication after passing on their congratulations to Ten Hag at Wembley on May 25, but 16 days later they called him to say that they would like him to continue in charge. That radio silence was intended to allow for objectivity in the INEOS process, but it also caused consternation for Ten Hag and meant the renewal of vows in this marriage of convenience required diplomacy.

The following day a delegation headed by Brailsford flew to meet Ten Hag in Ibiza to talk things through properly and attempt to engender mutual respect in a relationship that had been severely tested. Because INEOS had, indeed, given the most serious thought to making a change.

There was contrition for the way in which Ten Hag’s position had seemed so vulnerable and, crucially, discussions started on a new contract to affirm his status in the eyes of players and public, albeit exact details need to be ironed out.

People briefed on the talks say the frank conversation, with humility on both sides, allowed for a genuine resolution and renewed energy to back Ten Hag with the improved environment Ratcliffe spoke about during his first media engagements after taking control. Sources spoken to for this article did so on condition of anonymity in order to protect relationships.

The clarity means United can begin meaningful work on transfers, with targets wishing to know the identity of the manager. The priority is a central defender, holding midfielder, and striker, although cash is tight. Pre-season is due to start on July 8.

Inevitably, the substance of this reconciliation will be evidenced in actions during the summer and tested by results at the start of the season. Ten Hag must hope there is an echo of Sir Alex Ferguson escaping the sack by lifting the FA Cup in 1990 and going on to achieve success.

From an INEOS perspective, they are better informed of the managerial landscape, and while such intense succession-planning was not ideal, it was brought about by arriving in mid-season and the team’s form. While abnormal in football, a post-season evaluation is customary in other INEOS sports, and to be expected after a challenging campaign. Ten Hag is felt by those familiar with the process to be strong enough to withstand the scrutiny and emerge with the same determination.

This is the full story of how a remarkable few weeks unfolded.

Events kicked off in earnest in Monaco on Tuesday, May 14. It was there, in the haven of the super-rich where Ratcliffe resides, that club executives including Brailsford, interim chief executive Blanc, and technical director Wilcox gathered to discuss what to do about a team heading for their worst finish in Premier League history. The consensus that day was for Ten Hag to be relieved of his duties.

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De Zerbi was among those considered to replace Ten Hag (Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images)

It did not count as a final decision but marked the change in thinking of those in power at United. Previously, they had planned to keep Ten Hag into next season, to see if the manager could improve results with a different structure around him. But the 4-0 defeat away to Crystal Palace on May 6, following on from the chaotic penalty shootout win over Coventry City in the FA Cup semi-final, seemed to detonate that hope, deepening concerns within the hierarchy over coaching and tactical selections and indicating to them that rifts between certain players and Ten Hag might be beyond repair.

There was also developing tension between Ten Hag and the decision-makers over ways of working and a vision for the future. Ten Hag had a veto on transfers written into his contract, which appeared at odds with the structure INEOS aimed to implement, and he also wanted greater involvement in the medical department after a season that had been significantly hampered by injuries.

INEOS wanted the energy and positivity at Carrington to be better. Those in power believed a top manager should be able to inspire players as well as instil discipline. There was also a feeling that Ratcliffe, having shaken up the club since securing his 25 per cent investment on Christmas Eve, ultimately wished to have his own man in the dugout.

It can be revealed that in the days after the humiliation at Selhurst Park, executives even considered sacking Ten Hag before the Arsenal game on May 12. They debated whether installing an interim coach might deliver a bounce which could take them to the European places.

When Thursday of that week came and went, however, it was clear Ten Hag would stay on. Still, people at the club sensed Sunday’s game against Arsenal was a highly significant one for Ten Hag. The game went better than expected, ending in a narrow 1-0 defeat. Then followed the trip to Monaco where a decision was made to explore alternatives to Ten Hag. Incoming chief executive Omar Berrada and future sporting director Dan Ashworth were kept in the loop. Co-owner Joel Glazer was involved.

The next night Manchester United beat Newcastle to keep Ten Hag in charge for the game away to De Zerbi’s Brighton, which his team also won.

For the decision-makers though, the question remained whether United had a better chance to beat Manchester City in the FA Cup final with or without Ten Hag, given how qualifying for Europe via that route would be important to improving their ability to spend this summer. Agents were told of a £50 million net spend, due to the Premier League’s profitability and sustainability rules, although that figure rises now United are in the Europa League.

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Ten Hag made changes to his approach in the weeks before the cup final (Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Paul Scholes publicly floated the idea of Steve McClaren, who has known Brailsford for more than 10 years, stepping in as caretaker had Ratcliffe decided to remove Ten Hag before the season was out.

In early spring, United’s preference was to keep Ten Hag into the start of the 2024-25 season at least, given all the changes happening in the hierarchy. INEOS believed it would be beneficial if Ashworth, whose arrival from Newcastle is the subject of a legal dispute, was officially in place to help the selection process before hiring a new manager if they chose to. The cost of replacing Ten Hag, given his compensation, was also a significant factor given United’s financial position.

But as the weeks went on, the results and harmony deteriorated. Having been included in all preparations for the 2024-25 campaign, such as the tour to the United States and transfers, Ten Hag found himself left out of certain meetings after the 4-3 defeat by Chelsea on April 4.

Some discussions on recruitment happened without him, as did calls on who to retain and release, such as Raphael Varane. John Murtough’s departure from his role as football director on April 9 removed a key communication link for Ten Hag with the new hierarchy.

Murtough had grown to be at odds with the INEOS approach, and his exit allowed others at United to have direct relationships with Brailsford. Deputy football director Andy O’Boyle has become more prominent in the reshuffle, assisting on key tasks, and director of negotiations Matt Hargreaves has increased latitude with agents.

Wilcox began work at Carrington once Murtough left and, together with Brailsford, undertook an analysis of life at the training ground. Every member of the squad had a one-on-one meeting. Sources briefed on the matter say Ten Hag would have liked greater consultation to provide his insight on the club. Some speculate he had reticence over INEOS implementing a United game model.

People sensed INEOS were looking at proposing a reshaping of Ten Hag’s coaching team, with attention on Mitchell van der Gaag, having concluded that the atmosphere at Carrington needed lifting. However, Van der Gaag is clear in his own mind about his methods, while Ten Hag is loyal to his No 2 and greatly admires his work.

Some observers saw this as a sign Ten Hag might not bend to the wishes of INEOS as anticipated but, in other ways, he did adapt, becoming warmer with players and altering tactics in the final weeks.

Ten Hag likely sensed his future was under threat but he did not pursue alternative opportunities. There was strong interest from Ajax, and Bayern Munich placed him on their list to succeed Tuchel, but Ten Hag’s focus was on remaining at Old Trafford. Those aware of his views insist he wanted to succeed at the club.

Still, Ten Hag admitted United were enduring a “rubbish” campaign and Ratcliffe had said that failure to qualify for the Champions League would prompt a review on the manager.

This was the backdrop to INEOS figures beginning to look at permanent alternatives to Ten Hag before the season was over.

The last time United searched for a manager, executives used a codename: Project MUM (Manchester United Manager). The process, undertaken over several months during Ralf Rangnick’s time as interim manager, led to consideration of Tuchel and Mauricio Pochettino before ultimately ending at Ten Hag. A key factor persuading United was Ten Hag’s perceived over-performance relative to Ajax’s expenditure on wages and transfer fees.

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Murtough was a key link between Ten Hag and the hierarchy (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Manchester United via Getty Images)

The follow-up was christened Infinite MUM, in a nod to looking at prototype managers who would be lined up for years to come. The idea, led by Murtough and Dominic Jordan, the club’s director of data science, aimed to provide United with a modern system for selecting managers in the mould of Brighton and Liverpool.

Whether Ratcliffe paid much credence to Infinite MUM is unclear, but INEOS started out with a particular profile to target: young head coaches playing attractive football who would work in a structure. An ability to create a culture at the club was also high on the agenda, which is why Gareth Southgate had support from some within INEOS, given his work with England.

On this basis they also opened dialogue with Kieran McKenna’s representatives, and the man who has guided Ipswich to back-to-back promotions then met with United officials in the week before the FA Cup final. Ultimately McKenna signed a lucrative new contract with Ipswich, with some uncertainty over United’s course of action in the immediate aftermath of Wembley.

Some people briefed on the situation felt Chelsea’s decision to part ways with Pochettino on Tuesday, May 21 provoked United into accelerating their contingency planning, given the London club also explored the idea of making McKenna their new head coach before appointing Enzo Maresca.

The dominoes had been set off by De Zerbi’s departure from Brighton, with McKenna under consideration there, too. United officials felt they might miss out on a candidate or two if they waited until after the FA Cup final on May 25, a week after the end of the Premier League season.

Thomas Frank was another under consideration at Chelsea, for example. He met United on the Friday. In February Frank had dined with Ratcliffe, as well as Frank Lampard and Roy Hodgson, after the launch of the Grenadier Fusilier, an INEOS car, in London.

It was a week in which club executives went on a series of interviews to assess the credentials of would-be Ten Hag replacements. As he and the players prepared for Wembley, the people in power hit the speed-dating circuit. The list of names reads like a who’s who of managers, and included some surprises.

De Zerbi was initially sounded out that week. Marco Silva met face-to-face on Thursday, around the time Ten Hag was speaking to the media insisting he was planning for next season.

Pochettino, who Sir Alex Ferguson still champions, and Tuchel had meetings in London around the Wembley showpiece.

Jimmy Worrall, who founded networking group Leaders in Sport with Brailsford, was a facilitator to the meetings. Worrall has a long-standing relationship with Southgate.

Other names were discussed. There were talks over Ruben Amorim, who has won two titles with Sporting Lisbon, but he did not make the final reckoning. Roberto Martinez was also considered in the early stages.

INEOS weighed up two strands of thought: on the one hand looking into progressive coaches outperforming expectations at smaller clubs, on the other high-calibre established managers who would feel at ease in the Old Trafford dugout. Going for someone in the former category might prompt disappointment in fans but tap into a world-class talent on the way up; the latter would help to attract signings but also bring greater personal demands.

Several people involved held differing opinions over the best direction, and keeping Ten Hag was always a consistent option, even if that appeared unlikely at times.

On the eve of the FA Cup final, amid reports of Ten Hag’s demise whatever the result, Brailsford told several people that no final decision had been taken. Despite the flurry of activity, that vow was correct.

At that point there was every expectation of Ten Hag’s departure but the definitive call had not been made, with United wishing to first explore all options and take stock of events at Wembley as well as reflect on the season as a whole. Ratcliffe, Brailsford, Blanc and Wilcox wanted to step away from the emotion of Wembley to continue to make inquiries and come to an objective call on Ten Hag.

United’s season had been largely awful, falling out of their Champions League group in last place, and suffering 14 Premier League defeats, and recording a goal difference of minus one.

But the manner of United’s 2-1 win over City shifted the fan sentiment around Ten Hag. There had been an even split among supporters on his retention but beating Pep Guardiola’s team with a clear game plan sent his approval rating skywards, with 75 per cent backing Ten Hag in a poll conducted by The Athletic. Those numbers were replicated in other surveys.

Part of the wave of support came from the manner of United’s victory, built on a compact 4-2-4 featuring two false nines in Bruno Fernandes and Scott McTominay that Ten Hag had trialled in the wins over Newcastle and Brighton. Those results gained buy-in from players, and Ten Hag also showed them statistical breakdowns of United’s win over City at Old Trafford in the Premier League last season, and the defeat at Wembley the previous May (when United had better data for non-penalty expected goals), to encourage belief. He played them two inspirational videos to strike an emotional chord.

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The INEOS leadership including Ratcliffe and Brailsford ultimately decided to retain Ten Hag (Photo: Manchester United/Manchester United via Getty Images)

INEOS figures had always said they would ignore the noise to analyse performances clinically but people in the directors’ box reported a few anxious expressions, rather than pure happiness, at United claiming another piece of silverware. Those watching on sensed the pressure on the call over Ten Hag had become bigger.

The sight of Ferguson singing along to jubilant United chants was compelling and he went into the dressing room after the game to give his congratulations.

Ten Hag fielded questions on his future from journalists, relaxed with his team and staff at the Marriott Hotel that night where he delivered a speech to the room, and then went on holiday without having heard from those in power.

That the season review did not include input from one of the most crucial witnesses gave some a sign of which way INEOS were intending to go, though there was a counterargument that including Ten Hag would have been akin to a student marking his own homework.

Ratcliffe and Brailsford deliberated the options during a retreat to a boat off the coast of Finland in the week after Wembley, and continued interviews with prospective candidates.

Pochettino fell out of the thinking during the first week of June, but Tuchel made a real impression. He is said by those familiar with the process to have come across incredibly well in person, eventually leading to United discussing possible financial terms during a meeting in Monaco two weeks after the FA Cup final. But no agreement was reached and Tuchel stepped out of the process. He is now expected to take a break from football.

United representatives then also spoke about salary expectations with De Zerbi but the fit did not seem right. Ultimately, INEOS weighed up whether any of these candidates would be an improvement on Ten Hag and they came back round to their original intention before that board meeting in Monaco.

The Premier League and Champions League campaigns were far below expectations but, in the eyes of many at the club, there was mitigation, most specifically in the record levels of injury absences. INEOS are also said to have respected Ten Hag’s general resilience and work to bring through Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo.

Winning the Carabao Cup and FA Cup in two seasons, after United went six years without a trophy, is another big positive. Ten Hag now has the chance to see if he can add more significant silverware.

(Top image: Eamonn Dalton for The Athletic; images: Getty Images)

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