Why Ten Hag, Man United’s Europa League journey is too important to ignore
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If the Dutchman hadn’t swapped jobs in the summer, he would have spent Wednesday preparing Ajax for their Champions League opener against Rangers in Amsterdam rather than sitting in a news conference at Carrington talking about Europe’s second-tier club competition. His main goal for his first campaign at Old Trafford was to get back into the Champions League. He also wants to end the five-year wait for silverware.
Reach, and then win, the Europa League final in Budapest in May — easier said than done with teams like Arsenal and Roma also in the draw — and Ten Hag will end his first season with his two major targets ticked off and his position well and truly secure. Man United insist that their appointment of the 52-year-old is a long-term one but no manager since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 has survived after missing out on the Champions League following a full season in charge.
Initially, Ten Hag’s focus will be on finishing as high up the Premier League table as possible, but he will know that the prize at the end of the Europa League — a trophy and an automatic place in next season’s Champions League group stage as a top seed — is too good an opportunity to throw away. He stated that “We must win every game and we want to win all tournaments, so we must take everything seriously.” Manchester United needs that mentality. Europe is always special and you don’t know your opponents as well. “
After a disastrous start to the season with defeats to Brighton and Brentford, United have built some momentum with four wins in a row. It’s been done with a settled team, too — Ten Hag has made just one change across the matches against Liverpool, Southampton, Leicester and Arsenal — but there’s likely to be plenty of rotation for Real Sociedad‘s visit to Old Trafford on Thursday.
Ten Hag has built a deeper squad after spending more than PS225m during the transfer window and the early games in the Europa League offer the chance to give players some much-needed time on the pitch. “We not only have a team, we have a squad,” said Ten Hag, who will be without Anthony Martial as he continues his recovery from an Achilles injury. “When a team is acting well, when players are acting well, I think we have more than 11 starting XI players. The team is improving, it’s becoming better, but we also know that players who aren’t currently in the team can come in at any time and do the job. They might even be able to do it better than the ones who are currently in the team, but that’s something you won’t know. I know that you need more than 11 players to be successful. The inference is that the Europa League is the place for making changes, but Ten Hag’s priorities may have changed by the time the runin begins. Jose Mourinho didn’t want to play in the Europa League either when he took the United job in 2016 and for his first group game against Feyenoord he made eight changes to his team. With United trailing in the race to the top four, Mourinho decided to rest players in the Premier League in order to keep them fresh for Europe. United finished sixth in their six league games, but they won the Europa League trophy, beating Ajax by 2-0 to secure a return to Champions League.
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For Ten Hag, just as it was for Mourinho, the Europa League is a means to an end. Although he will be happy to see it go after this season, it is too important not to ignore for the next eight months.
Fans are hopeful that this is the beginning of a new era. However, no one can realistically expect his team to challenge for the title this year. Ten Hag must get United back into Champions League as soon as possible. His first season will be considered successful regardless of their finish in the Premier League if they win the Europa League.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.