Erik ten Hag was talking about dressing room discipline when the subject of Sir Alex Ferguson’s fabled hairdryer came up in Melbourne on Monday.
For a moment, the bald-headed Dutchman looked puzzled before breaking into a broad smile. ‘But I don’t need the hairdryer!’ grinned Ten Hag.
It was the one moment of levity in an otherwise serious yet engaging half-hour in the company of Manchester United’s new manager. Ten Hag is every bit the studious, demanding coach he is made out to be; a man who knows what he wants and has not come to United to fail.
So what makes him think that he can succeed where the likes of Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho have not?
Erik ten Hag is confident he can reverse Manchester United’s fortunes in the coming season
But the Dutchman insists there will be no need for a Sir Alex Ferguson style hairdryer
‘I must say I have a strong belief,’ the former Ajax coach replied. ‘This is a big challenge but, until now, everywhere I’ve been I’ve got the maximum out of my teams. This project is the most difficult, I realise that. I know it’s not an easy job. But I am here, so I am convinced I can do it.’
And what is the target for his first season? Ten Hag is too smart to talk about usurping Manchester City and Liverpool just yet. ‘The first target is to win every game. That has to be our approach at Man United.’
He was giving his first sit-down interview to the English media in an auditorium at AAMI Park — home to Melbourne Victory and rugby league’s Melbourne Storm — where United are training ahead of Tuesday’s friendly against Crystal Palace.
It sits alongside the iconic MCG and the Rod Laver Arena at the heart of this sports-mad city. Ten Hag is in his element here.
The 52-year-old has only been working with some of his new players for a couple of weeks, so he is making the most of the opportunity to make a big impression and hammer home the principles of his football philosophy.
There have been double training sessions in Bangkok and the less humid conditions of Australia’s mid-winter.
United’s new head coach sat down for a serious and engaging interview with English media
He has already got to work on hammering home the principles of his football philosophy
Ten Hag has been putting his United players through double training sessions in pre-season
‘This is why we started them quite early,’ said Ten Hag. ‘Fitness but also I wanted to bring in a certain way of playing. It won’t be done when we finish pre-season, but when we finish pre-season we have to get results. We want to play proactive, attacking football where it’s possible. We want to play good but if we don’t play good we still have to win.
‘I have a strategy. It’s a process, it takes time. But in the end we have to make sure from the outset there is a winning team.’
The process Ten Hag talks about will not be smooth. After United’s lowest-ever Premier League points total last season they are now stuck in the Europa League. He has inherited a divided dressing room and gifted players such as Marcus Rashford whose confidence looked shot; a team that his predecessor Ralf Rangnick said needs ‘open heart surgery’.
The early signs are promising: 4-0 and 4-1 wins over an under-cooked Liverpool and Melbourne.
TEN HAG ON…
I have set my demand. We want to play in a certain way. A top player can contribute and Ronaldo is an absolute top player in our squad
I’m quite severe. But I think it is on the players themselves to also be severe to each other
We have good centre halves and Harry is one of them. He’s proved it in the past but he has also to prove it in the present and in the future
THE UNITED JOB
I know it’s not an easy job. But I am here, so I am convinced I can do it
SIR ALEX FERGUSON
We had contact. What we said is private but It is fantastic to talk with Sir Alex about life, but especially about football
Jadon Sancho is beginning to look more like a £73million player and Anthony Martial has scored in both games. Ten Hag is working on their confidence and hopes the challenge of making the World Cup will be an incentive for the likes of Sancho, Martial and Rashford.
‘I think every player wants to be at the World Cup,’ he said. ‘The moment is not that often so the players will know that.
‘We are trying to bring the confidence back. You can see that it affects the players. Now we have to cheer them up and motivate them. That is one of the important points to get success: that you have self-belief as an individual and as a team.’
And discipline, of course. We’re back on that subject. Ten Hag will provide plenty of it but is happy for the players to police themselves too. ‘When you want to get results, you need a team,’ he said. ‘It is organisation, co-operation, and also you need discipline.
‘When there is no discipline (off the pitch), you will not find it on the pitch.
‘I’m quite severe on such issues. But I think it is on the players themselves to also be severe to each other, because if they want to achieve success they have to stick together. Sometimes there is a need for correction.
‘I will tell every player what I expect of them. I have high standards because you are here, you are playing for Manchester United, then you must bring it every day on the pitch. Why are you not acting to your standards? That is an expectation I have.’
Ten Hag isn’t averse to the odd half-time rant — ‘sometimes you have to use all the set of tools you have’ — and the mention of Ferguson’s hairdryer raises a question about whether the two men have spoken.
‘I had contact with him but what we spoke about is private,’ he says. ‘It is always fantastic to talk with Sir Alex about life, but especially about football.’
Ten Hag is talking the morning after United confirmed a £55.3m deal with Ajax for Argentina defender Lisandro Martinez.
The club are chasing Ajax winger Antony and Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong, who also played under Ten Hag at the Dutch club. New signing Christian Eriksen spent five years at Ajax and Tyrell Malacia came from Feyenoord.
A pattern is emerging but interestingly Ten Hag insists he would rather buy British if the transfer fees were not so high.
‘I would like to sign English players but there is only one criteria and that’s quality in combination with price,’ he said. ‘It looks like English players are quite expensive. It’s a fact you cannot deny. In the end, it’s about quality.’
At 5ft 9in, Martinez is small for a centre back, particularly one coming to English football for the first time. ‘He’s not the tallest but he is quite good in the air. I feel comfortable with that,’ said Ten Hag. ‘Of course, you need the right balance. He has good timing, that’s one of his capabilities.
Ten Hag is targeting a number of foreign recruits, including 5ft 9in defender Lisandro Martinez
United are also chasing Ajax winger Antony (left) and Barcelona star Frenkie de Jong
The club have reportedly reached an agreement to sign De Jong from Barcelona this summer
‘He also brings a South American aggressiveness, control and spirit to the team. I think it will fit really good to Manchester United and the way we play. I analysed United last year in the left part of the defence. He is left-footed and that is an advantage in possession and defending. We are bringing him in not to strengthen the squad, but the team.’
England’s Harry Maguire played — and struggled — on the left side of central defence last season so Martinez’s arrival is bound to raise questions over United’s £80m defender given that Raphael Varane and Victor Lindelof are also in contention.
Ten Hag has given Maguire a vote of confidence by keeping him as captain, but it comes with a warning that a starting place is not guaranteed.
‘I always see the captaincy as an issue that I dictate,’ said Ten Hag. ‘The team-building for me is important and I always talk about a group of leaders. The captain is a really important one and I’m happy with him. But there is also internal competition and that is what a club like Man United needs.
‘You cannot win with 11 players. We need a squad, especially this season with so many games.
‘We have good centre halves and Harry is one of them. He can play on the left side and on the right because he is right-footed. He has played 60 times for England. Harry is really impressive and I expect a lot from him.
‘He’s proved it in the past but he has also to prove it in the present and in the future. I will support him everywhere I can. In the end, he has to do it by himself, and he has the qualities to do it.’
Ten Hag has also warned Harry Maguire that his first-team place is not a given this season
Ten Hag was reluctant to discuss De Jong by name as protracted talks continue with Barcelona and the player over a £71m move.
United have other options, though, and the manager is ready to look elsewhere or stick with what he has if his No 1 target eludes him.
‘We are looking for a player who can play the holding midfield position but it has to be the right one. There are not many in that position capable of the level we demand.
‘We have a list and we will strike the moment the player is available. When we can’t find him, we have to deal with the players in our squad now and we will develop one in that position.’
The issue of Cristiano Ronaldo’s future at Old Trafford has hung over this tour in the glaring absence of United’s unsettled star. The club remain adamant that Ronaldo is staying next season, and Ten Hag went so far on Monday as to suggest that an option could be triggered to extend the 37-year-old player’s £500,000-a-week contract for another 12 months after that.
It seems an unlikely scenario given Ronaldo’s attempts to leave this summer. ‘I am well informed, he also has an option, no? So, yes (Ronaldo’s deal could be extended),’ said Ten Hag, while also admitting that the two men haven’t spoken since United came away on tour 10 days ago and there is still no indication of when Ronaldo will return to training.
United’s new head coach is making preparations to have Cristiano Ronaldo in his squad
A stickler for discipline, Ten Hag seemed remarkably relaxed about the situation with less than three weeks to go until the new season kicks off.
He claimed to be satisfied that Ronaldo is keeping himself fit and will be able to meet the demands of a high press next season.
‘I think Cristiano is capable of doing that. In his career he has shown everything,’ said Ten Hag.
‘The players dictate the way you play. Especially players who score goals because they are extremely important for a team. You construct your team around them.
‘But I have set my demand. We want to play in a certain way. A top player can contribute and Ronaldo is an absolute top player in our squad.
‘He is training. I think we all know Ronaldo is a top professional and he will be fit — that is the last concern I have.’