Photography: Dave Thompson/PA
When Erik ten Hag was appointed coach of Bayern Munich II, he quickly fell out with the team’s forward. Kevin Friesenbichler was frustrated at being left out of the team until he was able to meet Ten Hag’s exacting standards.
The Dutchman, who will be in charge of his first Manchester United game against Brighton on Sunday, had to make it very clear what he needed from his players so that they fit into his team and didn’t get in the way of the dressing room.
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“We had some minor differences of opinion – as a player and as a coach – but after a few months it was good,” Friesenbichler said. “We had a very good relationship. If he wants to tell you something, if he wants to show you something tactical, he can tell everyone to perfectly understand exactly what he wants.”
Friesenbichler had his best season when Bayern II finished top of the league in 2013-14, scoring 15 in 22 games under Ten Hag, and they almost met in Utrecht, such was the bond between them.
Ten Hag has prioritized bringing in players who understand how he operates, whether it’s Lisandro Martínez, who played with him at Ajax, or Christian Eriksen and Tyrell Malacia, who studied in the Netherlands. The trio will be important inside the locker room to help their teammates get up to speed.
They are the club’s only signings so far this window and there is no doubt that Ten Hag would like more. But he’s a man who prides himself on improving individuals – that’s the Ajax way. Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford were two of the players who didn’t live up to their potential last season, struggling after the Euro disappointment to show their true selves in a turbulent campaign. Ten Hag will have to build them back up.
“Don’t look back, look forward,” says Ten Hag. “I see the potential of many players in this squad and I am convinced that we can develop them. First develop the team, then the individuals will develop. Now you have to look forward because the past you cannot change; you can change the future.”
It will be an evolutionary process. United fans and players need to relieve themselves of the burden that previous success has placed on the club. Ten Hag has proven himself to be someone who wants to play exciting, attacking football, but he is also pragmatic and knows that United cannot go from a fight for sixth place to a title race in the space of 12 months.
“You want to win and you want to win in a certain way; so proactive, courageous, adventurous and I think that belongs to the Manchester United culture and we want to bring it,” he says. “But if you can’t win in a good way, in a fun way, you still have to win. That’s the mindset, the attitude that we bring.”
The fans are optimistic at Old Trafford, but there will be a need for patience. United lost four and drew five at home last season, statistics that cannot be repeated if they want to climb the table. They will be forced to fight in matches, on terrain that has lost their opponents’ sense of trepidation and fear, if they are to make Old Trafford intimidating once more.
“I, the coaching staff, the players, have to do everything to bring success back to the field, because it all starts on the field,” explains Ten Hag. “Every day at boot camp, bring as much as you can and then you will develop as an individual and strengthen the team.”
The fans will also do their part. “I think it’s clear that this stadium is to bring a fight. I hope good cooperation [from the fans]” says Ten Witch. “But we have to set an example on the field. If we have the right attitude – and by that I mean work hard and also be brave – the fans will like it and that will bring the fight back.”
Even at the elite level improvement is not instantaneous, individuals need time to thrive in a changing work environment under a new coach with fresh ideas but Ten Hag is a man who has the right concepts to spot weaknesses and develop players to maximize potential.
“There will be setbacks and disappointments and we will have to deal with that,” he says. “I know this because it’s life – a sporting life. Every club, every team and every fan has to deal with it. That’s the attitude we all need. When you show this and have a good plan, in the end you will achieve success. I am 100% confident in that.”
United players and fans will have to believe that Ten Hag’s plan is the right one, even if it takes time to bear fruit.