Erik ten Hag talks about a new era, Ronaldo and more

MELBOURNE, Australia — Erik ten Hag is three weeks into his task of reviving Manchester United. The Dutchman, appointed manager this summer after the club ended last season with Ralf Rangnick as interim boss, has arrived to try to end a barren run at Old Trafford which has seen the club go nine years without a Premier League title and five years without a trophy of any kind.

His reign got off to a positive start after wins over Liverpool (4-0) and Melbourne Victory (4-1) during the preseason tour of Thailand and Australia, while he has also added three new players to his squad: defenders Tyrell Malacia and Lisandro Martinez, and midfielder Christian Eriksen.

Currently preparing his players for the new season, Ten Hag took a break from training in Melbourne to sit down with journalists, including from ESPN, to talk about why he took the job, his approach as a manager, Cristiano Ronaldo, Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong, and his hopes for his new era at Man United.

Preseason schedules: Man United to rack up over 20,000 miles
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ESPN: How have you found the tour so far?

Ten Hag: Good. I think we are now three weeks on our way, two with the full squad and I think we have done well. The players respond well to the demands we have, I have. I set some standards, we introduce how we play, and I’m satisfied with that.

ESPN: Some of the players say it’s been one of toughest preseasons they’ve experienced. Is the fitness level of the squad something you thought needed to be addressed?

Ten Hag: Yes, this is why we started them quite early, fitness, but also I wanted to bring in a certain way of playing. It won’t be done when we finish preseason, but when we finish preseason we have to get results.

ESPN: What is that certain way of playing?

Ten Hag: 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.

ESPN: Do you want Man United to play like your Ajax teams?

Ten Hag: I don’t think so. Our team will be different of course because it is different players, a different type of football, that is clear. There is also a direct bridge to Man United. Finally it is about the players you have because I cannot change the identification of a player.

ESPN: How have you tried to get your message across to the players?

Ten Hag: It’s quite a lot — a lot. Let’s say a package of tools you have as a coach. Of course, training sessions, you have meetings, collective and also individual, and they all have their own theme and topics. Also, it is a process and finally [it] has to stick together. It has to be a structure in the team, a platform for how we can win games.

ESPN: That will surely take time, so what do you think is a realistic target this season?

Ten Hag: The first target is to win every game, that has to be our approach, that belongs to Man United.

ESPN: How big a challenge is this job?

Ten Hag: It is a pleasure, that’s why I took it. I know it’s not an easy job but that gives me some joy and energy, together with all the people around to make a unified co-operation and that has to be the platform for success.

ESPN: What gives you the confidence that you can succeed where others have failed?

Ten Hag: I must say I have a strong belief. This is a big challenge but until now everywhere I’ve been I’ve got the maximum out of my teams, and this is the project that is the most difficult. I realise that, but I am here so I am convinced that I can do it.

ESPN: Last season was very disappointing for United. Have you seen that the confidence levels of the players have been affected?

Ten Hag: Yes, I think so. You can see that it affects the players. Now we have to cheer them up and motivate them. We are trying to bring the confidence back. That is one of the important points to get success, that you have self-belief as an individual and as a team.

ESPN: How can you fix it?

Ten Hag: That is also a process and you have certain tools that you can use, and you talk about individual talks for instance, the positive approach. But sometimes also you can be highly demanding because that is what we expect and we give them feedback. But if they don’t, why are you not acting to your standards? And that is the question I am asking to the players.

ESPN: Ralf Rangnick said it would take two or three transfer windows to catch up with Manchester City and Liverpool, do you agree?

Ten Hag: I will not make such a statement. I want to get the maximum out of the players who are now here and I think it belongs to Manchester United that you are always looking for better, for competition, because that is a tool to lift a player.

ESPN: The club have changed their structure recently and you’ve clearly had a big say in transfers. What have you made of the relationship with [football director] John Murtough and how the club operates in the transfer market?

Ten Hag: I think we cooperate well with John Murtough, really good communication. It’s the same I think with [CEO] Richard Arnold. I feel really comfortable with it.

ESPN: Is it fair to say that in your interview for the job you had strong views on the issues at the club and how you would fix them?

Ten Hag: I think I have a clear idea about strategy. The way I want to play football but also in the way a top football club has to be structured. We talked about those ideas and we agreed on the structures and the way we play football. Now we have to implement that.



Alejandro Moreno debates whether Lisandro Martinez will be a success at Manchester United.

ESPN: You’ve signed Lisandro Martinez from Ajax. Is he a player you see going straight into the team?

Ten Hag: I think the players who are there, we have the perspective immediately to contribute and also Martinez. We bring him in to not strengthen the squad, but the team.

ESPN: What made you want to sign him?

Ten Hag: I think we have good players there [in defence] but I think also that we need a squad that is also good and deep. But 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. And he also brings a South American [spirit]. Aggressiveness, control. He can bring spirit to the team and in cooperation with the fans. I think it will fit really good to Manchester United and the way we play.

ESPN: Martinez isn’t the tallest centre-back [5-foot-9]. You must be confident that won’t be an issue for him in English football?

Ten Hag: I think he’s not the tallest, but he is quite good in the air. I feel comfortable with that. Of course, you need the right balance. He has good timing — that’s one of his capabilities.

ESPN: You’ve signed Malacia and Martinez from the Netherlands, and Eriksen has played for Ajax; is there a strategy behind going for players who have played in the Netherlands?

Ten Hag: I would like to sign English players because I think there is only one criteria and that’s quality in combination with the price. It looks like English players are quite expensive [in transfer fee]. It’s a fact you cannot deny. In the end it’s about quality.

ESPN: You like to play with a high defensive line. Do you think Harry Maguire can play like that?

Ten Hag: I think so. And I think 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 a right-footed centre-half.

ESPN: Was there any debate for you about keeping Harry as captain or did you think about putting it to the players to vote?

Ten Hag: No. I always see the captaincy as an issue that I dictate. The team building for me is an important point and I always talk about a group of leaders. The captain is a really important one and I’m happy with him.

ESPN: The captain normally plays every game, so you must think he will be a first-choice player?

A: I think he is. He’s proved it in the past but he has also to prove it in the present time and in the future. He has played 60 times for England. Harry is really impressive and I expect a lot from 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 the Europa League, the Premier League and the World Cup so we need a full squad with high-quality players, not quantity.

Q: Harry had a difficult season. Do you hope that keeping him as captain will give him more confidence?

A: It can help. 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. He has showed it so often in the past.

Q: You’ve signed three players so far and there are other players United are after, like Frenkie de Jong. What are your expectations of that?

A: We are looking for a player who can play in 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. 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.

Q: If you can’t sign De Jong this summer, would you prefer to wait to get him at a later date or sign someone else now?

A: I will not react on a certain player. We need the right player. We have a list and we qualify that as the player who has the competences to play that role. We will strike the moment the player is available.



Craig Burley details Erik ten Hag’s position as he takes the helm at Manchester United.

Q: Have you spoken to Cristiano Ronaldo since you have been on tour?

A: The same status as last week in Bangkok. No change.

Q: Cristiano hasn’t done a preseason with you. Are you planning to start the season without him so he can catch up?

A: I think so, but 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.

Q: Can he play regularly for an Erik ten Hag team that likes to press from the front at the age of 37?

A: I think Cristiano is capable of doing that. In his career, he has shown everything.

Q: He won’t slow you down?

A: 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.

Q: It doesn’t look like Ronaldo will come out on tour, but will he be back in Manchester next week when the rest of the team are back?

A: I cannot tell you. Not yet.

Q: There’s a debate that to get the best out of Ronaldo, teams need to play with two up front. Would you accommodate him like that or will you not change from your usual 4-3-3?

A: 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.

Q: Ronaldo only has one year left on his contract. How difficult will it be to accommodate him when you know if he stays this summer it will only be for one more year?

A: I am well informed he also has an option, no?

Q: So he could stay beyond this season?

A: Yes, but to be honest, of course I have signed here for three years, but in football it’s short-term as well. We have to win from the start. So I don’t look that far ahead. 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.

Q: Do you feel there are a lot of goals in this squad, it was something they struggled with last season?

A: I think we have scoring players and the first two games already showed that.

Q: Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford are currently out of the England squad, but do you think this fresh start at Man United could be beneficial to them and increase their motivation to get back in?

A: I think so. I think every player wants to be at the World Cup, and it’s once in four years. The moment is not that often, so the players will know that. They have to have that in their minds and they will respond to that fact.

Q: Sancho showed glimpses of what he can do last season. Are you expecting a big season from him?

A: I have nothing with high expectations. I look to the player and I have a certain demand. And I will tell them, if they have capabilities, but you have to invest. It is not just in terms of Jadon, it is for every player. 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 every day on the pitch. That is an expectation I have.

Q: What kind of manager are you in the dressing room? Do you get angry, throw teacups?

A: No, but it is a tool that a coach has. Most of the times it will go in a normal behaviour way. Sometimes you have to use all the set of tools you have.

Q: Sir Alex Ferguson had the hairdryer; what is your version?

A: I don’t need the hairdryer!

Q: It looks like you’ve already brought a bit of fear in terms of your authority, players know they are going to have to behave and stay in line with you?

A: I think one of the issues when you want to get results, you need a team. It is organisation, cooperation, and also you need discipline. When there is no discipline around you will not find it on the pitch as well. Such issues, I’m quite severe. 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.

Q: Have you spoken to Sir Alex since you’ve been at the club?

A: Yes.

Q: What did he say?

A: I had contact with him, but what we spoke about is private.

Q: How much of a boost was it?

A: It is always fantastic to talk with Sir Alex about life, but especially about football.

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