Football management is difficult – unless, of course, you’re a football writer. But on the contrary – if you’re a football manager, say – it’s one of the hardest jobs out there, which is why almost everyone who tries it fails somewhere along the line.
That is the case even if they finish at Manchester United, whose position in the game since the second world war is due to the achievements of two men: Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson. And what defines them, along with the others who have achieved even moderate success in the role – Tommy Docherty, Ron Atkinson, Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho, apart from Frank O’Farrell, Dave Sexton, David Moyes and Ole Gunnar Solskjær – it is charisma.
It’s not hard to understand why. In his early days at Old Trafford, even Ferguson could be heard crying “Big club, this”, and the exponential growth since then, almost a decade into the post-Ferguson years, means that charisma is an essential quality. for anyone hoping for success. .
If Erik ten Hag has any, it’s not immediately obvious. But as the saying goes: “Charisma is one man’s unbearable nausea,” the quality is often confused with loud and aggressive self-aggrandizement and represents the toxic masculinity that has made the world an emotionless place.
True charisma is different, depending on arrogance than loquaciousness. Busby spoke only when necessary, although Ferguson – although he inspired enthusiasm for oratoricals – like him, his influence was supported by the sensitivity of his pastors.
Ten Hag understands this too, recently explaining that Marcus Rashford’s improvement comes thanks to a happy working environment. But close relationships aren’t built overnight, so in the meantime he’ll need his football to provide him with his charisma.
This sounds reasonable. Which of us has not used our obsession with the game as a proxy for personality; found the elemental truth in the identity of our club, then we give it to ourselves? But Ten Hag still has a problem because, although his Ajax team played with bravery and victory, it is difficult to transfer that to “this series”.
Fortunately, he has indomitable self-confidence, or he is successfully influencing it. Not only does the 52-year-old wear pumps and no socks with his too-short suit trousers, but he has told friends that if he is allowed in the first two years, United will be organised. The Dutchman believes in his system so strongly that he prefers Scott McTominay to Casemiro as the latter needs time, after missing pre-season, to understand his role in it.
Instilling a similar mindset in his players is no easy task, however, as he is a squad expert at deploying collective cowardice to frustrate managers. For some time now, United have been good enough to get the best and they have also gone on long unbeaten runs. Their most obvious inadequacies are not technical but mental: a lack of precision, a lack of focus and a bottom level lower than the Dead Sea. They are weak.
Ten Hag achieved this almost immediately. “It was a good start,” he said after United lost to Brighton in the opening game of the season. “Then after we lower a level, fall down in faith … no need. They are good players, you have to take the self-belief.”
Brentford had an even worse performance, winning 4-0, but things have improved a lot, and after a surprise win over Liverpool in United’s next game, Ten Hag explained the difference in characteristic style: without rhetorical success but with honesty, clarity and passion. “We can talk about tactics but it’s about attitude,” he said. “Now, you see that we have an attitude on the field and there was communication, there was a fighting spirit and there was a team, and you can see what they can achieve because they can play fucking good football.”
This summer was always going to be a pivotal one for United. The club has now been owned by the Glazer family – bought without a penny of their own money and with the debt incurred loading their books – for the past 17 years, making around £1.6bn in interest and dividends. to pay – around £23m. in the last 12 months only.
First – and although this stopped United winning more than they did – Ferguson’s genius kept the titles coming. But since his resignation there has been a series of failed management appointments, each by a multi-dimensional variety of owners. And even if Moyes and Solskjær weren’t ready for the job and Van Gaal and Mourinho were past their best, Ten Hag are up and running. Therefore, if they let him down as well, the club becomes a pariah for any manager with options.
So, the arrival of only three new players before the season was a big problem, and even after the Brentford humiliation United were in the hunt for Adrien Rabiot and Marko Arnautovic – cheap compromises far below the required standard. So their replacements with Casemiro and Antony gave the squad a goal when it needed it most – although the haphazard way of doing things shows the sheer incompetence for which United are now famous.
It is not clear what prompted the change of plan. Perhaps it was the weak start and the Glazers’ fear of reduced dividends. Or perhaps Ten Hag informed them that if he quit citing his desire for a trust fund other than a football club, that trust fund would not be so generous immediately. But either way – and while Ten Hag now have a question to answer about Arnautovic’s history, to go alongside the one about their support for Marc Overmars – the sheer horror of Brentford’s display was a blessing in disguise. No longer needing to earn the political capital to make big changes, he could only make big changes, allowing Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw and Cristiano Ronaldo to choose a team in something close to his image.
On that point, it is instructive to consider the players who are recruited. Normally, a manager who is infatuated with those who already know Harry Redknapp seems to sign Niko Kranjcar for the 67th time, but the circumstances here are more forgiving. At Ajax, Ten Hag was not tasked with finding talent, so it makes sense that the people he will confirm are those he knows and, given United’s disgraceful state compared to Ajax’s fitness, they may well be those best players available to him. . Like all potential signings, they don’t know if they trust the club, but unlike other potential signings, they know they trust him.
Or, in other words, Ten Hag’s skills as a coach and as a man – what we might call his charisma – attracted players who might otherwise have passed away. The unique charisma of the printed face of the late Queen undoubtedly helped, but Christian Eriksen had options, Tyrell Malacia was about to join Lyon, Lisandro Martínez refused to face Arsenal despite the London factor, and Antony – understandably, United. he had a free run because he can be difficult – he knows that Ten Hag is “perfect” for him, so he went on strike to force him to move.
Given that Deich Cerc owes those players, for improving them, securing their financial future, or both, the least he can expect is their unwavering commitment – but there is more to it than that. Casemiro’s CV alone is testament to the strength of his personality, and when he left Real Madrid, Luka Modric called him “a real leader” and “the best bodyguard in the world”, while Toni Kroos wrote: “You the Turkish bath was a gym… and you only allow people to lie down when it’s time to sit up.”
Likewise, the motivational enthusiasm with which Eriksen fought back from his near-death experience, coupled with his Mensa-level football IQ, gives him the stature to lift those around him, and the confidence, aggression and enthusiasm of Malacia and Martínez already own. it made a huge difference. And because Ten Hag has chosen strong and bright characters, he now has strong, bright voices in the dressing room to convey his messages and confirm his methods, mitigating any lack of personal magnetism with players whose competitive charisma adds available to him.
In other words, charisma is the best kind of charisma that inspires others to find their own, and in that aspect, Ten Hag is set. But as Atkinson, Van Gaal and Mourinho can attest, ultimately, only one kind of charisma counts: the unrivaled charisma of sustained success.