Lack of alternatives could lead to Erik ten Hag staying at Manchester United

<img class="caas-img has-preview" alt="Erik ten Hag alongside Mason Mount during Manchester United training this week.Photograph: Matthew Peters/Manchester United/Getty Images” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/i9fkDe44GecpAy.tQ3OlgA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/51bb845160dbc3844f963ff3badcc02d” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/i9fkDe44GecpAy.tQ3OlgA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/51bb845160dbc3844f963ff3badcc02d”>

Wanted: an elite manager with turning water into wine on his CV, a miracle worker who can somehow transform Manchester United as the club’s lost decade heads for its nadir.

Ten years after David Moyes was sacked 34 games into a six-year contract as United moved towards their lowest Premier League finish of seventh place with 64 points, England’s record 20-time champions will set a new low under Erik ten Hag. Even if – and it’s a big if – the Dutchman’s team beat Arsenal, Newcastle and Brighton in their last three Premier League matches, 63 points is the most they will end this annus horribilis on.

Related: ‘We’re so far away from the title’: Cole and Yorke voice dismay over United

The water-to-wine quip illustrates how hard a task it is for any manager to try to right the listing United tanker. Ten Hag believes he can but there are widespread doubts he will remain in place beyond a campaign that threatens to implode. As Arsenal arrive at Old Trafford for Sunday’s late kickoff, Ten Hag has overseen one victory in the past eight league matches and that a 4-2 victory over the now relegated Sheffield United.

As Sir Jim Ratcliffe continues his structural review of the club, high-ranking executives are being removed. Richard Arnold (chief executive), John Murtough (football director), Cliff Baty (chief financial officer) and Patrick Stewart (interim chief executive) have departed those roles and while Darren Fletcher remains at the club he has been superseded as technical director by Jason Wilcox.

Still there remains a glimmer of hope for Ten Hag. The shrewd Ratcliffe and his lieutenants Sir Dave Brailsford and Jean-Claude Blanc (the acting chief executive until Omar Berrada arrives) may decide that Ten Hag is one key employee who should stay. The mitigation of a season blighted by more than 60 injuries and illnesses, disruption caused by the manager’s dispute with Jadon Sancho and the more serious issues related to Mason Greenwood and Antony, plus the lack of a best-in-class structure, are factors the club’s new hierarchy will address.

But this may be after Ratcliffe and his advisers have considered the alternatives to Ten Hag and judge that his two years’ experience in this apparently sisyphean task give him a valuable edge on any potential replacement.

The decision will be made in the close season after the FA Cup final against Manchester City on 25 May. That comes one day short of the 25th anniversary of United sealing the first treble of league, Cup and European Cup by an English side with their 2-1 triumph over Bayern Munich. The gulf between Sir Alex Ferguson’s immortal vintage and the current struggling team shows how far United have slid.

The challenge for Ten Hag – or AN Other – has always been to launch the team back towards the stratospheric standards set by Roy Keane, Peter Schmeichel, David Beckham et al.

If Ratcliffe could appoint any manager Ten Hag would surely be history in the summer as the billionaire seeks a candidate to engineer what has eluded Ten Hag (so far), Ole Gunnar Solskjær, José Mourinho, Louis van Gaal and David Moyes since Ferguson’s May 2013 retirement: making Manchester United Manchester United again. There are three fantasy appointees that Ratcliffe can never hope to hire: Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp.

Ancelotti would not countenance leaving Real Madrid after signing a two-year contract extension in December, leading the Madridistas to his second La Liga and a tilt at a sixth Champions League title (as a coach) in the Wembley final against Borussia Dortmund on 1 June.

The genteel Ancelotti would never phrase it this way but the truth is that Spain’s most garlanded club are not the mess United present. Liverpool’s Klopp and Manchester City’s Guardiola are not feasible candidates for this same reason and, of course, their deep bond with two of United’s fiercest rivals.

The prospects marked “possibles” are headed by Thomas Tuchel, the outgoing Bayern Munich No 1, and include Gareth Southgate, who may be available after England’s Euro 2024 campaign. Then there is Graham Potter, who is looking for work after Todd Boehly ended his Chelsea tenure 13 months ago.

Of this crop Tuchel is the obvious candidate given a résumé that sparkles with the 2021 Champions League triumph as Chelsea manager. That defeat of Guardiola’s City was particularly impressive due to their subsequent domestic domination as well as last year’s European victory. But might Bayern’s last-minute implosion against Real in Wednesday’s semi-final second leg and the German’s reputation for causing internal tensions count against him?

Southgate is admired by Ratcliffe and Brailsford for transforming England from serial disappointments to World Cup semi-finalists and European Championship finalists. His calm persona would be vital to survive in the febrile, relentless life of a United manager.

A cautious playing mode, though, is not in the United tradition and Ratcliffe may worry this would put Southgate on the back foot from the start, a first dour display would only spark the barracking.

Potter’s pass-and-move style casts him as the anti-Southgate and his work elevating Brighton to an upper-ranked Premier League club is a bright calling card, particularly as for nearly all of his three-year tenure he worked alongside Dan Ashworth, United’s incoming sporting director. Against him would be the 11 defeats that led to Potter’s sacking after only 31 games at Chelsea – not the greatest evidence of an ability to pilot a club of United’s standing.

So while Potter, Tuchel and Southgate are valid candidates, Ratcliffe and his executives may well decide, for all the shortcomings this season, to stick with Ten Hag rather than twist. Better the red devil you know.

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