Football Features

Where Erik ten Hag ranks among Manchester United’s post-Ferguson managers

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 12:15, 26 May 2024

During a period of unprecedented success under Sir Alex Ferguson, the high standard at Manchester United meant that even a one-game losing streak was considered a crisis, according to influential captain Roy Keane.

Since the legendary manager stepped down in 2013, the Red Devils have gone through five permanent head coaches, and it could be a sixth heading into the 2024/25 season.

According to a Guardian report, the current coach, Erik ten Hag, will oversee his final match as Man Utd boss against neighbours and Premier League champions Manchester City at Wembley.

Even winning the FA Cup, which United did in resilient fashion, might not be enough for the Dutchman, who is the latest to be tasked with restoring the club to its former glory. Ten Hag probably knew change was coming as soon as Jim Ratcliffe, a minority shareholder at the club, took control of sporting operations earlier this year.

There is already speculation about who will succeed Ten Hag. However, following the club’s latest trophy success with a 2-1 win over City, there is a growing chorus to retain his services. It has been revealed that United will conduct a season review in the coming days, including evaluating Ten Hag’s performance, before deciding on the next steps for the record English league champions.

For supporters who have witnessed their club’s decade-long downfall, it feels like déjà vu. Interim boss Ralf Rangnick made it clear in April 2022 that he thought United needed significant work — open-heart surgery, as he described it — to help solve its problems.

The question is: Which manager has performed the best for Manchester United in their post-Ferguson era? Before concluding, we analyzed their performance based on points per game, win percentage, and transfer spending.

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Points per game

  • José Mourinho – 1.97
  • Erik ten Hag – 1.92
  • Louis van Gaal – 1.81
  • Ole Gunnar Solskjær – 1.79
  • David Moyes – 1.73
  • Ralf Rangnick – 1.45

As mentioned, Ten Hag may feel unfairly treated since he is only behind José Mourinho in terms of points accumulated per game. However, football is about more than just statistics; not all wins hold the same value, even though winning is the ultimate goal. Manchester United’s style of football hasn’t been the most thrilling to watch under Ten Hag, and the same could be said for his predecessors, including Louis van Gaal. Van Gaal tried to implement his unique philosophy, but it wasn’t the most attractive, even though former captain Wayne Rooney acknowledged Van Gaal’s efforts.

“I remember Louis van Gaal when he came in – I thought tactically he was the best I’ve worked with,” he said on the Stick to Football podcast. “It was the stuff off the pitch that was difficult for the players in how he worked, but I remember him coming in and saying he wants his centre forward to have 15, 20 touches a game – that’s exactly what [Erling] Haaland does. I always wanted to play and enjoy the game – and score goals.”

Rooney’s former teammate, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, began his stint on the Old Trafford hot seat on an interim basis. He posted some incredible wins, including away to Paris Saint-Germain. He’s slightly behind Van Gaal, with David Moyes and Rangnick bringing up the rear. Rangnick was never full-time and took charge of the fewest games (29), with Moyes second from last (51 matches).

Win percentage

  • Jose Mourinho – 58.33%
  • Erik ten Hag – 57.89%
  • Ole Gunnar Solskjær – 54.17%
  • David Moyes – 52.94%
  • Louis van Gaal – 52.43%
  • Ralf Rangnick – 37.93%

After Ferguson left, every full-time manager following him, except for Moyes, was able to complete at least one season. Despite this, Moyes had a respectable 52.94% win percentage, which is only surpassed by Solskjær (54.17%), Ten Hag (57.27%), and Mourinho (58.33%).

Solskjær managed in three different seasons, one more than Mourinho was offered, and Ten Hag reportedly will soon. Solskjaer and Mourinho both achieved runner-up finishes, with the much-travelled Portuguese tactician describing that achievement in glowing fashion.

“If I tell you, for example, that I consider one of the best jobs of my career was to finish second with Man United in the Premier League, you will say, ‘this guy is crazy,'” Mourinho said. “‘He won 25 titles and he is saying that a second position was one of his best achievements?'”

“I keep saying this because people don’t know what is going on behind the scenes. And sometimes we, in this side of the cameras, analyse things with a different perspective.”

Rangnick, unsurprisingly, finishes last in this regard. One can sympathize with the “godfather of gegenpressing” as he was brought in to do a stabilization job before moving upstairs. However, things changed with Ten Hag’s appointment, with the former Ajax manager feeling no need for the Austrian, who has since taken charge of his national team.

Transfer spend

  • Ole Gunnar Solskjær – £441m
  • Erik ten Hag – £411m
  • Jose Mourinho – £392m
  • Louis van Gaal – £259m
  • David Moyes – £65m

Okay, this is where things get contentious and complicated. In his farewell speech at Old Trafford, Ferguson famously asked fans to “stand by our new manager,” reminding them of the patience he was given during tough times. Since then, United have had five permanent managers who between them spent over £1.4 billion on transfers with no Premier League crown to show for it.

Rangnick’s tenure began weeks before the 2022 winter transfer window, and no business was conducted on his watch. The same cannot be said for those who came before him and Ten Hag since.

One of the main reasons for United’s struggles is the fragmented nature of their squad. The players were signed by different coaches for different purposes, resulting in a lack of a unified playing style. Some players are suited to a possession-based system, while others are better suited to a counter-attacking style, which creates a lack of cohesion.

It is possible to form a defensive lineup with players brought in by different managers: Diogo Dalot (Mourinho), Raphaël Varane (Solskjær), Lisandro Martínez (Ten Hag), and Luke Shaw (Van Gaal).

In terms of money spent, it really comes down to quality over quantity. Solskjær was the biggest spender, which is natural given that he spent the longest. Ten Hag is the other coach after Ferguson to have seen over £400m spent under his watch. Some of those purchases were complete eyebrow-raisers, such as the club’s record signing Antony, who played under Ten Hag at Dutch giants Ajax but has had a miserable stint in England.

Mourinho, who infamously spoke of a lack of financial backing, sits ahead of Van Gaal and Moyes. It’s difficult to determine who got more value for their money. When we look at the current United team, Bruno Fernandes is undoubtedly the club’s most important player. He joined during Solskjær’s tenure.

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Highest peak

Since their last championship, Manchester United has finished Premier League runners-up on two occasions: in 2017/18 under Mourinho, as mentioned earlier and three seasons later with Solskjær at the helm. Mourinho’s side, though, might as well have been playing in another league, with Manchester City picking up 19 more points, the season in which Pep Guardiola’s all-conquers became centurions.

It was the same two in 2020/21, but United ended up a respectable eight points behind their neighbours. During the period when Solskjær replaced Mourinho until the end of the 2020/21 season, it felt like a hopeful time in the post-Ferguson era. Despite some tough losses, such as a Europa League final on penalties, there was a sense of optimism that was later diminished. At least in the early stages of that spell, United played the adventurous and daring style of football they became known for.

Spring 2017 is a contender with United winning two major pieces of silverware under Mourinho, first the League Cup before winning United’s first-ever Europa League title. But, speaking painfully, the Red Devils have never truly had a sustained run during which their rivals envied their football. There hasn’t been a moment in the decade-plus since Ferguson left where supporters can point to and say that was United in every sense of the word.

Lowest low

Every managerial sacking was a low point. Moyes, Solskjær, and Mourinho were all dismissed while a campaign was ongoing. After the club’s final game, Van Gaal stepped away, while Rangnick saw out the remainder of the season he was parachuted into. Before this ongoing season, United’s lowest Premier League placement was seventh, the year following Ferguson’s retirement. They’ve gone one lower in what could turn out to be Ten Hag’s very own last dance.

Heading into the FA Cup final, the statistics make for grim reading for United’s faithful. Their club has lost 19 games and conceded 84 goals this season. The last time they lost 20 games in a campaign was in 1973-74 (22 losses), and the last time they conceded more than 84 goals was in 1963-64 (89 goals).

Despite a last-day 2-0 win at Brighton to conclude the 2023/24 season, Man Utd ended with a negative goal difference (57 scored, 58 conceded), something the Red Devils last managed in 1989-90 (-1 in both cases). It marks their worst performance since coming 13th under Alex Ferguson in 1990.

No matter how you look at it, this is easily the lowest point of the post-Ferguson era. Too many unwanted historical records were broken, and the football was painfully lethargic, with United’s defence exposed shamefully.

Best overall

It’s between Solskjær and Mourinho, with Ten Hag’s second year in charge pushing him out of contention.

Mourinho has the edge over his Norwegian rival, having accumulated three pieces of silverware. Only Van Gaal and Ten Hag can say they have won a trophy in the post-Ferguson era. The latter joined Mourinho with multiple trophies lifted. Mourinho also boasts the highest win percentage and points-per-game ratio. He’s also brought through some impactful players, such as Zlatan Ibrahimović, although the Paul Pogba experiment didn’t quite work out in the end.

As we’ve seen in his previous jobs and since his downfall can be attributed to getting in his own way. That is not to say Mourinho’s style of play was exceptional. As noted, no one has truly excelled in following Ferguson’s unparalleled legacy.

In truth, we are searching for the person who has performed the least poorly, and Mourinho, despite his faults, may have the best qualifications.

A pair of Dutchmen will compete for bronze. Van Gaal, who ironically warned Ten Hag from taking the job, had an idea of how Man Utd would play under him. The problem was that the squad he inherited needed an overhaul, and there was no time.

Ten Hag can present two champion’s medals to bolster his case. “Two trophies in two years is not bad,” he said after winning United’s 13th FA Cup. “Three finals in two years is not bad. I’m not satisfied with it. We have to do better.

“If they don’t want me, then I go somewhere else to win trophies because that is what I do.”

However, the stain of his second Premier League season cannot be erased. Ten Hag can rightfully point out that he never truly had a full squad available, with several players injured at any given time. However, this doesn’t excuse the performance on the field. Those injuries can also be attributed to coaching and training, for which Ten Hag is responsible.

If he is given a stay of execution, a potential bright future exists. Under his leadership, he has developed a strong nucleus of young, talented players such as Kobbie Mainoo, Rasmus Hojlund, and Alejandro Garnacho. If Luke Shaw, Lisandro Martínez, and Mason Mount get fit next season, and a few good signings are added while removing the troublesome deadwood, he will have a solid base to work from.

Worst overall

This is more straightforward. By virtue of circumstances, Moyes, whom Ferguson handpicked as his direct successor, takes home the gong. One could sympathise with his plight, being the first to defend Ferguson’s legacy and following him after nearly three unprecedented decades of success. However, some of his inglorious tenure rests on his shoulders, notably his isolation of the battle-tested winners who could have been his greatest allies. He wouldn’t last the season, and it didn’t help that he often downplayed United while propping up their rivals.

Rangnick is given a pass because he was essentially a caretaker, and not much was expected of him aside from guiding United back into calm waters. Ten Hag’s final season makes him a contender in some eyes, and it’s clear that 2023/24 was a tough year for United. However, there was enough good in his debut campaign to balance out the horrible second year.