The majority of Erik ten Hag’s recruits have been Dutch, with a third of the players signed having played under him previously – Michael Regan/Getty Images
If anyone doubted the level of control Erik ten Hag exerts at Manchester United, one need only take a look at the club’s dealings in the transfer market since the Dutchman took charge in May last year.
Sofyan Amrabat’s arrival on loan from Fiorentina means a third of the 12 main signings United have made over the past two summer windows, and last January, have played under Ten Hag previously.
Amrabat spent two seasons under Ten Hag at Utrecht and Lisandro Martinez, Antony and Andre Onana were all Ten Hag’s players at Ajax.
Had Ten Hag got his way last summer, they would have been joined at Old Trafford by another of their former Ajax team-mates, Frenkie de Jong, whose refusal to leave Barcelona eventually prompted United to turn instead to Casemiro.
Sofyan Amrabat arrived on loan from Fiorentina at the end of this transfer window – Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images
In fact, two thirds of those 12 arrivals are either Dutch or played in the Eredivisie – or both. Netherlands left back Tyrell Malacia was signed from Feyenoord, who finished third to Ten Hag’s Ajax in his final season there. Denmark midfielder Christian Eriksen was at Ajax for five years before leaving for Tottenham in 2013.
Veteran Dutch striker Wout Weghorst joined United on loan from Burnley in January just weeks after scoring twice in the Netherlands’ World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina in Qatar.
Even Mason Mount, the England midfielder United signed from Chelsea for £55 million in July, had a season on loan in the Netherlands with Vitesse in 2017-18, when he starred in a 3-2 win over Ten Hag’s Ajax in March 2018.
United fans will have watched the club scrambling to cobble the funds together to finance a loan deal for Amrabat – a player Ten Hag hoped to have signed permanently well before deadline day – and understandably curse the Glazers and the enduring struggles to raise substantial funds through sales to reinvest.
Yet United’s largely insular transfer policy under Ten Hag also raises all sorts of questions about the way the club is run, particularly in relation to the modern practices of leading Premier League rivals who have never allowed their manager to hold such sway over recruitment.
Ten Hag may go on to make a big success of things at Old Trafford and, if he does, he will have done so doing things very much the way he wants.
But, while United’s willingness to give Ten Hag such an influential voice on transfers illustrates their faith in the manager and his desire for control on the one hand, it also points towards both a lack of trust in their own judgement and perhaps the Dutchman’s own concerns about the club’s ability to identify and recruit the right players.
It was in January that Ten Hag gave an interview to Voetbal International in which he bluntly if not inaccurately said of United’s transfer history in the years before his arrival that “most purchases have been average”.
There have been recruitment reshuffles but the reality is many of the same faces who were there when Ed Woodward was executive vice-chairman remain in situ. Ten Hag knows this and it partly explains why he has taken such a decisive role on transfers.
Equally, there are inherent dangers in a club being so in thrall to a manager on recruitment. It is certainly doubtful that other clubs would have sanctioned the signing of a player for £85 million that had been valued at £55 million only a couple of months earlier but that is what United did with the purchase of Antony from Ajax on deadline day 12 months ago.
It may have pacified Ten Hag, for whom the pressure had grown after a torrid start to that season, but it was hardly an exercise in due diligence – particularly after United had made such a big play about how they would not be held to ransom – and the repercussions of that deal are still being felt.
Would United, for example, have been more comfortable bidding for the England striker Harry Kane had they not overspent so significantly on Antony? Might Amrabat have been brought in much earlier on a permanent deal rather than a frantic late loan? Or could other areas of the team also have been strengthened?
These are just some of the questions John Murtough, director of football at United, and the club’s hierarchy should be asking themselves.
Erik ten Hag with director of football John Murtough (right) – PA
Ten Hag was denied Cody Gakpo – yes, another Dutchman, who instead joined Liverpool in January, much to the United manager’s frustration. But that was not about the choice of player but a lack of funds to do the deal, hence the subsequent loan move for Weghorst.
No other manager of a “big seven” Premier League club over the past decade has been allowed to lean so heavily on recruiting from former teams, or his own country, as Ten Hag. By contrast, those clubs cast their net far and wide in search of the best talent. That does not mean Ten Hag’s narrow policy will not reap dividends but it is an unusual approach and has the feel of a club putting all their eggs in one basket.
Manchester City recruited heavily during Pep Guardiola’s first two summers, and first January window, as manager but the former Spain winger Nolito, once of Barcelona, was the only player with a direct link to the Catalan’s previous spells as manager at the Nou Camp and Bayern Munich and he lasted just a season at the Etihad Stadium. It was much the same with Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. Of his 11 major signings in his first three windows, none had played under him previously and just Joel Matip and Loris Karius had German links.
It was a similar story in Mikel Arteta and Eddie Howe’s first three windows as Arsenal and Newcastle manager respectively. None of Howe’s 10 signings had played for him previously or had any other previous links to the manager. Pablo Mari, whom Arteta knew from his time as assistant manager at Manchester City, was the only one of 13 recruits with any form of past link to the Spaniard.
United could come to thrive under Ten Hag and the likes of Onana and Amrabat are promising signings, while Martinez has impressed. But the club, having invested so singularly in the manager’s transfer vision, really need it to pay off.
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