For a tournament Erik ten Hag doesn’t really want to be in, the Europa League can provide the Manchester United manager with everything he needs from his first season in charge.
Had the Dutchman not switched jobs over the summer, he would have spent Wednesday preparing Ajax for their Champions League opener against Rangers in Amsterdam rather than sitting at a press conference in Carrington talking about Europe’s second-tier club competition. His main goal for his debut campaign at Old Trafford is to plan his way back to the Champions League, closely followed by ending the club’s five-year wait for silverware.
Reach and win the Europa League final in Budapest in May – easier said than done with teams like Arsenal and Roma also in the draw – and Ten Hag will finish his first season with his two main goals ticked off and his position well and truly secure. Man United insist their appointment of the 52-year-old is a long one, but no manager has survived since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 after missing out on the Champions League after being in charge for a full season.
Initially, Ten Hag will focus on finishing as high as possible in the Premier League, but he will know that the prize at the end of the Europa League – a trophy and an automatic place in the group stage of the Champions League next season if a top seed — is too good an opportunity to throw away. “We have to win every game and we want to win every tournament, so we have to take everything seriously,” he said on Wednesday. “That’s the mentality Manchester United need. Europe is always something special and you don’t know your opponents very well.”
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After a disastrous start to the season with defeats to Brighton and Brentford, United have built some momentum with four wins in a row. It’s also done with a regular team – Ten Hag made just one change to the games against Liverpool, Southampton, Leicester and Arsenal – but there will likely be plenty of rotation for Real Sociedad’s visit to Old Trafford on Thursday.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw are all being recalled, while Casemiro could get a first start after his £60m deal from Real Madrid over the summer.
Ten Hag has built a deeper squad after spending over £225million during the transfer window and early Europa League games offer the chance to give players some much-needed time on the pitch. “We don’t just have a team, we have a squad,” said Ten Hag, who will have to do without Anthony Martial as he recovers from an Achilles tendon injury. “If a team acts well, if players act well, I think we have more than 11 starting XI players.”
“The team is improving, it is getting better, but on the other hand, for players who are not on the team right now, we know they can come in at any time and do the job. And they might even be better than the players in it, but you’ll never know. I know you need more than 11 players to be successful.”
The bottom line is that, at least for now, the Europa League is the place to make changes, although Ten Hag’s priorities may very well have reversed by the time the run-in kicks in. Jose Mourinho also did not want to play in the Europa League when he took over from United in 2016 and made eight changes to his team before his first group game against Feyenoord. But towards the end of that season, when United fell behind in the race for the top four, Mourinho purposely rested players in the Premier League to keep them fresh for Europe. United have only won one of their last six league games and finished sixth, but crucially, they took home the Europa League trophy after beating Ajax 2-0 in the final to earn a return to the Champions League. to ensure.
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For Ten Hag, as for Mourinho, the Europa League is a means to an end. He will be happy to see the back of it after this season, but for eight months it is too important to ignore.
A resurgence of form – notably notable wins over Liverpool and Arsenal – has given fans hope that this could mark the beginning of a new era of success, but no one realistically expects his team to take on a serious title challenge this year. But first Ten Hag must get United back into the Champions League as soon as possible. If that happens by winning the Europa League, his first season will be considered a success no matter where they finish in the Premier League.