BANGKOK, Thailand — On the pitch, Erik ten Hag made a dream start as Manchester United manager with a 4-0 win over Liverpool on Tuesday night in Bangkok, but off the pitch he is already finding out just how tough a job it can be.
The real business of the Premier League doesn’t start for another month, but the Dutchman is discovering that even the off-season at a club like United can be a baptism of fire. His four days in Thailand were dominated by questions about his star player, Cristiano Ronaldo, and doubts about the club’s ability to strengthen the squad ahead of the new campaign.
If all of this has a familiar ring to it, that’s because we’ve been here before.
In 2013, new manager David Moyes arrived in the same part of southeast Asia for his first tour as United boss at the center of more transfer chaos and speculation that his key man, Wayne Rooney, wanted out. The similarities between this summer and that one nine years ago are striking.
Like Ten Hag, Moyes was asked to navigate a grueling trip half a world away in his first summer, while also trying to lead a recruitment drive to spearhead what was supposed to be a new era. Instead, Moyes arrived in Thailand facing questions about Rooney. The England striker initially made the trip only to leave soon afterwards, citing a hamstring injury. Speculation mounted that Rooney wasn’t happy at Old Trafford and wanted to move to Chelsea, and at his first news conference at Bangkok’s Rajamangala National Stadium, Moyes was immediately on the back foot.
“Unless I was speaking double Dutch last week, we said Wayne Rooney is not for sale,” said the Scot. “I think I’ve covered all of the things on Wayne. I’ve given you everything about his injury. What you must remember is that Manchester United is a football club and I’ve got a team, and this is not about any one individual.”
“In many ways, I’m only interested in the team. I will answer questions on Wayne, but some of them are just reverting back to things I’ve covered.”
Nearly a decade on, Ten Hag was sat in the same room on Monday afternoon saying the same thing at his first news conference of the summer — only this time, about Ronaldo. “We are planning with Cristiano Ronaldo for this season, so that’s it,” said the Dutchman. “I’m looking forward to working with him. He hasn’t told me this [that he wants to leave]. I have read it but what I say Cristiano is not for sale, Cristiano is in our plans and we want to have success together.”
While Moyes battled to keep one player at the club, he was also struggling to bring players in, something Ten Hag will be able to sympathise with. Moyes’ strategy was built around signing Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona, but despite a series of offers from United, the midfielder stayed put. There were doubts, too, about whether Fabregas actually wanted to move. Fast-forward nearly a decade, and there are suggestions that Ten Hag’s top target Frenkie de Jong — another midfielder from Barcelona — is also reluctant to join.
Moyes, too, went back to his former club Everton in a bid to prize away Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini while Ten Hag is keen to raid his previous employers for defender Lisandro Martinez, winger Antony and striker Brian Brobbey, the latter of whom was at Ajax prior to joining RB Leipzig last season.
Fellaini ended up being Moyes’ only signing that summer, with United eventually paying £27.5 million on deadline day rather than the £23.5m that would have been due had the deal been wrapped up by July 31. It was widely used as a disastrous summer for new chief executive Ed Woodward with Moyes later accepting a poor transfer window had left him fighting the early part of the season with one hand tied behind his back.
Like Woodward in 2013, this is Richard Arnold’s first summer as chief executive after taking over in February. Ten Hag has secured full-back Tyrell Malacia from Feyenoord and playmaker Christian Eriksen should follow, but speaking in Bangkok, he made it clear he needs more help.
“We know what we want and we not only want new players, we want the right new players,” he said. “Definitely we are searching for players in midfield, there we have a need and also in offense. We are still looking for players.”
“It’s going to be a long season but a season that is quite unusual due to the World Cup so you need to be prepared for this and need more players than in a normal season,” said Ten Hag.
One key difference for Ten Hag is that his reign has started with optimism after thrashing Liverpool, while Moyes had to suffer the indignity of losing 1-0 to the Singha All-Stars in his first game in charge.
Moyes was axed nine months later having never really got to grips with a job many still insisted he underestimated. Ten Hag is quickly finding out just how hard it can be, but for now there is at least hope he can succeed where Moyes failed.