On a sundrenched day at the University of California San Diego, Erik ten Hag is in urbane form as the Manchester United manager discusses how only Manchester City can talk of a title challenge, how player standards when he took over were too low and how Jadon Sancho is emanating a “good vibe”.
Ten Hag is bolstered by the agreement to sign Atalanta’s exciting 20-year-old forward Rasmus Højlund and has just finished a 90-minute training session before the squad fly to Las Vegas for the final match of United’s US tour, a loss to Borussia Dortmund at the Allegiant Stadium.
Top of the agenda is whether Ten Hag can improve on their third‑place finish last season, Carabao Cup triumph, and FA Cup final defeat. United have not been genuine championship contenders since Sir Alex Ferguson led his 2012‑13 vintage to the club’s 20th title.
“In pre-season we shouldn’t talk about that – no one in the Premier League can do that. Maybe City, because for the last six years they won the title five times,” Ten Hag says. “But any other club must first compete for the first four positions and make sure you are getting in the first four, then the first two. Then maybe you can see about getting yourself into such a position.”
United’s upturn under Ten Hag since he took over last summer is the product of an impressive package of high-end coaching, man‑management and the vision of what an elite club should be. That vision is about the relentless demand to be best in class, starting with United’s prize assets – their footballers.
“For all the players, you have to live the right life,” Ten Hag says. “Professional football is tough so in general our players can’t match the sensational [high] life [with] playing top football. Top football is tough nowadays, 60 games a year in club football, 10 international games. Seventy games means that every third or fourth day you have to match the highest physical levels. When you’re not living the right life, you get killed. What is important? Sleep, recovery, nutrition. Three key areas and when you don’t do this right, you have a problem. You can’t perform.”
Last week, Ten Hag said that in the coming campaign Marcus Rashford could emulate last season’s 30-goal success if he has the correct attitude. The Dutchman says: “When you ask me about Rashford, the same counts for Rapha Varane and every player. You will not reach the levels when you don’t do the things right. In general when I came in at Man United, the standards were not right.
“I demand the highest standards in sleep, recovery and nutrition because that makes the difference if you can perform every third or fourth day. That is the demand for every top player, so at Man United we are demanding the highest standards.”
Ten Hag might not nominate Sancho as an exemplar of the on-field consistency required, though he still has faith in a forward who could be deployed as a false nine given his ability to drop deep and run in behind, shown by his goal in the tour opener against Arsenal. In two seasons Sancho’s return is 12 goals and six assists from 79 appearances, so it seems fair to ask whether the coming campaign is make-or-break for the 23-year-old.
Ten Hag says: “He has the skills. He has to show consistently that he can make a huge contribution. When you are a front player, end product is the key. So make sure you are making the key actions, the final pass and get your goals in.
“The rest has to be good as well [pressing and attitude]. That is your foundation and then you meet all the other standards that we expect.”
Sancho missed a chunk of last season – from 22 October to 1 February – because of physical and mental challenges. Ten Hag says: “At this moment he is in a very good vibe. He decides how he is, how his mood and vibe is. He has a lot of energy, we have all seen that from the moment he came back. He wants to enjoy football and be successful.”
Sancho has struggled after being a major act at his previous club, Borussia Dortmund. “It’s the development,” Ten Hag says. “The Bundesliga is perfect preparation for the Premier League, [which is] tougher. I saw many games at Dortmund and Jadon is not such a different player as he is here.”
A few days before the win against Arsenal, Ten Hag removed the captaincy from Harry Maguire, awarding it to Bruno Fernandes. Although the club will listen to offers for Maguire (a £20m bid from West Ham has been dismissed), Ten Hag insists the defender can still have a future at the club – if the England international wishes.
“When you are at Man United you have to fight for your position, bring your skills and prove you are the best for the team and contribute the most. Didn’t I play him? But see his competition – it’s tough when you’re competing with Rapha Varane and Victor Lindelöf. That has nothing to do with the belief.
“I have often chosen a player ahead of Harry, that’s true. But that says nothing about me not believing in him. He has to show he is better for the team than Rapha or Victor – that’s a normal situation in top football.”
Last season, United beat City and Liverpool at home (2-1 each) but were trounced 6-3 and 7-0 away at two of their greatest rivals. There was, too, a 4–0 defeat at Brentford. All of these featured a concerning in-match collapse.
Ten Hag concedes the point while also arguing for his players: “There were also games where we bounced back. But it’s true, we proved we can beat anyone, all of the big teams in the world, but also had our bad days and have to be more consistent. We have to learn from that – but still it’s only three points.
“This season I’m sure there will be bad results coming and we have to deal with it. Of course avoid it but when it happens we [need] damage control for a period, then in a later stage of the game find a way back. That is definitely also one of our challenges this season.”
The subject of Højlund is off‑limits until the £64m (plus £8m add-ons) transfer is official, but Ten Hag offers a glimpse of why, initially, Tottenham’s Harry Kane was the No 1 target before the club ended their pursuit. “I don’t talk about players in other clubs,” he says.
“I have to respect the club and respect the player. Especially Harry Kane, I have huge respect because he is a great striker, one of the best ever. Maybe he can be the best striker ever in the Premier League.”
For Ten Hag and his team there are two more friendlies next weekend – against Lens and Athletic Club – before the season begins in earnest with Wolves’s visit to Old Trafford on 14 August. As ever with United, it will be a fascinating watch.