For a tournament that Erik ten Hag doesn’t really want to take part in, the Europa League can offer the Manchester United manager everything he needs in his first season in charge.
If the Dutchman hadn’t changed jobs this summer, he would have spent Wednesday preparing Ajax for their Champions League opener against Rangers in Amsterdam rather than attend a press conference at Carrington to talk about Europe’s second-tier club competition. His main objective for his debut campaign at Old Trafford is to plot his way to the Champions League, closely followed by the end of the club’s five-year wait for silverware.
Reach, then win, the Europa League final in Budapest in May – easier said than done with the likes of Arsenal and Roma also in the draw – and Ten Hag will end his first season with his two main goals checked and its position well and truly secure. Man United insist the 52-year-old’s appointment is a long-term appointment, but no manager since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 has survived missing out on the Champions League after a full season in charge.
Initially, Ten Hag’s aim will be to finish as high as possible in the Premier League table, 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 as the 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 gathered momentum with four straight wins. It’s also been done with a stable squad – Ten Hag made just one change in games against Liverpool, Southampton, Leicester and Arsenal – but there’s likely to be plenty of turnover for Real Sociedad’s visit to Old Trafford on Thursday.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw are all set to be recalled while Casemiro could receive a first start after his £60m move from Real Madrid in the summer.
Ten Hag has built a deeper squad after splashing out over £225m during the transfer window and the early Europa League games offer the chance to give players much-needed time on the pitch. “We don’t just have a team, we have a team,” said Ten Hag, who will be without Anthony Martial as he continues his recovery from an Achilles tendon injury. “When a team is doing well, when the players are doing well, I think we have more than 11 starting players.”
“The team is improving, it is improving, but on the other hand, for the players who are not in the team now, we know that they can, at any time, come in and they will do the job. “And they can maybe even do that’s better than the players that are there but you’ll never know. I know you need more than 11 players to be successful.
The bottom line is that, for now at least, the Europa League is the perfect place to make changes, although Ten Hag’s priorities may well have shifted as the break-in begins. Jose Mourinho also didn’t want to play in the Europa League when he took the United job in 2016 and for his first group game against Feyenoord he made eight changes to his squad. But at the end of that season, with United falling behind in the race to the top four, Mourinho was deliberately resting Premier League players to keep them fresh for Europe. United have won just one of their last six league games and finished sixth, but most importantly they lifted the Europa League trophy after beating Ajax 2-0 in the final to secure a return to the League champions.
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For Ten Hag, as for Mourinho, the Europa League is a means to an end. He will gladly see the reverse after this season, but for eight months it is too important to ignore.
A resurgence in form – particularly eye-catching wins over Liverpool and Arsenal – has given fans hope it could be the start of a new era of success, but no one realistically expects his team is mounting a serious challenge for the title this year. But before all that, Ten Hag must get United back to the Champions League as soon as possible. If this is done by winning the Europa League, his debut season will be considered a success, regardless of his Premier League standings.