Why Erik ten Hag, Manchester United’s Europa League journey is too important to ignore

For a tournament that Erik ten Hag doesn’t really want to play in, the Europa League can offer the Manchester United manager everything he needs from his first season as a manager.

If the Dutchman hadn’t swapped jobs over the summer, he would have spent Wednesday preparing Ajax for their Champions League opener against Rangers in Amsterdam instead of speaking about Europe’s second-tier club competition at a press conference in Carrington. His main goal for his debut season at Old Trafford is to plot his way back to the Champions League, closely followed by ending the club’s five-year wait for silver.

Reach and then win the Europa League final in Budapest in May – easier said than done as teams like Arsenal and Roma are also drawn – and Ten Hag will end his first season with his two big goals and position well and truly safe . Man United insist the 52-year-old’s appointment is a long-term one, but no manager has survived since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down in 2013 after missing out on the Champions League after a full season.

Initially, Ten Hag will be focused on finishing as high up the Premier League table as possible, 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 next Champions League – will come Season — as 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 special and you don’t know your opponents that well.”

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After a disastrous start to the season with losses to Brighton and Brentford, United have built some momentum with four straight wins. It has also been done with a permanent side – Ten Hag have made just one change in 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 set to be recalled, while Casemiro could get a first start following his £60million transfer from Real Madrid in the summer.

Ten Hag have built a deeper squad after spending more than £225m during the transfer window and the early games in the Europa League offer a 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 be without Anthony Martial as he continues his recovery from an Achilles injury. “When a team plays well, when players play well, I think we have more than 11 players in the starting XI.”

“The team is improving, it’s getting better, but on the other hand we know that players who aren’t in the team now will always come in and do the job. And they might even be able to do it better than the players that are in it, but you’ll never know. I know you need more than 11 players to be successful.”

The conclusion is that the Europa League is the place to make changes, at least for now, although Ten Hag’s priorities may well have changed by the start of the run-in. Jose Mourinho also didn’t want to play in the Europa League when he took the job at United in 2016 and made eight changes to his team for his first group game against Feyenoord. But at the end of that season, with United falling behind in the race for the top four, Mourinho deliberately rested players in the Premier League to keep them fresh for Europe. United have won just one of their last six league games, finishing sixth, but most importantly they lifted the Europa League trophy after beating Ajax 2-0 in the final to secure a return to the Champions League.



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For Ten Hag, as for Mourinho, the Europa League is a means to an end. He’ll be happy to see the back of it after this season, but for eight months it’s too important to ignore.

A revival of form – notably flashy victories over Liverpool and Arsenal – has given fans hope that this could be the start of a new era of success, but nobody realistically expects their side to face a serious title challenge this year. But before that, Ten Hag needs to bring United back to the Champions League as soon as possible. If that is achieved by winning the Europa League, his first season will be considered a success regardless of where they end up in the Premier League.

https://www.espn.com/soccer/manchester-united-engman_utd/story/4740997/why-erik-ten-hagmanchester-uniteds-europa-league-journey-is-too-important-to-ignore Why Erik ten Hag, Manchester United’s Europa League journey is too important to ignore

Emma Bowman

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