When Erik ten Hag was appointed Bayern Munich II head coach he quickly fell out with the team’s striker. Kevin Friesenbichler grew frustrated at being left out of the team until he was able to meet Ten Hag’s exacting standards.
The Dutchman, who will take charge of his first Manchester United game against Brighton on Sunday, had to make it very clear what he needed from his players in order for them to fit into his team and not disrupt the dressing room.
“We had some small differences of opinion – as player and coach – but after a couple of months it was good,” Friesenbichler said. “We had a very good relationship. If he wants to tell you something, if he wants to show you something tactical, he can tell it to everybody to understand perfectly exactly what he wants.”
Friesenbichler went on to have his best season as Bayern II finished top of the league in 2013-14, scoring 15 in 22 games under Ten Hag, and they almost reunited at Utrecht such was the bond between them.
Ten Hag has prioritised bringing in players who understand how he operates, whether it is Lisandro Martínez who played under him at Ajax, or Christian Eriksen and Tyrell Malacia, who were both schooled in the Netherlands. The trio will be important within the dressing room to help their teammates get up to speed.
They are the club’s only signings so far in this window and there is no doubt Ten Hag would like more. But he is a man who prides himself on improving individuals – it is the Ajax way. Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford were two of the players who did not reach their potential last season, struggling after the disappointment of the Euros to show their true selves in a turbulent campaign. Ten Hag will have to build them back up.
“Don’t look back, look forward,” Ten Hag says. “I can see the potential with many players in this squad and I am convinced we can develop them. First, develop the team and then the individuals will develop. Now you have to look forward because the past you cannot change; you can change the future.”
It will be an evolutionary process. United fans and players need to alleviate themselves of the burden previous success has put on the club. Ten Hag has proven himself to be someone who wants to play exciting, attacking football but he is also a pragmatist and knows United cannot go from scrapping for sixth spot to challenging for titles in the space of 12 months.
“You want to win and you want to win in a certain way; so proactive, brave, adventurous and I think that belongs to the culture of Manchester United and we want to bring it in,” he says. “But if you cannot win in a good way, in an entertaining way, you still have to win. That’s the mentality, attitude that we bring in.”
Fans are optimistic at Old Trafford but there will be a need for patience. United lost four and drew five at home last season, statistics that cannot be repeated if they are to move up the table. They will be required to battle in matches, at a ground that has lost its sense of trepidation and fear for opponents, if they want to make Old Trafford intimidating once more.
“Me, coaching staff, players, we have to do everything to bring success back on the pitch because everything starts on the pitch,” Ten Hag explains. “Every day at the training ground bring the maximum that you can and then you will develop as an individual and you will strengthen the team.”
Fans will play their part, too. “I think it’s clear that this stadium is meant to bring over a fight. I hope for good cooperation [from the fans],” Ten Hag says. “But we have to give the example on the pitch. If we have the right attitude – and by that I mean giving hard work and also being brave – then the fans will like it and it will bring the fight back.”
Even at elite level improvement is not instant, individuals need time to prosper in a changing work environment under a new coach with new ideas but Ten Hag is a man who has the right concepts to spot weaknesses and build players up to maximise potential.
“There will be setbacks and disappointments and we will have to deal with it,” he says. “I know that because that’s life – a sporting life. Every club, every team and every supporter has to deal with it. That’s the attitude we all need. When you show it and you have a good plan, in the end you will achieve success. I am 100% confident of that.”
United players and fans will have to put faith in Ten Hag’s plan being the right one, even if it takes time to bear fruit.