The Dutchman closed the gap with Pep Guardiola’s side in his first season in charge, but City still won the title for the fifth time in six years on their way to completing the treble. Speaking to English media in San Diego on United’s tour of the United States, Ten Hag didn’t shy away from accepting that his ultimate aim at Old Trafford is to win the Premier League.
But in an extensive interview, he said City’s dominance of English football means only they are qualified to talk about lifting the title while also touching on other key topics ahead of the new campaign — including his decision to strip Harry Maguire of the captaincy, Jadon Sancho‘s form and what other transfer activity fans can expect before the deadline.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and content.
Q: What did you do after the FA Cup final? Was it a time to reflect or to look ahead?
Ten Hag: Yes, of course that was a time for me to reflect. You do it every day, but when you have time off because the next game is not in three or four days, you have a little bit more time to do a proper reflection on the season.
What was the biggest thing you learned from your first season in charge?
As you say, as a manager you always have to reflect and from that point on, you make your improvements. To tell you in a split second what was the important thing? We are making a thousand decisions a day, and I always do my best to find a construction that is based on a [strong] argument. In that perspective, you think a lot before you make a decision.
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The gap between Man United and Man City was 35 points when you arrived, and last season it was down to 14. With the signings you’ve made, how confident are you that you can close that gap even further and maybe push for the title?
I think we shouldn’t talk about that in preseason. I think no one in the Premier League can do that, [except for] maybe City. They can do that because in the past six years, they won the title five times. So they can talk about that, but any other club must first compete for the first four positions, and make sure you are getting in the first four. Then after that, maybe you can see about getting yourself into such a position, but you don’t talk about that achievement.
I think we have proven we can beat [Man City], but you have to do it every day, and at this moment, we have a way to go. City is also winning their games much more easily than we did, but I actually don’t want to talk about them because it sounds negative and it’s not the way I meant it.
I want to talk about our project. I want to talk about how we improve — I think the improvements last year and the results were quite obvious, but also in the performances it was quite obvious that we could beat the big opponents, including City. In the three games [against them], you saw absolutely that we increased the levels against them.
We have a competition with seven or eight clubs in the Premier League, across Europe [it’s] even more teams, so we have to work on our way of play and improve our performance. It has to be optimum.
You made progress last season, but there were still some heavy defeats to Manchester City, Liverpool and Brentford. Is your biggest challenge making sure this team is more resilient when things go wrong?
I think 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. Also we had our bad days, and we have to be more consistent.
Your bad days can be pretty bad, though … like the 7-0 defeat at Liverpool?
It’s the truth, but we have to learn from that. But still, it’s only three points and if the team’s character is strong, and every time we bounce back after such a bad result — not just a bad result, but a bad performance. … Also this season I’m sure there will be bad results, and we’ll have to deal with it.
Of course, we want to avoid it, but when it happens, we can then do damage control for a period, deal with difficult moments then, in a later stage of the game, find a way back. That is definitely also one of our challenges this season.
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Raphael Varane speaks about Erik ten Hag’s decision to strip Harry Maguire of Man United’s captaincy.
You made some big calls this summer, allowing David De Gea to leave and stripping Harry Maguire of the captaincy. Do you find those big decisions hard to make?
It’s the difference between a manager and a human being. In the end, top football is about getting results, and then you have to make decisions, but you have to do it in an honest and transparent way. The club appointed me to take such decisions in these moments, but to also communicate those decisions and do it in a straight and honest way. That is what I’m always looking to do. I always try to do it in that way.
On Maguire specifically, did you take the captaincy off him because he isn’t a regular in the team, or was there something else behind it?
It’s nothing against Harry, it was to the advantage of the team, but I will not say that Harry isn’t part of this group. He has to fight for his position. He is a very good centre-back, and I believe in the potential of Harry Maguire. It’s just that he has to prove himself and fight his way into the team. It’s up to him, and I think he can do it.
You say you believe in Harry, but the evidence suggests otherwise because he doesn’t play. Does he need to move on to play regularly?
Didn’t I play him? Look at his competition. It’s tough when you’re competing with Raphael Varane and Victor Lindelof. It’s huge competition, but 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.
Maguire has to show he is better for the team than Varane or Lindelof. I think that’s a normal situation in top football.
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So the decision rests with Harry? To decide whether he wants to stay and fight for his place or leave?
Exactly. When you are at Man United, you have to fight for your position, bring your skills, prove you are the best for the team and contribute the most.
Rashford, Sancho and more
What kind of football can United fans expect from you next season?
I think it’s not so much different from last season, but we want to do it better. In every moment of the game, we have to improve. What fits this team is transition, both ways. When you want to have good attacking transitions, you need very good pressing. That’s key and so we work a lot on that, on moments where we are compact.
From compactness, we press the opponent and that can be at different levels on the pitch. But we have to be proactive with our defending, and once we have the ball we have to keep the ball, or go on a transition.
Was that in your mind when you looked at what it would take to sign Harry Kane or other strikers this summer?
I don’t talk about players in other clubs. I have to respect the club and respect the player. I have huge respect for Kane because he is a great striker, one of the best ever. Maybe he can even be the best striker ever in the Premier League.
You’ve mentioned Marcus Rashford needs to have the “right attitude” in order to keep scoring goals. What did you mean by that?
It’s a general statement. All players have to live the right life. Professional football is tough, so in general our players can’t match the sensational life and play top football. Top football is tough nowadays: you’re looking at 60 games a year in club football, plus 10 international games. It 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 — these are three key areas and when you don’t do this right, you have a problem. You can’t perform. So when you ask me about Rashford, the same counts for Varane and every player. You will not reach the levels when you don’t do the things right.
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Is there a concern that Rashford or any other player has a lifestyle problem?
I think in general when I came in at Man United, the standards were not right. That’s true. I demand the highest standards in sleep, recovery and nutrition because that makes the difference as to whether or not you can perform every third or fourth day. That is the demand for every top football player, so at Man United we are demanding the highest standards.
What was the problem with those standards? What did you see that you didn’t like?
It was about recovery, sleep and nutrition. And we had to improve.
Was changing the culture here your biggest challenge in your first season?
The biggest is to get the [right] results, but to get that you need the right culture, you need the right players, you need the right way of playing so you have to get a lot of things right and not only one.
Jadon Sancho has been at Man United for two seasons now. You obviously believe in him, but is this season almost “make or break” for him?
He has the skills, so for him it’s also the same [as it is for Maguire]. He has to show consistently that he can make a huge contribution. When you are a forward, that end product is the key, so make sure you are making the key actions, the final pass and get your goals in, because that’s why he is here. The rest has to be good as well. That is your foundation and then you meet all the other standards that we expect from a player. On a high level every third or fourth day.
Do you think Sancho has overcome the problems that led to him taking some time out last season?
In 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 all saw it from the moment he came back. He wants to enjoy football and be successful.
He looks a very different player to the one we saw at Borussia Dortmund in terms of taking players on and the skills he’s displaying. Is it a confidence issue, or is it just because he’s playing at a higher level now?
That’s exactly it. It’s the development. The Bundesliga is perfect preparation for the Premier League. [The Premier League] is tougher. I think your vision is a little bit grey. I saw many games at Dortmund, and Sancho is not such a different player in Dortmund as he is here. But also for him, he has to get more consistency in his performances, and he has to do it at a higher level.
Shaping the United squad
When it comes to transfers, how much influence do you have on departures?
I’m totally involved, but you have seen all the investments other clubs are making, and you can’t compete in the Premier League for the top four when you don’t invest in your squad. You see the market, but I can do nothing for it or anyone else at United. It’s a choice; if you want to compete, you have to invest.
You’ve signed goalkeeper Andre Onana following the summer exit of David de Gea. How good is your new No. 1, particularly with the ball at his feet?
I think he proved it over last season, but now he’s coming to a new club and he has to prove it here. He has the potential and the skills in that aspect to improve our game, and that will definitely help our team.
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I said everything in New York [when I said it was a club decision]. I don’t want to answer the question anymore because it’s not different. I’ve shared my opinion and I don’t want to repeat my opinion.
You’ve spent close to £400m in transfer fees for new players since becoming United manager. Does that increase the pressure on you to be successful here?
It can’t, because all the teams are investing such huge amounts of money. In comparison with the others we are not doing more or less. They all invested a lot in their teams.
I’m not focusing on this issue because it’s totally unattractive for me. I have to think about my way of play and how I improve my team. I will fight for players I want to bring in, and I will demand from the club to get the right players in. When we have that, we have to get results.
United fans demand that this club is winning Premier League titles. Do you think you’ve had enough support from the club, financial or otherwise, to make that happen?
I think we are unified in this club. We all work for the same objectives. Everyone is supporting each other to meet the high expectations from the fans from this club and all the shareholders from this club.
You’ve said in the past that the club signed too many “average” players and paid the price for it. Do you expect there will be more outgoings in the next few weeks so you can shape the squad more in the way you want?
I don’t want to make that comparison. Football evolves. A club evolves and there come moments where you renew your squad, but you have to do it in a strategic way. It doesn’t say that the players didn’t contribute to Man United, because it would be really disrespectful if you approach it in that way.
You mention standards a lot, and there have been changes behind the scenes at United since you came in. It sometimes feels from the outside that United are playing catch-up with Man City, Liverpool and Ajax in that regard?
I don’t know what Liverpool or Man City are doing, but Ajax I knew. There are also many conditions that are very well-organised at Manchester United, but yes, in certain areas we were short. But in other things, for instance Carrington is a great facility and when you have the opportunity to get around Carrington, the club has clearly constructed top facilities. So there are also many things that are very right.
You’ve said you wanted to improve squad depth this summer. Are there other areas that could be strengthened before the window closes?
We are always looking for better quality — if you want to be at United, you have to match a really high standard, and when we find the opportunities to get better, we have to do it because everyone is expecting the best from us. So we also have to raise the bar there.
It’s also very important that the players understand we believe in them, their potential, and their personalities because team spirit — togetherness, the fight together, the social connection, the relationships — has to be really good among footballers. It’s a team sport, and when we are unified, we are stronger.