PERTH, Australia — The final act of Manchester United‘s summer tour of Thailand and Australia didn’t reflect how positive the trip had been.
Eric Bailly sent a plastic chair hurtling across the turf as he walked off the pitch at a sodden Optus Stadium, while David De Gea marched through the mixed zone around an hour later with a face like thunder.
Ten Hag branded the team’s second-half performance “unacceptable” and accused his players of a lack of focus — a summary delivered in both the dressing room and his postmatch interviews.
Still, by the time the squad had been bussed straight from the stadium to the private terminal at Perth Airport ahead of the long flight back to Manchester, the United manager was in a more conciliatory mood.
Walking up and down the Boeing 747 equipped only with business class seats, he thanked staff for their efforts on the tour, acknowledging their work and that most had been away from friends and family for the best part of three weeks.
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Ten Hag has been in position for only a month but has already made his mark. His microscopic attention to detail has involved meeting club bosses with a large binder organised into sections and colour-coded so he can best present issues he thinks need attention while also watching his coaches lay out cones and goals for training exercises before striding about the pitches himself to make sure the distances are correct.
Surveying the WACA ahead of an open training session on Thursday, he wasn’t happy with the positioning of some of the cameras and had it fixed immediately.
The “control freak” version of Ten Hag is one he’s comfortable with — players and staff said the same at Ajax — but being the centre of attention is proving more alien. After training had finished, some players went over to the near 5,000 watching fans to sign autographs. There were a number of calls for Ten Hag to join them, but it wasn’t until assistant Steve McClaren beckoned him over that he finally obliged.
Even for a man who has worked at Bayern Munich and been in charge of the biggest club in the Netherlands, the scale of Man United still takes some getting used to.
Louis van Gaal complained in his first United news conference in Los Angeles in 2014 that the summer tour was only about making money and not preparing players for the season, but Ten Hag has, for the most part, taken it in his stride.
“It is part of football nowadays,” he said. “You have to accept it as a manager, as a team, you have to take the best out of it, that is what we did.
“I think it’s great for team spirit to be so long together, you can really improve that, develop that, you have a lot of time to work on your team because you are so close together. That is great, I would say.
“It’s brilliant to be in great cities: Bangkok, Melbourne, Perth. There are disadvantages, it is clear, but you have to deal with certain things that are decided when you don’t have influence on. When you have influence it’s only on the game — that is our focus point.”
Ten Hag’s focus has been on football and little else, but he has made it clear it’s not just the players who will be involved in making the club successful again. Some have commented that the 52-year-old has “the aura of Sir Alex Ferguson” in the way he has tried to make everyone — regardless of role or department — feel part of the team. Players were encouraged to visit Perth Zoo on Thursday, and staff were told they could go too if they wished.
For all the positivity that has emanated from the tour, there remains a feeling among Ten Hag and his staff that it is very fragile. Three new players — Lisandro Martinez, Tyrell Malacia and Christian Eriksen — have arrived, but his No. 1 target, Frenkie de Jong, is still at Barcelona and talks with the Spanish club are, for now, at an impasse.
Ten Hag was able to bat away questions about Cristiano Ronaldo while on tour, but the issue of whether the 37-year-old will continue at the club next season will come to a head this week. The pair are set to meet face-to-face for the first time in Manchester ahead of the next friendly against potential Ronaldo suitors Atletico Madrid in Oslo on Saturday.
After that, there is Ten Hag’s first Premier League game in charge, against Brighton & Hove Albion at Old Trafford on Aug. 7. It might not be Liverpool or Manchester City, but the importance of getting off to a good start has not been lost on the new manager.
“I think always on the first game,” he said about his expectations for the season. “The first game is the most important one. We want to win every game but first win the first game.”
Leaving the team hotel in Perth for the last time, one Australian fan behind the barricades took his chance to ask Ten Hag how it was going at United. “So far, so good,” he replied with a smile.
While he couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to life in his new job, he will know the real work is yet to start.