Former Manchester United coach Eric Steele says the club’s culture has been lost, but has backed incoming manager Erik ten Hag to reinstall the dressing-room discipline needed for the team to be successful again.
Ajax boss Ten Hag was appointed as United’s new manager last week and will take up his role in the summer, when he will be tasked with reinvigorating a club that has not won a trophy for five years.
Steele, who worked under Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, spent time with Ten Hag during his time in charge of Utrecht, and has no doubts the Dutchman has the strength of character to cope with the big names – and potential egos – inside the United dressing room.
In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Steele said: “I’ve never known so much information come out of Manchester United’s dressing room and become public. I’m sure he will very quickly discipline them and say, ‘this has got to stop’, which is precisely what’s needed. I don’t think he’ll allow any of that.”
Ten Hag has never managed outside the Netherlands, but when asked directly whether he can cope with United’s stars, Steele is emphatic.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “When I was there you had big characters – the big players ran the dressing room, and that’s what you want.
“You want them to have the belief, come in every day and want to be successful, to train hard every day to better the club, improve the team and be successful. At the moment it seems very much it’s individuals being discussed and not the team.”
“There’s arguments on the field between players,” Steele added. “Things that have happened in the dressing room that have come out – those simply wouldn’t have happened when I was there under Sir Alex.
“So I think they have to get the culture right on and off the field, and I’m sure Ten Hag is the man to get them back to where they ought to be: in the top four.”
Steele was given a good insight into Ten Hag’s methods in 2017 when he was invited to spend a few days with him and former Aston Villa goalkeeper Stefan Postma, who was the goalkeeping coach at Utrecht.
Incidentally, Steele was at the Eredivisie club’s Christmas party when the announcement was made that Ten Hag was leaving to take over at Ajax.
“I thought – ‘great! I’ve had an instant impact on him. Only seen me for a few days and he’s got out of the place!'” Steele joked. “But it gave me an ideal opportunity to watch him work.”
What Steele saw from Ten Hag on the training ground during those few days gives him confidence that he can be the coach to help fix a United side that Gary Neville has called “broken”.
Asked to describe Ten Hag’s training sessions, Steele said: “They were very intense – I liked the way that every detail was given.
“They focused on what to do in possession – what they needed to do with the ball to hurt the team they were playing. Then they did ‘out of possession’ – this is how we are going to defend, we are going to press there, drop in behind… the attention to detail really impressed me.
“The players just slotted in – they’d obviously been well drilled. It was his voice, well controlled – you could see the way the players responded to it, his manner. Yeah – very impressed by everything about him.”
“It’s a style based on transition,” Steele explained. “He’ll look to break quickly, he’ll look for them to be organised when they lose the ball, and it’s just what they need.
“I watched United play a couple of weeks ago and I still don’t know what shape they were playing when they lost the ball. There will be no such problems under Erik ten Hag – he will drill them until he gets them where he wants them. And at the moment, that’s definitely what Manchester United need.
“It will all be very detailed – (the players) will know exactly the structure, the game plan. They’ll be in no doubt about what is required. There’ll be no detail left in the dressing room – it will have all been addressed at the training ground.”
Crucially, Steele says Ten Hag has to be given time and warned United fans they will have to be patient as he believes the Dutchman has an even bigger job than Jurgen Klopp had when he was brought in to help rebuild Liverpool in 2015.
“We know how long it took Jurgen Klopp to establish his style and commitment and get that across to his players,” said Steele. “Ten Hag is in that situation when Klopp came into Liverpool.
“But there was patience shown to him and you look at where he’s taken Liverpool to, they’re at the same level as Manchester City now. And Ten Hag is going to need that time to do it. You cannot build overnight success.
“You have two teams that are pulling away, both on and off the field. There are people at that club (United) to back Ten Hag, and we all want a Man Utd competing back in the top four.
“It’s not as good a league without them.”
Speaking following his appointment as United’s next manager last week, Ten Hag revealed he is spending time making plans for his next job despite still having to see out the rest of the campaign with Ajax.
Ten Hag still has to decide who will be part of his coaching staff at Old Trafford and is facing a big summer of recruitment, with many players expected to leave.
But he still has a title race to win in the Eredivisie with Ajax, who secured a late 1-0 victory over NEC on Saturday afternoon to move seven points clear of PSV at the top of the table, although PSV later won their game at Cambuur to return to within four points.
Speaking after that game, Ten Hag said: “I always keep focused on the job I have to do, it doesn’t matter what’s around me.”
Pressed on whether he had spent time on his plans for United, Ten Hag added: “You always spend time on the future, but my head and my energy is for Ajax.”
While Ajax march towards a third title in four years, United’s chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League took a significant blow on Saturday as they lost 3-1 at Arsenal.
They are now six points adrift of the Gunners in fourth, with four games left to play.
But Ten Hag refused to discuss the struggles of his future team, saying: “I don’t have any opinion about Man Utd’s results because I show respect for people who are at Man Utd, and I am responsible for Ajax and that is what I comment on.”