Erik ten Hag opens up on dropping Ronaldo at Manchester United

I slept well after dropping Ronaldo: Erik ten Hag opens up on the ‘mess’ he found when he arrived at Man United… and how huge decision to axe the No 7 changed the course of their campaign

  • Erik ten Hag made huge calls over Harry Maguire and axing Cristiano Ronaldo 
  • He said he slept well after dropping Ronaldo following the ‘mess’ he inherited 
  • Gabby Agbonlahor claims Liverpool vs United is only the THIRD-BIGGEST rivalry 

When Erik ten Hag’s final Manchester United story is told, his first game against Liverpool in August will be regarded as career-defining.

Embarrassed by defeats against Brighton and Brentford, the Dutchman made the bold and some thought brazen move to drop Cristiano Ronaldo and captain Harry Maguire.

United fans turned up at Old Trafford fearing a serious beating from Jurgen Klopp’s team. Instead, United won 2-1 with a brand of thrilling counter-attacking football spearheaded by Marcus Rashford.

A new era was born and six months later United face Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday with one trophy already in the bag and the prospect of three more, on an unbeaten run of 11 matches in all competitions.

Until now, Ten Hag has preferred not to look back to the night he proved a manager capable of making the big decisions.

Erik ten Hag has preferred not to look back since turning Manchester United into unlikely title contenders

Ten Hag said he slept well after making a huge call to drop Cristiano Ronaldo from the side

The five-time Ballon d’Or winner sealed a big-money move to Saudi Arabian outfit Al-Nassr

But fireproofed by last weekend’s Carabao Cup final success against Newcastle — United’s first trophy for six years — he now explains he was aware of the long-term repercussions of axing Ronaldo, and that he slept well having made the call.

‘I do consider big decisions like that, definitely,’ he says. ‘I have to look at the impact they make, not only in the short term but also for the longer term. You always have to think strategically as a manager and face the consequences. I am aware of it but that is my job and my responsibility.

‘I had reasons to choose that team against Liverpool. They were obvious. And I knew the reaction if it had been a negative outcome, which is always possible in football.

‘But I am not worrying. I sleep well also in those nights. I have to take the decisions in respect of the club and the team. I have to stand by those decisions.’

It did indeed represent the beginning of the end for five-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo, who eventually left for Saudi Arabia. With his departure, United have been revitalised by other leaders; Bruno Fernandes, Rashford and particularly Casemiro among them. Maguire has also failed to win a regular place back and may leave in the summer.

When Ten Hag joined United last summer, he entered a dressing room in which discipline had broken down, a result of having three different managers, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Michael Carrick and Ralf Rangnick, last season.

Manchester United captain Harry Maguire (L) has lost his place in the starting XI under Ten Hag

Ronaldo was more interested in self-preservation than team unity, regularly showing petulance whether it was being substituted or not receiving the perfect pass.

Ten Hag doesn’t beat about the bush when asked if he inherited a lack of discipline on arrival.

‘There was and I don’t have to lie about it,’ he says. ‘Top players like structure, not only on the pitch. So you need some rules.

‘I think it’s obvious in every organisation that when there are no rules and no discipline in taking those rules seriously, then you create a mess.

Casemiro (R) and Raphael Varane (L) have won copious honours alongside each other for Real Madrid

‘That’s not only at a football club but in every job, also in broadcasting or newspapers. It was quite obvious because I could see on the pitch what was going on.’

It highlights the importance of Casemiro, who ironically was introduced to the fans before the Liverpool game at Old Trafford after his £60million move from Real Madrid.

The Brazilian has not only scored from great headers in the last week against Newcastle and West Ham, but has inspired his team-mates in a way the petulant Ronaldo was unable or unwilling to do.

‘Casemiro is such a leader and so important for us,’ says Ten Hag enthusiastically. ‘That’s not only with his performances and skills, linking play, intercepting passes and scoring goals, but his organisation, mentality and the culture he projects. We are so happy we signed him.

‘When we went into recruitment last summer, we were looking for players with character and personality. A lot of players in the world have great technical skills or can run really fast, but we were looking for players who were resilient and took responsibility. Those were the types we needed after analysing the squad.

Marcus Rashford’s return to form for Manchester United this season has underpinned their success

‘It is not a coincidence that Casemiro and Raphael Varane have won so many trophies. You have players who always win and players who lose. You have to do your research and find the type who are humble and cooperative in the dressing room but when they are on the pitch they take responsibility and will win.

‘I can sit on the bench composed because I know the players will do the job and deal with the situation.’

One of the most striking memories from last weekend’s Wembley final was Casemiro berating Fernandes for shooting instead of passing when United were already winning 2-0, an indication of striving for the highest standards.

You would have got long odds on United going to Liverpool in March 10 points ahead of their rivals, who were pre-season title favourites with Manchester City.

But that’s the case as Ten Hag gets his first Anfield experience as a United manager. ‘I know of the biggest rivalry for us, and that’s Liverpool,’ he says.

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