Erik ten Hag kept a tight grip on who could watch Manchester United train during their now-concluded pre-season tour of the United States. But the final session of the trip, in San Diego, was open to fans. Lasting about an hour, it provided a small window into the mind of a manager whose exacting standards and meticulous eye for detail are finding even greater influence at United as he enters his second campaign in charge.
Ten Hag, wearing shorts, T-shirt and a baseball cap, to protect him from the Californian sunshine, stepped in whenever an aspect of a drill wasn’t to his liking.
One moment, in particular, stood out.
Antony was on the wing during a small-sided game and had space ahead to run into. Instead, he turned back and passed to Harry Maguire, who then went back again to goalkeeper Andre Onana. Ten Hag stopped things immediately and asked his players why they had funnelled the ball deeper rather than go forward.
He then joined in the drill himself, a man who made over 200 first-team appearances for FC Twente in his Dutch homeland showing them how he wanted the move to go; picking up possession in midfield, beckoning a press from Alvaro Fernandez, then passing to Victor Lindelof and dropping into defence for the return.
Ball at his feet, Ten Hag ushered Maguire forwards so he would be available for his next pass.
Maguire moved into position and passed first-time to Jadon Sancho, who was in the false-nine role, the ball going beyond Antony, who was a decoy. Antony then spun in behind to get the final pass from Sancho and run clear.
It was a routine evident in United’s build-up play against Borussia Dortmund in the tour’s final match in Las Vegas on Sunday.
Bryce Guzzetta, a United fan who watched the session and is event coordinator for Red Devils of San Diego, a supporters’ club, said it came across as Ten Hag wanting to instil “muscle memory” into his players.
“He seemed very focused on people being in the right places at the right time and especially off the ball movement and awareness,” Guzzetta said. “It was good to get a peek behind the curtain.”
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That peek included technical director, and former United and Scotland midfielder, Darren Fletcher playing a part in one of the training games, now 39, and putting in a good tackle.
The session, at the University of California/San Diego, had started with the goalkeepers — Onana, Tom Heaton, Dean Henderson and Nathan Bishop — playing rondos around mannequins in circles that increased in size, the emphasis on their footwork clear.
A drone went up into the sky to record events, and Ten Hag manoeuvred a blue mannequin into the precise position he desired, coming back to make an adjustment of a few inches after yanking it out of the grass. He waved to the 100-plus crowd in the stand as he ran back to the main group to deliver a talk.
This focus on minutiae from the manager extended to matters off the pitch, notably as far as the colour of club kit to be worn by players and staff each day. An email would land in all employee inboxes to instruct which version of three looks they should pick out of the wardrobe the next morning, right down to the socks — the idea being that everyone on the trip should look and be as one when on work duty. Making attendance at breakfast compulsory for the entire travelling party was applying the same principle.
Ten Hag’s control covered United’s commercial commitments on tour, too. He would read documents running to 30 pages which detailed the specific requirements of players at sponsorship events, and come back with changes, including matching certain members of his squad with the arranged activity. After a year in charge, he feels he knows his players’ personalities and wanted the events to be suitable.
While Ten Hag understands the commercial benefit travelling the globe like this brings, and how the £20million or so raised by each tour can help with signings, he also drew a line. “Once he’s made a decision, there is no changing his mind,” said a source close to the club.
Having looked at the schedule in advance, Ten Hag reduced the three commercial days to two, insisting his players needed some space to relax on the 11-day, four-match trip that also saw fixtures in New York and Houston, Texas.
Last Friday, July 28, was designated as a day off, with the players arranging three fourballs for nearby Torrey Pines golf course, which has staged the US Open and overlooks the Pacific Ocean. It was a 30-minute walk from the hotel which served as United’s base for that leg of the trip.
The evening before, United booked out the rooftop bar at a Marriott hotel overlooking the USS Midway, which was once the longest-serving aircraft carrier in U.S. Navy history (47 years) and is now a museum. Players and staff mingled before being allowed to do their own thing.
“What is important? Sleep, recovery, nutrition,” Ten Hag said during his sit-down interview with United reporters who travelled Stateside. “Three key areas, and when you don’t do this right, you have a problem.”
That tone was set from take-off, when United flew from Edinburgh following a July 19 friendly against French club Lyon at Murrayfield, the home of Scotland’s national rugby union team. The players were told to sleep so they could wake up for 8am New York time. On the way back to Manchester from Las Vegas two weeks later, they went to sleep early so their body clocks began getting adjusted to UK time.
Football director John Murtough had by then already returned to England, to complete the transfer of Atalanta striker Rasmus Hojlund. Murtough was in the U.S. at each stop before Vegas, however, and mixed with fans at functions in New York and San Diego.
Chief financial officer Collette Roche also attended several supporter meet-ups, which this summer were factored into a United pre-season tour for the first time. Usually, interactions between the club and fans are confined to impromptu gatherings outside a team hotel or open training session, but United were involved in 23 events across the four cities, which they estimate meant direct meetings with 5,000 supporters. Former United stars Bryan Robson, Denis Irwin and Wes Brown spoke multiple times.
That coordination is led by Rick McGagh, head of fan engagement and Richard Arnold’s first appointment after becoming chief executive in February last year. McGagh and Roche twice made three-hour round-trips from the team’s base in deep New Jersey to be at events in Manhattan, and answer questions from fans. Roche had a meeting with Ten Hag about the importance of including fan elements well in advance of flying out.
The Pingry School, in the New Jersey town of Basking Ridge, was chosen for its remoteness as well as its superb facilities. Set way past the suburbs and commuter towns surrounding New York City, the location allowed for privacy, with only a smattering of fans turning up for autographs compared to the hundreds seen at the more city-centre locations used in previous years.
The appeal for United was the pitch. First laid in 1994, to specifications made by the Italian national team ahead of the U.S. hosted World Cup that year, it is ideal for Premier League football clubs.
The rest of the facilities are high-end too. It’s officially known as the Miller A Bugliari ’52 Athletics Center in tribute to the school’s long-time coach. Bugliari is 87 and still coaching Pingry, where he had been a pupil and graduated in 1952, into his 63rd season. He is on good terms with Sir Alex Ferguson, having been introduced by mutual friend Charlie Stillitano, a Pingry School old boy and an influential figure in U.S. soccer.
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Bugliari is considered the most successful coach in U.S. school-level sport by number of games won, and when he oversaw his 900th victory in 2021, Ferguson rang him while he was still on the touchline and left a message of congratulations.
Stillitano was on site for United’s visit this summer under Ten Hag, with Pingry making alterations to accommodate the club, turning three squash courts into meeting rooms, with carpet being laid and televisions and massage tables installed. The school had 400lb of ice delivered each day to cater for players’ ice baths.
Security was tight. The local police department sent eight officers, Pingry had 11 operational staff dotted around, and United took 12 of their own guards.
Players did beckon school children over the barricade after one session to pose for pictures and sign autographs next to the team bus, which was decked in red and featuring landmarks from the cities they were visiting on this tour. David Fahey, Pingry’s director of institutional advancement, whose son got a photograph with Jadon Sancho, said: “That was above what we might have expected. The players were respectful and polite.”
A VIP tent, with speciality ice creams, bug repellent and towels that were iced but not wet, was erected so United co-owner Avram Glazer, his family, and other executives could mingle. Glazer attended training on the two days before the Arsenal game at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium on Saturday, July 22, shaking Ten Hag’s hand but not having a full conversation. Ten Hag was eager to get out for training.
Glazer was seen after the match at the home of the NFL’s New York Giants and New York Jets, but would only say, “I’m here to enjoy the game” when asked for a takeover update. He declined to answer a follow-up about a reported split among his siblings on how to proceed on a proposed sale.
Before kick-off, there was a tailgate in the car park. Organised by United, it was well attended and had a raucous atmosphere, with green and gold flares being set off as well as anti-Glazer chants breaking out.
Michael Stanley was one supporter in amongst it. “I feel like there’s just a fuel in the United States right now that there wasn’t before,” he said. “This feels monumental. This is like the first soccer game I’ve attended where the turnout is insane.”
Olivia Haberberger said: “I was in there for the green and gold flare and it was like tear gas in my face.”
Stanley and Haberberger travelled from Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, a six-hour drive, for the game, and met their friends Sierra Daniels and Alec Goodwin, who live in New York City.
Andy Sookram caught a train across from New York’s eastern borough of Queens. He has been a United fan since 2006, when Cristiano Ronaldo’s performances for Portugal at the World Cup got him hooked. “Then we won three in a row,” he said. “When people say, ‘Are you a glory hunter?’. (I answer) No, because (if I was) I would have supported Chelsea or Arsenal, who won it the three years before.
“It means a lot United have come out — I left my wife and child at home to come to the game.”
Sookram spent a year at university in England in 2014 and attended United matches throughout his stay. He does not think competitive Premier League or Champions League fixtures should move abroad, as happens in the NFL, which plays matches in England, Germany and Mexico: “To grow the game it would be great, but as a fan, it should stay in the UK. I respect tradition. Living in the UK, experiencing the culture, I do understand it.” He paid $230 (£181) for his ticket including fees — which is comparable to what it costs to attend an NFL game. “Ten Hag putting out the first-team squad is worth the money.”
When the tour got to San Diego, there was some anger among fans over ticket pricing, given United fielded their under-21 team in the match there.
That friendly against Wrexham, who play three divisions below the Premier League on the English football ladder but are big news in the U.S. and around the world because of Hollywood-star owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney and the Emmy-nominated documentary series following events at the club, had been billed as featuring a youth-focussed United side when first announced but locally there was anticipation that the crowd would see some senior-squad stars.
Joseph Garcia told The Athletic he paid $207 for his seat via Ticketmaster, including booking fees, and said: “For a working-class person and today’s economy, $207 means a lot and that product we saw was absolutely not even close to being worth that.”
Garcia has written a complaint to the club detailing how fans were “vocally disappointed” in the ground. United apologised in their reply but said the game was impossible to brand as specifically an under-21s fixture due to possible changes to the line-up. Tickets, with prices set by the promoter, were also available for $70 and United also gave 50 away for free to the local supporters’ club.
The tour’s final game against Dortmund, in Las Vegas on Sunday night, was visibly short of the stadium’s 65,000 capacity, with the official attendance given at 50,857, but across eight days, a total of 235,168 supporters watched United’s four matches.
For Roche, the United executive, being in the U.S. allowed her another look at stadiums which are much more modern than Old Trafford. The MetLife, the Snapdragon in San Diego, the NRG in Houston, and the Allegiant in Las Vegas are all examples of excellent construction and offered ideas for the rebuild of United’s home ground.
Plans for that have long been drawn up, of course, ranging from renovation of the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand, to building a totally new Old Trafford, which could cost £2billion. Co-owner Joel Glazer has seen them, as have the bidding parties on a takeover or minority investment. But progress is on hold until there is clarity on the club’s “strategic review” launched last November.
Before kick-off in the win over Arsenal, New Jersey’s state governor Phil Murphy said he would be happy to talk to United about MetLife Stadium, which he is lobbying to be chosen to host the World Cup final in 2026.
In San Diego, United stayed at the Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa, which was a 10-minute walk from the university pitches they trained on. There was a Mediterranean feel to the setting, with its terracotta buildings, seaside location, and garden squares, one of which was converted into a space for squad members to play basketball and table tennis.
There was time there for players to relax and chat in the bar, some of their conversations touching on the takeover, the club’s need for a new main striker, and who is the best defender at United.
Also discussed was Omar Meziane’s role in making life enjoyable on this tour. Appointed as United’s chef in January, Meziane is popular because of his varied menus which, while the club travelling, are in part influenced by local cuisine.
Meziane, who has previously been the performance chef for the England cricket team and the Great Britain rowing team, as well as top-flight English rugby union clubs Harlequins and Wasps, travelled out the day before the main party at each stage of the trip to familiarise himself with the kitchen that would be used, meet the chefs already in place at the hotels, and source fresh food.
The game in Houston against Real Madrid was where the only major setback of the tour occurred. The ankle injury suffered by Kobbie Mainoo will sideline him for the start of the campaign and Ten Hag’s disappointment over it in the press conference afterwards was palpable. The 18-year-old midfielder was playing himself into contention for selection when the real action starts next weekend through his performances in these friendlies.
In that same post-match press conference, Ten Hag said the fact his team did not score in the 2-0 defeat “absolutely” emphasised why a new striker was required. Anthony Martial has been training with the squad but did not play a single second across the four U.S. matches.
In hindsight, it is clear Ten Hag knew the Hojlund deal was close, so felt free to make the point. By the time he did his end-of-tour interview with reporters three days later, the transfer had been agreed.
Ten Hag was serious throughout that 25-minute chat, but finished by suggesting, with a chuckle, that one of his inquisitors reminded him of 1950s pop star Ritchie Valens because of his colourful shirt. “La Bamba,” Ten Hag laughed, adding it was attire suitable for United’s final stop.
There in Las Vegas, United stayed at the Westin — a hotel in that city built on gambling that does not have a casino. Ten Hag, it seemed, did not want to gamble on players staying away from the slot machines. On the pitch, United played a losing hand.
While the loss to Real Madrid was a case of one team being better than the other, the 3-2 defeat by Dortmund owed to sloppy mistakes from United. Ten Hag said the lapses were “unforgivable”.
Heaton and defender Brandon Williams had a row about the blame for Dortmund’s second goal, which came immediately from United’s restart after conceding an equaliser. In the second half, new signing Onana sprinted from the six-yard box to shout at Maguire for a mistake that led to a Dortmund shot on target.
Onana had shown his softer side after his first session as a United player following a move from Inter Milan back in New Jersey, striking up a conversation with new colleagues Amad, Hannibal and Anthony Elanga as they walked from the recovery room to the team bus.
In any case, defender Lisandro Martinez insisted United are “better for” players calling out each other directly like that. “If you are focused, you can fight with your team-mates as well, you need to make sure everyone is really sharp,” he said, while in the bowels of Allegiant Stadium.
When Ten Hag came through the mixed zone that night, he made a point of smiling and waving to reporters. “Safe flight home,” he said.
Three defeats to finish their U.S. tour and some elements of concern, but the United manager is satisfied with the club’s transfer work and, having put some useful training in the bank, knows more meaningful matches are ahead.
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(Top photo: Tim Warner/Getty Images)