There is a dual purpose to Erik ten Hag’s handling of Jadon Sancho.
In isolation, the Dutchman is punishing a player for public insubordination, in a way that every action has a reaction.
In a wider context, the Manchester United manager is reinforcing the behaviours of others in his team who are doing what is expected.
In his view, the negative for an individual can be a positive for the collective.
It was this point that got Ten Hag most animated at his press conference ahead of the Brighton game. He was asked if his stance on Sancho, especially in light of the loss of Antony, emphasised how highly he values standards given that taking a capable player out of selection could be detrimental to his team.
“You say something really important, but it’s in favour of the team — that is what my decision is based on,” Ten Hag insisted. “That is not about me and to be strict. No. This is in favour of the team.”
That shift in perspective is crucial to understanding Ten Hag’s hard line on this issue. He was at pains to say the dispute was not about his personal feelings after effectively being called a liar by Sancho over his training levels. Rather, Ten Hag believes he has to take a stand to ensure everybody else in his squad has the motivation to perform with full commitment. Seeing a team-mate act with impunity can sap morale.
This week, Rio Ferdinand explained the effects on him when Sir Alex Ferguson ripped up Roy Keane’s contract following that infamous MUTV segment after a 4-1 defeat to Middlesbrough. “Roy does the analysis and destroys everyone, including me,” Ferdinand said on Vibe with Five. “The manager got wind of it, stopped it going out, and called a meeting at the training ground. Sir Alex was screaming. It went off. Roy had a go back and some mad stuff was said.
Sir Alex x Roy Keane leaving Manchester United….pic.twitter.com/i8PReH03DX
— Rio Ferdinand (@rioferdy5) September 11, 2023
“The next day we went into training and the manager called a meeting and said, ‘Roy Keane will never play for this club again’. This was our captain, a legend of the club, a phenomenal player and a great guy to have around. Sir Alex was cold in that situation. It was like, ‘Don’t f*** with this guy’.”
Ten Hag’s method is more about fostering an aspirational environment than generating fear, but the general principle is the same. Keane, in Ferguson’s eyes, had attacked his team-mates in a public setting, compromising their togetherness. Sancho, in Ten Hag’s view, has fallen below expectations in training and, in doing so, potentially impacted others.
It was noticeable during his press conference that Ten Hag kept returning to the “good mood” and “good spirits” of his team in training this week, making it plausible to speculate he feels the energy has been enhanced by Sancho’s departure. “The players who are available are very motivated to give a good performance,” he said.
This is not to say Ten Hag’s squad is a homogeneous mass. There are a variety of personalities and, inevitably, some may have sympathy with Sancho, who appeared to claim he was the victim of double standards.
Judgment on Sancho’s showing in a session before the Arsenal game, which led to him being dropped from the travelling party, can only be made by those involved. There may be different interpretations.
But Ten Hag wants those who share his view to dominate the dressing room and emphasised that with Sancho this was not an isolated incident. “Strict lines is what the club asked me because there was no good culture before last season, so to set some good standards,” he said. “That is my job — to control the standards. It has never been when someone makes one mistake. It is a whole process before you come to a certain outcome about strict lines. If staff, players or whoever, if there is a structure to cross lines, you have to be strong, absolutely.”
Ten Hag has tried the carrot, offering Sancho three months away from United last season to reset amid a period when he was frequently late for meetings. Now comes the stick, which began with publicly acknowledging the reason for his absence at Arsenal.
“You have to keep things inside, but when I am asked the question, I will be honest,” said Ten Hag on Friday by way of explanation.
Sancho responded at the time by saying it was “completely untrue” his training levels had been substandard and that he had been made a “scapegoat for a long time”. That he then boarded a flight to New York and attended the birthday party of NBA player John Wall did not exactly scream the opposite.
Still, the matter could have been resolved with an apology to Ten Hag, which United would have publicised. “Sorry” was not forthcoming at a meeting between Sancho and his manager on Monday. Then, when there was no resolution on Thursday as players resumed training, United released the statement confirming Sancho’s exile.
On Friday, shortly after Ten Hag had spoken, Sancho was seen walking across the Carrington car park from the academy building, where he now gets changed, alongside a fitness coach in preparation for a solo session.
He was checking his phone in his hand, but if he was hoping to see reports of an easing by Ten Hag, he will have been disappointed. On the question of whether Sancho could play for him again, Ten Hag said: “I don’t know. I am sitting here, we are going into a new block of many games in a condensed programme. I focus on that.
“With fans, it’s the talk, with you it’s the talk, but with the players, it is not the talk. They want to perform. For players who didn’t have so much opportunities they get their opportunity, so this is their chance to come into the team.”
(Top photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)