Ten Hag the new sheriff in town
Upon taking over the Old Trafford hot-seat, Erik ten Hag is facing a colossal rebuilding job.
The position of Manchester United manager has not been a friendly one over the past decade. United are preparing for life under Erik ten Hag, and the first-team is desperate for a makeover. As Ralf Rangnick neared the end of his tenure as interim manager the 63-year-old became increasingly brazen with the media, suggesting the team needs 'open-heart surgery' and that the club could need to recruit up to 10 new players in the coming months.
In reality a shopping spree even half that size is already a far fetch when considering the club is to provide ten Hag with a definitive budget, and value in the market is increasingly difficult to find nowadays. Moreover in recent years United have not been known to have an aura in the transfer market, and the club's sales record is of shambolic standards.
ten Hag becomes the fifth United manager have appointed on a long-term contract since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down nine years ago, and the Dutchman takes charge at Old Trafford after almost five years with Ajax. Upon wrapping up a third Eredivisie title with the Amsterdam club, the 52-year-old made a beeline for Manchester to immediately begin tackling the mammoth task at hand.
Joining ten Hag are two individuals, Steve McClaren and Mitchell van der Gaag, each with prior experience working with the new United boss. van der Gaag served as one of three assistant managers to ten Hag last season, and the former centre-back also previously managed the Ajax reserves side.
McClaren returns to United after more than two decades away from the club. In 2008/09 ten Hag worked at FC Twente under McClaren, who himself was previously assistant to Ferguson from 1999-2001. Now the roles have reversed and ten Hag is due to play the master with McClaren as his deputy, and the 61-year-old Englishman may yet prove an integral presence within the United dressing room.
ten Hag conducted his maiden interview and gave a first media briefing as United manager, both within 24 hours of the team’s damning defeat to Palace. From his first interaction with United’s social channels one could immediately identify ten Hag to be an ambitious but humble character, not to mention a stern authoritarian, which is precisely what United finds itself crying out for at present.
ten Hag acknowledged the substantial task at hand and admitted he is excited to meet and work with the first-team group, noting that his goal will be to unify the players and to get them to ‘fight for each other’. ten Hag added that he has high expectations from himself and from his squad, and said “They have to give their best every day, and good is not good enough”.
United are on the verge of clearing approximately £800k from the weekly wage bill with the imminent departures of Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Edinson Cavani and Juan Mata who are all set to become free agents in the coming weeks. Fourth-choice goalkeeper Lee Grant announced he will hang up his gloves when his deal ends next month.
Nemanja Matić is confirmed to be leaving the club while Phil Jones and Eric Bailly both appear to be heading for the exit doors. Dean Henderson is poised to force an exit from the club unless ten Hag opts for the 25-year-old as his starting goalkeeper next season.
Based on the plenty of lifeless and dismal performances on show this past season, the outgoings need to stretch far beyond those whose contracts run out this month. There are countless underperforming and/or perfunctory players whom ten Hag should do away with.
ten Hag will have to succeed where his predecessors failed, and his approach will be everything in determining how his United career pans out. Louis van Gaal failed to produce attacking football, while José Mourinho clashed with the players and the board. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was too lenient with his players and also lacked the tactical know-how.
These are all challenges which ten Hag will have to contend with and keep on top of. Going through each position to determine individual challenges which lie ahead for ten Hag…
David de Gea was one of very few shining lights for United last season and, despite having a majorly dysfunctional defensive unit ahead of him, the Spaniard literally saved the team from further onsalughts. de Gea completed his 11th season as a Red Devils and he is in line to capture an unprecedented fifth Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award.
It must be said in spite of de Gea’s brilliance he can improve substantially in select areas. The 31-year-old goalie possesses a terrific shot-stopping range, but there is still so much room for improvement in his distribution as well as composure with ball at feet.
de Gea should retain his spot under ten Hag and Henderson is reportedly close to joining Newcastle Utd. Whether Henderson is due a permanent or loan move remains to be determined. In the event it is a long-term deal United would be ignorant to not include a buy-back clause in Henderson’s contract on Tyneside. A fresh start could ignite the 25-year-old to blossom and emerge as England’s no.1 at (or beyond) the FIFA World Cup later this year.
Given the [temporary] end of this unsustainable dynamic in between the sticks, the club would naturally be in the market for a new ‘keeper. Tom Heaton, 37, could play second fiddle to de Gea, but ten Hag may opt to acquire a low-cost backup goalie.
A prospective addition can come in the form of Uruguayan veteran ‘keeper Fernando Muslera. A decade's worth of experience playing European football and has been captain of Galatasaray for the past two years. Muslera has 131 caps for his nation and with a low market value the 35-year-old could prove a cost effective solution in an unimportant area.
One player who has been assured of his future at United by ten Hag is Diogo Dalot. The 23-year-old became a regular starter after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sacking and also has a loan spell at AC Milan under his belt. The Portuguese full-back possesses several raw elements for ten Hag to exploit and grow over the coming years.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka appears to be heading for the Old Trafford departure lounge after producing the worst of his three seasons at the club. Wan-Bissaka lacks the character, fight and desire to succeed at United and he is linked with a return to Crystal Palace. The 24-year-old may join the Eagles on an initial loan deal, with his United contract running until June 2024.
Luke Shaw crashed back down to earth after he scored in the Euro final and was named by UEFA in the Team of the Tournament. After a recent ankle injury layoff, Shaw will have to put in bucket loads of hard graft to assert himself as ten Hag’s primary left-back.
Alex Telles has failed to deliver each time he has been called upon, and his defensive awareness tends to deteriorate with each passing game.
Additionally, United have two young full-backs returning from loan spells in Ethan Laird and Brandon Williams. Laird enjoyed the first portion of the season with Swansea, but his form stagnated upon switching on loan to Bournemouth who went on to secure promotion to the Premier League.
Williams played 31 times for Norwich City in the Premier League but ultimately the Canaries finished bottom of the log and were relegated to the Championship after one season.
Injury record aside, Rapahël Varane is United's best central defender and the only up to scratch for this hugely important role. Varane by no means had a successful first season in Manchester but he still boasts the second-best dual success rate of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf are simply not good enough to start regularly and between them have conceded countless errors leading to goal.
Eric Bailly is nigh-on certain to depart in the summer, one year on from penning a new three-year contract in M16. The Ivorian has effectively been dropped to fifth-choice centre-back and it would be unlikely for him to bounce back as a regular.
Axel Tuanzebe returns following a disappointing season in which the 24-year-old defender had not one but two unsuccessful loans at Aston Villa and Napoli. Teden Mengi returned to the club before the end of the season, following a mediocre spell at Championship side Birmingham City.
ten Hag may look to bring across a player or two from Ajax and there have been widespread reports surrounding Dutch defender Jurriën Timber, 20, who is tipped to follow his former manager to Manchester. There have also been lesser concrete whispers of Matthjis de Ligt reuniting with ten Hag, however the ex-Ajax man is said to be on the verge of penning an extension with Juventus until 2026.
On the topic of reunions, Frenkie de Jong has been rumoured as one of ten Hag’s reported targets. FC Barcelona could be open to selling the player, especially to raise funds for the prospective acquisition of Robert Lewandowski, but de Jong is known to prefer Champions League football.
United are beyond desperate for a fresh spark in its dusted and outdated engine room. The imminent departures of Pogba and Matić make a weak midfield even more frail. Scott McTominay and Fred have been overused in the centre of the park and it is hard to imagine ten Hag sustaining the infamous Mc Fred pairing.
Bruno Fernandes needed no introduction upon signing at the Theatre of Dreams, twice winning the Sir Matt Busby POTY within 18 months of joining. Past season was Fernandes' worst in a United shirt and ten Hag will need to finetune the Portuguese attacking midfielder who recently received a salary hike.
One player who could benefit from ten Hag’s appointment more than others is Donny van de Beek. The Dutch midfielder played under his countryman for two-and-a-half years at Ajax, and will know more than most on how to lay a positive impression unto the new boss. The 25-year-old will be eager to wipe the slate clean and revive his United career after a dormant first two years at the club which included a short and disappointing loan at Everton.
Despite his familiarity with van de Beek, ten Hag may still want to bring in a new midfield player. United Academy graduate James Garner has been simply outstanding for Nottingham Forest in their bid for Premier League football. Should Forest earn promotion, Garner is likely to remain at City Ground for another year to get regular top-flight football under his belt.
It is unfathomable for ten Hag to discard Cristiano Ronaldo and the boss should go as far to mould his United side around the Portuguese icon. It would come as little to no surprise should ten Hag name the greatest goal scorer in football history as the captain of the ship. Ronaldo scored 24 goals for United in the Premier League and Champions League, more than twice as many as any other teammate produced.
Jadon Sancho had a turbulent first season back in England and will have a point to prove to ten Hag. Similarly, Marcus Rashford has a great deal to prove to his new boss, after the 24-year-old forward endured the worst season of his career. Both players are under the age of 25 and still have their best years ahead of them.
There might be room for only one Anthony in ten Hag's new-look United team. Elanga broke through as a first-teamer, keeping the likes of Rashford, Sancho and Linagrd out the team, and his development could see a meteoric rise under the tutelage of ten Hag.
Martial, on the other hand, may have already played his last game for United. His lackadaisical attitude and poor form will not bode well with the new manager. Martial, 26, had a miserable loan at Sevilla in the second half of the season, featuring nine times and scoring once for the Spanish side.
Low-cost attackers are difficult to come by, and players of the ilk of Darwin Nunez and Antony are likely to cost in the region of £70million.
Amad Diallo, Tahith Chong and Facundo Pellistri each endured underwhelming loans and the youthful trio of wingers will likely find themselves securing new temporary moves next season.
ten Hag has a laudable track record of developing junior players and a handful of United youngsters will be pushing to feature frequently for the first-team as well as to learn, grow and prolong their careers at the club.
Several young prospects are starring for the club's youth teams, namely 17-year-old Alejandro Garnacho who scored twice in the FA Youth Cup final and claimed the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year for 2021/22. Spanish left-back Alvaro Fernández was named Reserve-Team Player of the Year for a splendid campaign with the U/23s.
Similar to Garnacho, both Shola Shoretire and Hannibal Mejbri have earned minutes for the senior team and will kick on for more frequent first-team appearances. The youth teams have no such problems of desire, commitment and work ethic quite like the first-team does, and the starlets will know to continue pushing in order to impress the new man in charge.
Over and above an exodus amongst the playing squad, United finds itself amidst a significant overhaul further up the order. Chief-executive Ed Woodward abdicated and Richard Arnold became the club’s new CEO in February. Two months later, chief scout Jim Lawlor and head of global scouting Marcel Bout both left the club and earlier this month Matt Judge resigned from his post as director of football negotiations.
John Murtough was installed as the club's first director of football in March 2021 and reports suggest Murtough is looking to hire a deputy. Rangnick is due to commence his advisory role at the club which he will work in tandem with his job as manager of the Austria national team.