ERIK ten Hag appears to have impressed his new employers with his eagerness to begin work as Manchester United manager. The Dutchman was in attendance at Selhurst Park to watch United’s limp 1-0 defeat to Crystal Palace on the last afternoon of the Premier League season ahead of officially commencing work the following day.
It’s just as well that Ten Hag has wasted no time in getting his feet under the table at Old Trafford, though. The task he has taken on – of restoring United to something like their former glories – is a mammoth one.
After a season split between the stewardships of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick, United finished seventh in the table with their lowest points tally of the Premier League era.
The to-do list awaiting the former Ajax boss is surely too lengthy to be worked through in the space of one off-season, so Ten Hag must prioritise a handful of missions if he is to arrest United’s post-Ferguson decline and get them tending upwards next season.
Be ruthless in assessing the squad
First and foremost, Ten Hag must assess the cast of misfits and under-performers he has inherited. Few, if any, United players escaped the 2021-22 campaign with their reputations enhanced. Many have been expensively acquired in recent years, and it has at times felt as though that alone has ring-fenced their starter status.
Ten Hag enters with the intent to implement a playing style and methodology tried and tested through four and a half hugely successful seasons at Ajax. Any United player who does not fit into his plans – or is unwilling to adapt in order to do so – must be shipped out.
If it is the case that captain Harry Maguire’s lack of athleticism makes him unsuited to operate within a defensive line as high as Ten Hag likes to set, the England centre-back’s £80m price tag should not be a consideration. Likewise right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka, a £50m arrival from Crystal Palace three years ago but whose technical deficiencies have been starkly apparent under the Old Trafford lights.
But this principle extends also to United’s higher performers. David de Gea may soon be named United’s Player of the Year for the fourth time, but if the Spaniard’s sub-par distribution and unwillingness to leave his six-yard box to sweep behind a high line is an issue for Ten Hag then a new goalkeeper should be sought. And if Bruno Fernandes’ high-risk/high-reward approach to possession in the middle third is too reckless for the new manager’s structured approach to building attacks, the Portuguese’s exemplary scoring return of the season before last should not mean he is persevered with if he can’t learn to thrive within the confines of Ten Hag’s system.
Address long-standing midfield issue
United have spent over £1bn on 45 signings since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, yet they failed to apportion any of that towards an adequate defensive midfielder, and that failing continues to hold them back.
They have tried. The summer of 2015 brought the arrivals of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin, but it quickly became apparent that the former’s best days were long gone and the latter simply wasn’t good enough.
In 2017, Nemanja Matic arrived from Chelsea to link up with former Blues boss Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford. The imposing Serbian has been United’s best attempt at addressing their defensive-midfield issue, but his £40m signing just came too late. He was approaching 29 when signed. Six months of stellar initial form were followed swiftly by athletic decline, robbing Matic of the requisite ability to cover ground in front of the backline.
Brazilian international Fred initially struggled to find confidence and consistency after his £50m arrival from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2018. He has steadily improved and was one of United’s more reliable performers last season, but he lacks the discipline to operate as the deepest midfielder in s single-pivot system.
So Ten Hag’s most important signing this summer will be that of a midfielder able to handle the physical demands of marshalling the space in front of the defence and the technical and tactical capabilities to conduct play from deep – a figure United have lacked since Michael Carrick’s retirement.
Marcus Rashford looked a shell of himself last season. The England forward was desperately inconsistent throughout the campaign and at times looked bereft of the confidence he exuded upon his lightning-rod first-team breakthrough as a teenager. He mustered just five goals in all competitions, by far the lowest return of his career.
While the poor form and perceived disinterest of others should mark the end of their United career, Rashford is a player worth persevering with and attempting to restore.
At 24, his best years should still be ahead of him, and his pace, trickery, off-ball movement and finishing skills would make him a huge asset once again if he can recover form. What’s more, Rashford is a homegrown talent and lifelong United fan. The fact that he has appeared disenchanted and there have been rumours of his discontent is as much a damning indictment of the club’s predicament as it is disappointing of a gifted and influential young player.
Getting Rashford firing again, if he is able to do so, could be emblematic of Ten Hag’s chances of resurrecting United.
Harness new crop of youngsters
Less than two weeks before United’s senior side ended their season with another dispirited performance, the club’s under-18s won the FA Youth Cup, beating their Nottingham Forest counterparts 3-1 in front of more than 60,000 fans at Old Trafford.
There is a new and deep generation of talented young players on the precipice of the United first team, headlined by the likes of Anthony Elanga, Hannibal Mejbri and Alejandro Garnacho.
There are so many holes in the senior squad Ten Hag has inherited that he won’t be able to plug them all with new signings in one summer. In putting faith in a handful of the teenage stars emerging from United’s academy and developing them as he did with so many of Ajax’s youngsters, the new manager will earn rapid approval from a fanbase uniquely connected to its club’s homegrown kids.
Implement own vision for the future without being beholden to the past
Ajax, unquestionably, are a big club, a European giant with a history as rich as any. And Ten Hag has experience of operating within one of the Continent’s contemporary super-powers, having managed Bayern Munich’s second team. But he has never experienced anything quite like the magnitude of the job he has taken on at United.
The 20-time champions own a storied history and can lay claim to myriad former heroes whose glory days are not so distant, whose legacies still echo around Old Trafford and shape the prism through which all current successes and failures are viewed.
Ten Hag needs to shut that out. United’s last permanent manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, was too beholden to the club’s glorious recent past – of which he was a part – and it was to the detriment of any progress he oversaw. Ten Hag gives the impression of a manager with clear ideas and a vision of his own crafting. United’s history and traditions will rightly be respected, but the club’s past can no longer be considered a blueprint for its future.