Manchester United: The pre-season challenges facing new boss Erik ten Hag

Erik ten Hag won the Dutch Eredivisie three times in just over five years with Ajax

Manchester United launch their latest restart attempt on Monday, when their non-international players return for the start of pre-season training and the start of Erik ten Hag’s spell at the club.

The former Ajax manager accepted the challenge of becoming the fifth permanent manager to try to restore United to something like the club it was when Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.

But there is already a sense of nervousness among fans. Players have either left or are leaving and so far, while some offers have been made and interest expressed, no signings have been made to replace them, while rivals Manchester City and Liverpool have already gone from strength to strength.

Discontent with the Glazer family that owns United is growing. As they receive £11m in stock dividends, new chief executive Richard Arnold felt the need to prevent a planned protest by some fans at his home. meet them at a local pub and admit that the club had “burned through” the better part of £1bn.

It is not the ideal setting for Ten Hag to start his job, which takes him to Thailand on July 12 for a meeting with Liverpool and then to Australia and Oslo before his Premier League campaign begins against Brighton at Old Trafford. on August 7.

A gloomy backdrop

Last season could hardly have ended worse for United as they finished sixth and their trophy-less run extended to a fifth season.

The squad split after a disagreement over the captaincy, with Cristiano Ronaldo in the centre, leaving Harry Maguire unhappy.

Ralf Rangnick’s lauded arrival dissolved to such an extent that the German was barely on speaking terms with the man who appointed him, director of football John Murtough.

For his part, Rangnick felt he didn’t get the support he needed and too many players didn’t take responsibility for their own performance.

Rangnick’s direct observations, such as describing the club’s need for “open heart surgery” – press conferences may have gone well with the media present and fans, but Murtough did not feel it was the right forum to express them and was concerned that no attempt was made to protect the club’s reputation.

The 4-0 loss in United’s penultimate game at Brighton was humiliating. At the very least, an answer was expected in the final day’s match at Crystal Palace given that Ten Hag was in the stands. But United also lost that.

De Jong, the number one choice

Erik ten Hag and Frenkie de Jong
Frenkie de Jong arrived at Barcelona from Ajax in 2019

As usual, United have been linked with dozens of players this summer.

One stands out above the rest. Even in better times, when Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge, United’s recruiting department always knew which player the Scot wanted more than any other.

Second or even third choice targets at other positions would be accepted if the number one option was caught.

Now they have the same feeling with Barcelona Frankie de Jong.

Ten Hag knows the Dutch international from their time together at Ajax. He understands De Jong’s way of playing and knows that he would be perfect for the plans he has for his time at Old Trafford.

It has been established that the alternatives just don’t fit the template or are not good enough.

Ten Hag wants to strengthen a variety of positions, and he certainly wants an attacker. But central midfield is key and there is a feeling that if De Jong is not part of the package, the new manager will be operating from a weaker position than he intended.

find the targets

Depending on who you listen to, Manchester City and Liverpool have left United at the exit door, both active in the transfer market, or are wisely keeping what is described as a “sizable” budget by negotiating the best deals.

De Jong is central, both in terms of availability and cost. Denmark midfielder Christian Eriksen is a living target and it seems to boil down to a direct choice for the Dane from United or Brentford, which comes with the not inconsiderable lure of keeping his family in London, where they prefer to be.

United want another attacker, who can operate in a variety of positions. Ajax’s Brazilian international Antony tops that list and the fact that he missed the first day of training with the Dutch club has fueled talk of a move.

But United know that Ajax is in a strong position financially given that it is selling Ryan Gravenberch to Bayern Munich and Sebastien Haller to Borussia Dortmund.

Murtough, who is running the transfer operations, is not taking this for granted and his team will definitely come to a successful conclusion.

Improvement required

Marco Rashford
Marcus Rashford, who has made more than 300 appearances for Manchester United, scored four goals in 25 Premier League games last season.

If there is a sense of familiarity around the players Ten Hag will meet at United’s Carrington training complex this week, there is plenty of work ahead.

None more so than for Marcus Rashford, whose form, like that of his club as a whole, has collapsed.

Videos and images have been posted on social media of Rashford doing some pretty intense training during a trip to the Nike Campus in Portland.

This is a positive sign for a player good enough to play over 300 times for United, scoring 93 goals and winning 46 caps for England despite not yet having turned 25.

The club see it as part of their plans but clearly they need to do more, much more, to impress Ten Hag.

Rashford is not alone. There is a long list of United players who need to produce performances to match their reputation. Neither Jadon Sancho nor Raphael Varane managed it in their debut campaigns last season.

To one degree or another, Donny van de Beek, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Scott McTominay and Fred all have something to prove.

Anthony Martial is one of those United would probably sell if they received a decent offer, but that may not happen. Eric Bailly and Phil Jones don’t have a significant role next season and United won’t be hanging onto them for the sake of it.

In his opening news conference, Ten Hag said he felt he could get more out of United’s players than they showed last season. It is fair to say that he will have to do it.

The great risk of Ten Hag

Not everything at United is negative.

Alejandro Garnacho was the star of the FA Youth Cup winning side and the 17-year-old Argentine has already received his first full international call-up.

Another youngster, Hannibal Mejbri, has made a positive impression and earned full international honors with Tunisia, who qualified for the World Cup in Qatar.

Amad Diallo, James Garner and Facundo Pellistri will have all benefited from loan spells away from Old Trafford last season and Ten Hag is likely to make an assessment of their near-term prospects in pre-season.

But as he begins work at the start of a three-year deal during which he is expected to challenge United again, it’s hard not to be drawn to a question Ten Hag was asked when he first met the media. time. last month.

Was the 52-year-old risking his reputation by taking on this challenge? Ten Hag said no. Most observers who have spent time at Old Trafford in recent years would say otherwise.

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