Daniel Storey reviews the summer transfer business, looks at the challenges ahead and predicts where the club will end up as part of his season preview for all 20 Premier League clubs
In addition to changing their manager, Manchester United made a balanced choice in a test market. More tactical and successful than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Erik ten Hag will not be treated like a French substitute teacher like Ralf Rangnick. For members of the squad to drop lines about improving discipline is quite amusing if they’re the ones accused of indiscipline, but they’re at least making the right noises.
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One of the reasons new managers can experience an initial rush of success is that every player believes—with good reason—that they’ve been given a fresh start. This is useful here because there were so many who needed one. Check out each member of the likely starting front three – Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial. All three are from the seasons that fall somewhere between bad and terrible. You will feel different now.
The hope is that this fresh start, this shared feeling of wanting the best for the club despite their off-pitch circus, can help transform that sense of freshness into something more tangible. That happened initially under Solskjaer, albeit slightly built on clay.
Fix the defensive mistakes, let the creative forces shine and Manchester United can really become dangerous again. Bruno Fernandes created the second-most chances in the league and Christian Eriksen played the same role at Brentford.
Get the wide attackers to fire and it helps in two ways: Rashford and Sancho can create chances themselves, but they can also push full-backs back and create the time and space Bruno works magic with. Get this right and United have lockpickers when they dominate the ball and counterattacks when they don’t.
The Ronaldo problem has completely overshadowed the pre-season. The fear is he has been so vehement in his attempts to find a new club that he may not simply be reintegrated into the herd. His absence poses a more pressing problem for Ten Hag: Manchester United are on the verge of a season with a first-choice centre-forward who has scored a league goal in the past 18 months. That’s unthinkable.
In the last third, United clearly lack squad depth. If Rashford, Sancho and Martial are the top three to start the season, that leaves a reserve lineup of Anthony Elanga, Amad Diallo and… Shola Shoretire? United will appear in four competitions this season and there is a mid-season at the World Cup (although none of those first picks may be on-site).
In defence, United seem to have the opposite problem: plenty of options but not many of them are deemed fit enough for the purpose, so the club are buying replacements. If Ten Hag intends to select Lisandro Martinez and Harry Maguire, Raphael Varane, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones, Victor Lindelof and Axel Tuanzebe will remain in reserve.
But more than these micro problems, the macro problem stands out: is Ten Hag big enough for the task? is anyone Does the club’s historic success and size, coupled with their recent malaise, unleash a cyclone of pressure and noise that makes it impossible to plant seeds and wait for them to grow? Ten Hag is undoubtedly a competent coach. But there are so many plates to turn and so many people willing to call you incompetent for allowing even one of them to fall over.
I understand why Manchester United would want to sign Frenkie de Jong this summer when Ten Hag sees him as the perfect answer in central midfield (I don’t agree but I can accept it). I understand it takes time, and I can understand that they might eventually close the deal, even if the need to persuade him to move smacks of Angel Di Maria.
What I don’t understand is why other issues in the squad have not been addressed because so much time and effort has gone into this pursuit. And I can’t understand why they were so confident that De Jong wants the move when the opposite seems to be the case.
Despite this, they have a backup for Bruno Fernandes (Eriksen) and a backup for Luke Shaw (Tyrell Malacia). Somehow they’re in a position now with fans crossing their fingers that the shy striker they loaned out to Sevilla – and didn’t score there – doesn’t get injured.
Ten Hag was appointed with the acknowledgment that this will take time. The club accepts that, they accept that, almost all players accept that (although Ronaldo seems to be an obvious exception). The supporters have to accept that now.
It is easier said than done. Online at least, United’s fanbase has become both generally toxic and divided into factions that are themselves toxic to each other. You might think this exists in a bubble of its own, but when Rashford is abused online and Maguire is booed by his own supporters, it escapes this online world and becomes a little more real. It also makes an uneasy situation more toxic.
Does Ten Hag have the strength to get through all of this? Who knows. Are Manchester United really ready to commit to a long-term version that may take several years to undo their own self-inflicted malaise? Not sure. Want to hear Richard Keys pull off that “Erik ten Months” joke and Mark Robins promote the job again? goodness no.
Given the strength of the squads and the success of the summer, it’s hard to argue as finishing in the top four stands for them. 6.
The Score is Daniel Storey’s weekly assessment of the performance of all 20 Premier League teams. Sign up here to receive the newsletter every Monday morning this season