Ten Hag is set to take charge in close season, of a club that is in freefall since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, despite spending in excess of £1 billion on player transfers. A serious rebuild is the need of the hour and the Dutchman, who will carry his good reputation and his brilliant work at Ajax, will have to start from scratch. Four key issues require immediate attention.
United are currently seventh in the Premier League standings with eight matches to go. They are all but certain to miss out on a top four finish and the ignominy of playing in the Europa League next season looms. United have conceded 41 goals in 30 Premier League games as of now. In all competitions, they have let in 50 goals. As per FB Ref stats, goalkeeper David de Gea has made 127 saves, else it would have been even worse.
When United roped in Raphael Varane last summer, it felt like the club addressed its defensive problems. Varane, along with Harry Maguire, was expected to form a formidable centre-half pairing. But the Frenchman has failed to live up to his world-class billing, while after a fine season with the club and country, Maguire has regressed this term. An elongated Euros hangover has affected Maguire’s performance, so much so that there’s a serious question mark over his captaincy. Left-back Luke Shaw, too, is having a poor season. They are good players and can’t become bad overnight.
Under Ten Hag, Ajax have shown defensive discipline. They have conceded just 14 goals in 28 matches so far, as the club tops the Eredivisie (Dutch league) standings. To fix United’s problem, however, Ten Hag will have to bring in a defensive midfielder of Declan Rice’s quality. At the moment, there’s too much pressure on defence, for the midfield pivot of Scott McTominay and Fred has proved to be a letdown.
The Rashford conundrum
He looks lost. After coming back from a surgery on his shoulder, Rashford was expected to regain his mojo. He fizzled instead, to the extent of losing his place in the starting XI even when Cristiano Ronaldo is not playing. The interim United manager Ralf Rangnick is rather going with Bruno Fernandes as a false nine. There have been reports about Rashford not happy with Rangnick and is contemplating leaving the club. That’s a bit exaggerated though. Rashford is a United thoroughbred. He is a fantastic player and a wonderful human being. Ten Hag will have to revive Rashford. The 52-year-old is known to have the ability to improve players. Rashford needs a fresh start.
Addressing player power
This issue has reared its ugly head over the last few years. There was a time when Chelsea were the very epitome of player power, while Sir Alex ruled United with an iron fist. It was his way or highway and even an iconic captain like Roy Keane and a global celebrity like David Beckham learnt it the hard way. But now there’s an overload of leaks, and cliques and rifts have developed in the dressing-room. Some players and their PR teams are allegedly causing disharmony. United boast four of the Premier League’s highest-earning players, at a time when the club is suffering their worst trophy drought in 40 years. There is a disparity. The big-earning players consider themselves as global brands and they use social media to their advantage. Ten Hag is a disciple of Johan Cruyff, but he will have to channel his inner Ferguson to keep player power at arm’s length. Does he have the personality and charisma? Time will tell.
Deep in the mire, United have lost their identity in terms of playing style. Ten Hag’s Ajax play an attractive, possession-based football in a 4-3-3 formation. His football imitates Pep Guardiola’s philosophy. Ten Hag was Guardiola’s understudy at Bayern Munich for three years and by his own admission, he learnt a lot from the current Manchester City boss. “I learned a lot from Guardiola. His philosophy is sensational. It is this structure I have tried to implement at Ajax,” Ten Hag once said.
At United, it would be imperative that he builds a team in his own image, with right transfers. The Glazers’ United usually fall for commercial signings and shirt sales. The new manager will have to change that. It would be interesting to see if the board gives him enough freedom to do that.