Poor recruitment toughens Ten Hag’s task
Erik ten Hag knew what he was signing up for when he agreed to become the next manager of Manchester United, but an opening day defeat to Brighton clarifies the size of the task in hand.
United did not just lose at home to Brighton on Sunday, they were outclassed by the Seagulls. Former Red Devils striker Danny Welbeck ran Ten Hag’s rejigged defence ragged and Pascal Gross was able to pick up the pieces to score a brace of fine finishes in a 2-1 victory.
The positivity built up during a strong pre-season, albeit one where the future of Cristiano Ronaldo was an ever-present sideshow, ebbed away as United once more toiled at home.
Ten Hag follows David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick in being charged with turning around the listing United ship. But like the five managers who came before him, Ten Hag has not been given the tools needed to do the job required.
De Jong wild goose chase a Fabregas repeat
As was the case when Moyes was hand-picked by Alex Ferguson to be his successor in the Old Trafford dugout, United have wasted the summer chasing a target who does not want the move. Back then it was Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas, this time it is Frenkie de Jong from the same club.
De Jong is in an unusual spot in that Barca have made it clear they would like to sell him in a bid to address the club’s devastated finances. Ten Hag wants to reunite with a player he relied on in Ajax’s run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2019, but De Jong is happy and settled at Camp Nou and he has no desire to swap life in Spain for Europa League football. De Jong may yet be forced out of the exit door at Barca, who are unable to register their new signings due to the club’s ruined finances, but Ten Hag would have preferred to have had his compatriot available weeks ago, allowing him to create a new midfield unit from the ground up. Chelsea are also keen on De Jong, leaving United to turn to Juventus midfielder Adrien Rabiot instead.
As it is, United started against Brighton with the same axis of Fred and Scott McTominay that has been exposed in recent seasons. McTominay was fortunate not to be dismissed for a rash challenge and Fred made a negligible impact before being substituted early in the second half.
While Ten Hag has been able to bring in defensive reinforcements in the form of Feyenoord left-back Tyrell Malacia and Ajax’s Lisandro Martinez, the step up from Eredivisie football to the Premier League is a big one. Martinez found it tough against Welbeck with the centre-back’s relatively small stature likely to be targeted by Premier League strikers through the season. Diogo Dalot is not elite quality at right-back either, while the performance of Harry Maguire showed little to suggest Ten Hag’s decision to keep the England defender as captain is wise.
Striker shortage raises goals question
Ten Hag can do little about the Ronaldo saga, with the Portugal forward having announced his desire to leave Old Trafford only to find there are few takers at his massive desired salary. While Ronaldo remains at the club, Ten Hag has little option but to use a striker who contributed 18 league goals for United last term, though he appears an uneasy fit for the Dutchman’s plan.
With Ronaldo named on the bench for the visit of Brighton, Ten Hag used Christian Eriksen – a rare smart signing from the club – as a false nine, but the Dane struggled to provide a spark on debut. Eriksen looked more effective after Ronaldo’s introduction but Ten Hag must work out how to get the best of the new arrival in tandem with Ronaldo’s compatriot Bruno Fernandes.
Anthony Martial would likely have started against the Seagulls following a bright pre-season but the French forward again succumbed to injury. Marcus Rashford’s crisis of confidence appears no closer to an end, limiting Ten Hag’s options further. Mason Greenwood remains suspended.
United have linked with a surprise move for ex-West Ham striker Marko Arnautovic, who scored 14 Serie A goals for Bologna last season. At 33, Arnautovic would have represented nothing more than a short-term fix for United, emblematic of the thinking that led to the Ronaldo deal. The Red Devils were also credited with an interest in Salzburg striker Benjamin Sesko, though it was no surprise to see sister club RB Leipzig move in to snap up the talented teenager instead.
For Ten Hag, the lack of joined-up planning must be infuriating. There was little point bringing in the highly-rated manager from Ajax without giving him quality additions to a mediocre squad. Things could be about to get much worse for United before Ten Hag can improve matters.