Erik ten Hag looked in good spirits as he celebrated New Year’s Eve with a family meal – but the Manchester United manager wouldn’t have been disappointed to see the back of 2023.
While the first-half of the year was a success, with a Carabao Cup triumph and a third-place Premier League finish, the past few months have undone all United’s progress under the Dutch coach.
United have already lost nine Premier League games this season and have crashed out of both the Champions League and the Carabao Cup.
They were beaten 21 times in the calendar year, making it the fourth-worst in the club’s 146 years of existence.
Every defeat deepens the gloom at Old Trafford and even United’s wins this season have been, on the whole, unconvincing.
Erik ten Hag ended 2023 on a low note as Manchester United lost 2-1 at Nottingham Forest
United were woeful as they slipped to defeat at the City Ground with another poor display
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So Ten Hag enters 2024 under serious scrutiny, with the arrival of Sir Jim Ratcliffe after his £1.3billion investment only deepening the uncertainty over his future at the club.
January may be light on fixtures but it shaping up to be a pivotal month for Ten Hag and could well determine whether he survives or becomes the latest manager on United’s scrapheap.
The first discussions with Ineos
Ratcliffe’s buy-in to United, which sees him take control of football operations, has certainly changed the dynamic.
Sir Dave Brailsford, the Ineos sporting director, has attended United’s last two matches. He saw a bit of fighting spirit when they came back from two-down to beat Aston Villa 3-2 on Boxing Day.
But there was something symbolic about Brailsford sitting next to Sir Alex Ferguson as United produced a dismal performance in losing 2-1 at Nottingham Forest on Saturday night.
Ferguson’s United sides made light work of such opponents but the mighty have fallen.
Sir David Brailsford was seen sitting alongside Sir Alex Ferguson at the City Ground
United announced Ratcliffe’s £1.3billion deal for 25 per cent of the club on Christmas Eve
Brailsford toured United’s Carrington training ground on Sunday and held informal chats with Ten Hag and other staff. The deal was only confirmed on Christmas Eve, but Ineos are eager to get to work.
So January amounts to something of an audition for Ten Hag, who needs to impress his new bosses as they begin what is likely to be a root and branch review of how United operate.
Ten Hag has insisted he is looking forward to working with Ineos and the feeling is reciprocated but recent poor results would certainly give the new owners cover to sack him.
There is a feeling that Ten Hag is running out of road and both results and performances must improve immediately. The manager continues to point to a debilitating injury list that has robbed United of several key players.
‘It’s below our standards but we know the reasons. In January, players will return. We are looking forward to that and then our squad and team will be stronger,’ he said after the Forest loss.
‘They know when I have a squad that is available, then the results will be there.’
But if there isn’t an upturn in form when they come back, Ten Hag will be in serious trouble.
United urgently need an upturn in their fortunes as Ratcliffe and Ineos get down to business
Key players back from injury
Ten Hag does have a point. United have certainly been hampered by injury blows from pre-season onwards and at no point as the manager been able to select his strongest XI.
The situation should ease in January with key defenders Lisandro Martinez, Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire, plus midfielders Casemiro and Mason Mount, set to return after injury setbacks of varying severity.
Sofyan Amrabat, Tyrell Malacia, Victor Lindelof and Anthony Martial are also currently sidelined.
Ten Hag will hope Martinez, who was excellent last season, can help patch up United’s leaky defence after a long absence with a foot fracture.
Maguire was in good form and starting regularly when he picked up a groin injury against Bayern Munich. Shaw is first-choice at left-back.
Casemiro and Mount weren’t in the best of form before their injury problems, but Ten Hag will hope for improvement.
In theory at least, United should be a much tougher proposition when everyone returns.
Casemiro (left) and Lisandro Martinez (right) are two star performers from last season due back in January following injuries
Summer signing Mason Mount on the training ground last week as he recovers from injury
Harry Maguire is currently sidelined with a groin problem suffered against Bayern Munich
United backed Ten Hag back in the summer when they spent £72m on Rasmus Hojlund, £55m on Mount and £43.8m on Andre Onana.
But that made the budget tight for the January window if they wish to keep within the Premier League Profitability and Sustainability Rules.
As such, and despite Ratcliffe coming in, it’s expected to be a quiet January in terms of signings at Old Trafford. For one thing, the Premier League haven’t yet formally ratified Ratcliffe’s deal.
If United opt to follow up Wout Weghorst with another loan stop-gap, potential targets include the 34-year-old Bayern Munich forward Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting.
A more long-term target up front would be the in-form Stuttgart man Serhou Guirassy, who has a release clause of £15.2m. Even that is too much for United in January.
Free-scoring Stuttgart forward Serhou Guirassy is a Manchester United target
Jadon Sancho was the surprise choice for January on Manchester United’s official calendar
The £73million winger was banished to train with the academy teams by Erik ten Hag back in September and United are likely to try and offload him during the January window
Any business will more likely concern offloading players. Donny van de Beek sealed a loan move to Eintracht Frankfurt on New Year’s Day following a miserable time at United.
Ideally, United will see the back of Jadon Sancho, who was banished to train with their academy sides after he accused Ten Hag of lying about his training levels in September.
Sancho may have been United’s Mr January on their official 2024 calendar but he may not be at the club come the end of the month.
Long-term squad planning
January will see some decisions being made on the squad looking ahead to next season and beyond.
Mail Sport reported United have chosen not to activate the 12-month extension on Raphael Varane’s £340,000-a-week contract but will instead seek to negotiate a new, cheaper deal.
That may prompt Varane to look elsewhere, given he is now free to speak to overseas clubs.
This also applies to Martial, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Jonny Evans and Tom Heaton now we’re into January.
Manchester United have decided against triggering an option to extend Raphael Varane’s deal
Ineos will certainly want to get a grip on the wage bill and will have their own ideas about the squad and the profile of players they wish to buy.
But despite the promise of cash to spend in the summer, players will have to be sold to raise funds.
The key thing is Ten Hag’s involvement in these decisions. If he doesn’t get to express a view on whether United should keep a World Cup winner like Varane, it surely doesn’t bode too well for his job prospects.
The fixture list
The January fixture list, a mentioned earlier, is very light.
Because of the Premier League’s winter break, United only have a home game with Tottenham on Sunday January 14 scheduled.
Prior to that, they head to League One side Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup third round on Monday January 8. Get through that and a fourth round tie will round off the month.
Obviously United should be beating opposition from two divisions below them but, frankly, nothing is guaranteed at the moment.
February is more intense with league games against Wolves, West Ham and Aston Villa.
Lose to Wigan and Ten Hag may meet his fate sooner but one consolation about United’s premature European exit is they can fully focus on bridging the eight point gap between themselves and the top four.
Perhaps the FA Cup will prove to be Ten Hag’s salvation just as it was for Ferguson in 1990.
Ten Hag will at least get to spend some time on the training ground with his players in January
Time on the training ground
One criticism often levelled at Ten Hag’s United is that they seem to lack any discernible playing style or identity.
Hopes he could replicate the aesthetically-pleasing football his Ajax team produced have been dashed.
The busy schedule until now has restricted time to get ideas across on the training ground but January’s winter break will allow Ten Hag plenty of time with his players.
There is plenty to fix, from their leaky back line and lack of midfield bite to poor service from wide positions and misfiring forwards like Antony, Hojlund and Marcus Rashford.
If United aren’t visibly improved after this January reset, Ratcliffe and Ineos may make use of their newly-gained power to put the manager out of his misery.