Erik ten Hag’s plans at Man United: Transfer targets and squad overhaul

Erik ten Hag’s plans at Man United: Transfer targets and squad overhaul

In an ideal world for Erik ten Hag and Manchester United, the manager will breeze back into Carrington early next month with a new lease of life and a clean slate. 

The reality is rather different, however. There are serious questions to be asked in the wake of United’s remarkable U-turn and decision to not only let Ten Hag keep his job, but open talks over a new contract as well.

Once again, the 54-year-old Dutchman will have to front up and provide some answers on behalf of Ineos as to why his new employers have spent the last few months doing the hokey cokey. He was in. He was out. Now he’s back in again.

Rather like the Mason Greenwood saga, bungled by their predecessors in the corridors of power at Old Trafford, Ineos seem to have come to the right conclusion but in all the wrong ways.

Questions will be asked and need to be answered; not least, how does Ten Hag rebuild trust with people who so brazenly hung him out to dry?

Man United’s shock FA Cup win last month strengthened the position of Erik ten Hag

Sir Jim Ratcliffe and INEOS have decided to keep Erik ten Hag in the dugout after eyeing up a number of candidates

Sir Jim Ratcliffe and INEOS have decided to keep Erik ten Hag in the dugout after eyeing up a number of candidates

Most of the people who brought him to the club and backed him these last two years are gone, most notably football director John Murtough.

Ten Hag must forge a relationship with chief executive Omar Berrada, who starts work in the middle of next month, and sporting director Dan Ashworth, whenever he arrives, as part of a new set-up. He is already well acquainted with Ineos sporting director Sir Dave Brailsford and United’s new technical director Jason Wilcox.

The dynamic has changed. Ten Hag’s role will be more focussed on coaching and less on recruitment. In that sense, his power is diminished.

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He will have to re-assert control over a dressing-room in which even the players most loyal to their manager assumed he was history after last month’s pivotal FA Cup success following months of uncertainty and news of Ineos interviewing replacements.

And let’s not pretend that Ten Hag is making an entirely fresh start. The carnage of last season looms large over him, and Sir Jim Ratcliffe will not hesitate to act if it looks like repeating itself next term.

Ten Hag keeps his job – and deserves to. But there were reasons he ended up teetering on a precipice, and they haven’t gone away just because Ineos have had a change of heart.

Eighth place last season was United’s lowest finish in 34 years. They had a minus goal difference for the first time in the Premier League era. Ten Hag’s side finished bottom of a Champions League group that included Copenhagen and Galatasaray.

Worse still, a coach who arrived in June 2022 with a reputation for meticulous planning and methodology had overseen a season of utter chaos. Four games ended 4-3, four more 3-2 and another three 3-3.

Far too often, United would concede one goal and then fall apart. Ten Hag looked on helplessly from the touchline, incapable of stopping the madness unfolding in front of his eyes.

Only relegated Sheffield United faced more shots than the 667 his side allowed their opponents in the Premier League as Andre Onana’s goal was peppered game in game out. But still he persevered with a combination of high press and low block that created a vacuum in midfield.

Only relegated Crystal Palace faced more shots than Man United in the league last season

Only relegated Crystal Palace faced more shots than Man United in the league last season

Ten Hag staying is likely to signal the end of Jadon Sancho's career at Old Trafford, barring a U-turn from either party

Ten Hag staying is likely to signal the end of Jadon Sancho’s career at Old Trafford, barring a U-turn from either party

Where was the identity of Ten Hag’s team after spending more than £400million on new players?

This is still a squad in need of significant change, including some of the players signed by Ten Hag himself like Casemiro and Christian Eriksen.

It would not have escaped the attention of Ineos that Rasmus Hojlund, Antony and Mason Mount were on the bench for the Cup Final – three players who cost £220m.

Only £50m cash is available for signings this summer with United needing to raise the rest through player sales to meet Financial Fair Play requirements.

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United are in the market for a new centre-back and striker but it appears unlikely that they will be able to significantly strengthen without any outgoings.

Nice’s Jean-Clair Todibo, Everton’s Jarrad Branthwaite and Lille’s Leny Yoro are among the centre-back’s that have been monitored by United staff.

But all three would wipe out the majority of, if not all, of United’s budget.

Bologna striker Joshua Zirkzee is of interest to United as they search for competition for Rasmus Hojlund. When it comes to building that budget, Raphael Varane and Anthony Martial have already gone, and others will follow with United prepared to sell most of the squad including Antony, Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

Captain Bruno Fernandes has made worrying noises over his future if the club can’t match his ambitions. Greenwood will go and United will listen to offers for other homegrown players like Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay whose sales would generate 100 per cent profit on the FFP balance sheet.

Ten Hag staying surely signals the end for Jadon Sancho, barring a U-turn that would eclipse even the decision to keep the manager. 

Former Bayern Munich Joshua Zirkzee recorded 16 goal contributions in Serie A, helping Bologna qualify for the Champions League for the first time

Former Bayern Munich Joshua Zirkzee recorded 16 goal contributions in Serie A, helping Bologna qualify for the Champions League for the first time

The sight of United’s £73m signing rediscovering his form to help Borussia Dortmund to the Champions League final while United were floundering in April and May was not a good look for Ten Hag following their fall-out at the start of the season.

It would be fascinating to find out what Rashford thinks of all this too. Their relationship has become strained after Ten Hag disciplined Rashford over a birthday party at China White following United’s defeat in the Manchester derby in October and again for a 12-hour tequila bender in Belfast three months later.

He felt hugely let down by Rashford’s loss of form after signing a new £315,000-a-week contract as he dropped from 30 goals last season to eight this term. 

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Rashford felt Ten Hag was to blame by asking him to play deeper to compensate for the problems at left-back, with Luke Shaw making just 15 appearances and Tyrell Malacia not a single one.

Rashford’s decision to move to the same PR firm that represents three other players who fell out with the manager – Cristiano Ronaldo, Sancho and Varane – didn’t augur well either.

Ten Hag clashed with Varane after he challenged his decision to pick Jonny Evans ahead of him because he claimed the Northern Irishman was better at playing the ball out from the back.

Ten Hag rowed with Martial over his lack of effort at Newcastle in December, had an angry exchange with Antony in training in April, and had to reproach Alejandro Garnacho for liking a comment on social media saying the United boss had thrown him under the bus by substituting him at half-time against Bournemouth.

After Facundo Pellistri joined Granada on loan in January, his agent Edgardo Lasalvia said it would be difficult for the Uruguayan to return to Old Trafford and play under Ten Hag because ‘he hasn’t used him, valued him, or treated him like a professional’.

One of Ineos’ reasons for keeping Ten Hag despite the second-season slump was an acknowledgement that there were problems bedding in the signings he made last summer.

United will listen to offers for homegrown players such as Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay (pictured)

United will listen to offers for homegrown players such as Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay (pictured)

Rashford and Ten Hag did not see eye-to-eye on the reasons for his loss of form last season

Rashford and Ten Hag did not see eye-to-eye on the reasons for his loss of form last season

Mason Mount hardly played, Onana recovered well after a shaky start, and Hojlund weighed in with 16 goals despite struggling at times.

United’s coaching staff also had to deal with a tricky situation within the squad when Hojlund came to them complaining that some of his teammates weren’t passing to him.

Club sources dismissed suggestions that the problem dated back to a row Hojlund had with Diogo Dalot over Copenhagen’s equaliser in the Champions League defeat in November, a matter which was eventually put to bed when the two players shook hands in training.

When Ineos carried out their end-of-season review, there was also sympathy for Ten Hag over a crippling injury list – nearly 70 cases in total, by far the worst in the Premier League.

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Aside from the problems at left-back, central defence was a disaster zone with Lisandro Martinez, in particular, sorely missed as Ten Hag’s lieutenant on and off the pitch in a team lacking in leadership.

Martial’s prolonged absence left Hojlund without support, while Casemiro and Eriksen, two key figures in Ten Hag’s first season, seemed to age almost overnight.

The manager took a bold decision to bench Casemiro for the Cup Final, and the mystery surrounding his withdrawal from the squad at Wembley followed by his early exit from the after-match celebrations only hardens the view that we have seen the last of him in a United shirt.

Was Ten Hag entirely blameless for the injury problems though? There were concerns about the intensity of his training sessions and Shaw was said to be angry that he was risked at Luton in February a week after limping off at West Ham. He lasted 46 minutes before suffering a hamstring tear that ended his season.

It’s an area that Ineos will look to improve dramatically next season, and one where Brailsford’s ‘marginal gains’ policy is already coming into play.

It remains to be seen if Ten Hag can modify his approach in the same way. Some of the players found him and No.2 Mitchell van der Gaag cold and unapproachable at times. ‘Erik can be his own worst enemy,’ observed one source.

Ten Hag took the brave decision to bench Casemiro for the FA Cup final win over Man City last month

Ten Hag took the brave decision to bench Casemiro for the FA Cup final win over Man City last month

Ten Hag must forge a new relationship under the new structure imposed by Sir Jim Ratcliffe (left) and Ineos sporting director Sir Dave Brailsford (right)

Ten Hag must forge a new relationship under the new structure imposed by Sir Jim Ratcliffe (left) and Ineos sporting director Sir Dave Brailsford (right)

To their credit, the two Dutchmen showed their softer side by organising for videos and letters from loved ones to be waiting for the players when they arrived at the Marriott hotel in Mayfair before United’s victory in the Cup Final.

It helped to galvanise the coaching staff and squad in a way that has missing for much of a traumatic season.

Ten Hag must build on that now; start afresh and look to the future. But any notion that his problems are a thing of the past may be wishful thinking.

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