“Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is?”
It was the best of times of what had been the worst of times. Trophy-less since 2017, Manchester United had attained in the Premier League their most stable phase since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement by achieving back-to-back top-four finishes across seasons 2019-20 and 2020-21. Despite clearly visible shortcomings, there was a sense of foundation, upon which something could finally be built to prevent the club from going in circles.
At least that was the feeling. Ole Gunnar Solskjær had brought back a lot of, well, good vibes to the team. It was much needed.
But seeds of unrest are never too far from the surface. Coming into the 2021-22 season, United had a solid platform, yes, but there were also issues that needed immediate resolution. Crucial, hard decisions needed to be made. Solskjær and his coaching staff had an important summer ahead of them. A lot needed to go right to break United’s cycle of despair; in the end, a lot of it did not.
In this article, I try to put into words not only the agony that came with what turned out to be Man United’s worst season since 2013, but also what can be expected of the club’s senior men’s team in this season and the near future.
A promise of growth
It’s July 2021. The 2021-22 season is officially underway. The Red Devils have in front of them an important summer. They have managed to achieve a footing as stable as they could have asked for with a now-four-year-long trophy drought. The bitter aftertaste of the Europa League final defeat to Villarreal still lingers, but it’s imperative to look ahead and not backwards.
United need reinforcements in the team. The coaching staff, led by Solskjær, finally have time to look at and try to resolve the tactical shortcomings that consistently plagued them last season. The Norwegian has done a better-than-expected job at stabilising the club in his time as manager, relying on a lot of things he picked up from Sir Alex Ferguson in his time as a player under him. Now entering the last year of his contract, Solskjær needs to prove he and his team can offer the tactical sophistication required to take this team to the next level.
That challenge never arrives, however. Solskjær’s proximity to the hierarchy, developed over the past two years and a half, earns him a three-year contract extension well before the first match of the season.
United on-board Tom Heaton as their new third-choice goalkeeper. Jadon Sancho finally arrives from Borussia Dortmund on the back of a £76.5m move. Raphaël Varane arrives from Real Madrid for £36m, seemingly to become Harry Maguire’s first-choice partner at the back.
But United also have big decisions to make as far as the squad is concerned. Which one of David de Gea or Dean Henderson will be the number-one goalkeeper going forward remains to be seen. Players like Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard, the latter having resurrected his market value after a successful second-half loan spell at West Ham United the season before, are entering the last year of their respective contracts. United would be better off by selling them both and using the money received to bolster their midfield, which still lacks control and is defensively frail. In the end, they sell neither, and subsequently fail to reinforce the midfield.
Towards the end of August, United are, out of nowhere, hit with the shocking reality of Cristiano Ronaldo reportedly on his way to become a Manchester City player. In that moment, United shed all that had represented their player-recruitment process and, at a speed otherwise unseen and unheard of, manage to successfully intervene and bring Ronaldo back—finally back—to Old Trafford.
Third mistake. It’s not the last one they’ll make this season, but it’s the one that effectively sets the path for the downfall that is to come.
The 2021-22 season: Yet another false dawn
Snap back to reality
The season kicks off. An emphatic 5-1 win against Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United sends out a message that maybe, maybe United are ready to go the distance this time round.
That, though, is soon proved to be a misdirect. A 1-1 draw against Southampton in the very next match demonstrates that United’s midfield is no better off than last season. A feeble 1-0 win against Wolves in the game after that further enforces this observation. The opponents have understandably doubled down on exploiting United’s weakness from the season before, and since United have decided to seemingly do nothing to sort it out means their opposition are better placed to succeed against them.
A lack of control in the midfield with oppositions more alerted than ever about their weakness make United look even more hapless in transitions, especially when going from all-out-attack to defence. Already, that newly-minted contract extension given to Solskjær is starting to look like a bad decision, not that it ever looked like a good one to begin with. He already has his work cut out for him, so when United decide to ostentatiously bring Cristiano Ronaldo back to the club, it effectively places Solskjær next to the exit door, which is now ajar and will not close.
No resurrections this time
Ronaldo’s return skews the team’s expectations to unreasonable proportions. No longer is this collective a work in progress, rather a finished output that is now supposed to go out and seize all the glory. Any trophy United now miss out on will be perceived as a huge failure.
United’s former legends have been taking a lot of credit for successfully convincing Ronaldo to return to United and not go to City. To what extent their involvement proved crucial, we will never know, but the albatross that now hangs around Solskjær’s head is going to make sure that he will not be able to prevent himself from sinking this time around.
In his time as United manager, Solskjær has proved himself to be a miracle man when it comes to coming back from situations that would have seen most managers sacked. No longer. Ronaldo’s presence not only hamstrings his ability to pick a side of his choosing for any given match, it also reduces his authority in the dressing room. Opposition teams were already finding it easy to pick apart United because of the gaping holes in their midfield. With Ronaldo added to this dysfunctional setup, these gaps have never been wider.
And yet, as is quintessential with sides trying to create chances for Ronaldo, a lot of United’s victories come on the back of the Portuguese’s goals. At Real Madrid, with a proper squad backing him, Ronaldo shone and the team succeeded. At Juventus, with a much less functional team, Ronaldo shone and the team succeeded, albeit not much and certainly not in the competition they wanted to succeed in. At United, with a team already with more chunks than armour, Ronaldo still shines, because any team set up to specifically create goal-scoring chances for one player and one player only will inevitably have said player scoring goals and, more often than not, win on the back of them. The bottom line remains: without a functional team, success in team sport is all but a distant dream.
It does not take long for things to go sideways for United. Their consistent tactical inefficiencies begin taking their toll in the long run. United do manage to crawl into the Champions League knockouts, but their performances highlight what was projected at the very start. The coming-from-behind wins are indeed exhilarating, but they happen far too often, that too in matches United would and otherwise should have dominated anyway, and are in no way sustainable.
A first-match defeat to West Ham United in the Carabao Cup immediately takes away way one trophy from the United hopefuls, and it doesn’t take long for it to become painfully clear that the team will have a hard time making it to into the top-four places come the end of the Premier League season, let alone compete for it with the likes of Man City and Liverpool, the latter of whom hand them an inevitable dressing-down in late October when they beat them 5-0 at Old Trafford; with United fans leaving the stadium at half-time, it’s only mercy on Liverpool’s part that the result does not reach a level much more embarrassing by the full-time whistle.
Solskjær seems to be making an escape once again as United beat Tottenham Hotspur 3-0 in the very next game, a result that ends Nuno Espírito Santo’s ill-fated term as Spurs boss. However, reality sets in once again the very next game as United lose 2-0 at home to Man City, a result that does not do justice to City’s dominance on the day. The ensuing international break sees Solskjær remain at the helm, indicating that maybe the hierarchy aren’t ready to end his misery just yet, but the ice under his feet has been thinning for long, and by now it has become apparent to everyone that his exit is a matter of when, not if.
The fateful day awaits the Norwegian on the other end of the November international break. Claudio Ranieri’s Watford hand United a 4-1 drubbing at Vicarage Road, securing the only league win the Italian will manage during his nearly-four-month-long spell at the club. It is Donny van de Beek, of all players, whose consolation goal against the Hornets proves to be the last of Solskjær’s United reign.
And that’s it. It’s over. Solskjær’s three-year-long reign as manager of Manchester United is brought to a close, the Norwegian being the second manager in succession United relieve of his duties within a year after handing him a contract extension he did not merit; José Mourinho preceded him.
Would Solskjær have lasted longer had Cristiano Ronaldo not returned? Possibly. But blaming his dismissal solely on the Portuguese is a bad attempt at oversimplification. The warning signs had started surfacing well before Ronaldo put himself on the market; he might have accelerated his march towards the exit door, but Solskjær’s time at the club was coming to an end with or without his presence at the club.
Wrecked it, Ralf
Solskjær’s departure leaves first-team coach Michael Carrick in temporary charge of the squad until the club find a replacement. There is an argument to be made that, in the middle of the season, given their predicament, United could do with a manager who could come in and bring this dysfunctional bunch of players together to the best of his abilities—given that the previous guy was known for his people skills and not his tactical acumen, United are unlikely to replace him with someone of the same ilk—and salvage the season as much as possible while the club continue to look for longer-term solutions in the background.
Ultimately, they decide to bring in one man to oversee both of those operations.
In footballing circles, Ralf Rangnick’s name carries quite some weight. He is considered a substantial contributor to the evolution of German football over the last two decades. His project-building ability is exemplified by the work he has done with TSG Hoffenheim and the Red Bull empire. His tactical philosophy of collective football provides the foundation upon which many big-name managers have built their own styles of play. By all accounts, this is a man who knows his football.
Rangnick only recently took the job of Head of Sports and Development at Lokomotiv Moscow, so it will take more than an interim role to convince him to make an early exit and move to England. United, therefore, make him not only the interim manager for the remainder of the season, they also announce that he will be working with the club as a consultant from next season on an initial two-year deal and is tasked with auditing the football operations at the club and infer what all needs to change. If all goes well, he could even get the manager’s role on a permanent basis.
On the face of it, the appointment looks like a step in the right direction. United have, in the decade gone by, proudly refrained from having football-savvy people in their hierarchy making the footballing decisions, so getting Rangnick on board signals positive change.
However, before he can go about telling United how to get their football act together, Rangnick has another task at hand: salvaging the ongoing season. Now, he may have done wonders at Hoffenheim and Leipzig, but the German has not worked at a global commercial juggernaut as big as United, which brings a level of scrutiny and a lack of patience he hasn’t experienced yet. What it also brings is a squad of big-ego players requiring sophisticated people skills to keep them ticking, and the current dressing room has never been more divided; he has his work cut out for him.
Rangnick needs to get this dysfunctional United team play collective football adhering to his principles of coherent pressing, to which end he has two big challenges in front of him: he’s arriving mid-season and has to achieve a complete 180 with the team’s training regimen so as to implement his preferred style of play. This would have been hard enough to attempt if given one proper pre-season; he only has a couple of weeks. Then there’s the matter of an immovable boulder up the pitch: Rangnick can’t not have Cristiano Ronaldo in his starting XI, which immediately completely nullifies his chances of being able to get this United side to play the way he wants. Rangnick has to not only teach this team the fundamentals of collective football to make the transition for the next manager easier, he also needs to salvage the season with a squad equipped in no way to suit his style of play. Upon his arrival at the club, he is also greeted by a COVID outbreak that takes out half of the team.
So much for good omens.
Rangnick gives it a go. He deploys United in a 4-2-2-2 formation, a system known to be one of his favourites, and sets up the team to press high up the pitch and cut off channels down the opposition flanks. Soon enough, reports begin to emerge that the players are not responding positively to the training regimen required to get them adhere to such a plan, which is not surprising given the dichotomy between what Rangnick is asking them to do and what Solskjær did. The resulting inertia leads to United’s matches consistently becoming tales of two halves, with the team unable to maintain their shape and concentration levels for more than one half of a game.
Nevertheless, the change in United’s style of play is evident immediately and the results are positive, albeit feebly. They go undefeated for the entire month of December, drawing two matches and winning four. At the very least, the early signs of Rangnick’s reign indicate that United could at least manage to wrestle for themselves a Champions League spot by the end of the season.
Rangnick’s 4-2-2-2 is not without its challenges, however. Not only do the players find it hard to stick to the plan for the majority of a match, the system also restricts the freedom the creative players enjoyed under the previous regime. United do go undefeated in December, but the victories have not been convincing, therefore it won’t be long before results stop favouring them and the scrutiny regains its volume.
United’s first unfavourable result under Rangnick arrives with the first game of the new year as they slump to a 1-0 defeat at home against Wolves. The next match, an FA Cup third-round affair, sees them edge Aston Villa 1-0 at home. Steven Gerrard’s Villains, however, exact their revenge the very next week as they come from two goals down to draw 2-2 at home against United. After two disappointing results in the league, in an attempt to make sure they don’t lose their in-game lead against Brentford in their next game, Rangnick takes Cristiano Ronaldo off in the second half in favour of younger, fresher legs. Duly, he then gets to experience first-hand what happens when a coach has the temerity to sub off the five-time Ballon d’Or winner. The in-game cameras leave the on-pitch action to focus on Ronaldo sulking on the sidelines. Rangnick is not only forced to extricate himself from the game to provide Ronaldo an explanation for his decision, he also gets to face the wrath of the media, having to explain why it had to be the Portuguese and not someone else.
Between his team unable to carry out his game plan for more than a half and him having to accept that taking Ronaldo off the pitch is not a decision that comes cheap, Rangnick chooses to relent and arrives upon a system more akin to the 4-2-3-1 that was famous under Solskjær. Everyone’s favourite defensive pivot of Scott McTominay and Fred gets tweaked ever so slightly, with the former tasked with playing a bit deeper than the latter, allowing Bruno Fernandes to once again occupy deeper areas of the central midfield.
Off the pitch, Rangnick’s press conferences attract attention because of the brutal honesty with which he provides his assessment of the club’s predicament. While it makes for delectable content fodder for the media and is appreciated by the United fanbase, it does very little to unite the United dressing room, which is already teetering on the edge of collapse. Big personalities like Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard have their contracts running out in the summer and no clear communication has been made to them regarding their future. Lingard, in particular, has justifiable reasons to feel frustrated. At the start of the season, he was not allowed by the club to join West Ham, where he enjoyed a fruitful loan spell last season, and even in January, once Rangnick gives him the green light to leave, no agreement can be reached upon with his potential suitors in time.
Established core players like Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes find themselves drastically off-pace compared to their performances from the previous seasons. Cristiano Ronaldo, now having had the modern-day Man United experience, has every reason to feel regretful over his decision to leave Juventus, where he would have not only earned more money but also had a better chance at winning at least domestic silverware if not European glory.
A disjointed dressing room means United’s performances remain unconvincing on the pitch, even in victories, which in turn does not help the dressing room atmosphere. This cause-and-effect relationship rumbles on for some time. Rangnick’s press-room candour and drastically-different-from-Solskjær’s training regimen also do little to help.
What also does little to help is a complete lack of communication on the club’s part in explaining Rangnick’s role from the next season. Be it the players, the coaching staff, or even Rangnick himself, no one really seems to be having an idea as to what the German’s job is supposed to be come summer. The players are left befuddled, not knowing how to respond to a manager who most likely won’t be the manager next season but could still affect their employment status at the club.
This smorgasbord of mishaps exhibits the complete lack of direction and coherent planning that exists at the club, most of which can be credited to the Glazers—United’s owners—and the outgoing executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.
With there hardly being any glue keeping the dressing room together, the prospect of winning a trophy is the only thing that could at least drive the team to go a certain distance and not disintegrate completely right before the business end of the season. Another chance of silverware is snatched away from United, however, as they bow out of the FA Cup in early February by losing to second-tier side Middlesbrough on penalties. The last embers of their hopes of ending their trophy drought die out as they are beaten by Atlético Madrid 1-2 on aggregate in their Champions League Round of 16 tie in March.
And that’s pretty much it. Once it becomes clear that he won’t become United’s new permanent manager, Rangnick’s press-room candour reaches new heights, further (not) helping team morale. Ultimately, everyone just sort of gives up. Between January and March, United lose just two league matches. After that, they lose half of their remaining ten matches, winning just three of them, ending comfortably outside the Champions League places despite entering the last month of the season as mathematically-possible contenders for one.
Yes, granted that little was already in his favour when he arrived at the club, but Rangnick’s lack of experience with a squad full of celebrity-esque players demonstrates his lack of man-management skills compared to his predecessor.
The feeling of impending doom that sets around the club during the last weeks of the season makes for one of the lowest phases United have endured over the last ten years. Having failed to secure Champions League football for next season, questions begin to arise as to how much power Rangnick will be allowed to exercise in his capacity as a consultant over the next two years.
The uncertainty over Rangnick’s future with the club further intensifies once reports begin to emerge about his lack of involvement in United’s search for the next permanent manager. Then, in a move that does not help his relationship with the club in any way, Rangnick chooses to become the manager of Austria’s men’s national team, starting from next season. This invites vociferous disapproval from the majority of the United fanbase, who up until now were enjoying Rangnick’s honest assessment of the club. While the consultancy would indeed have left him with time to work on other projects, him choosing to become a full-time manager elsewhere is deemed by many an affront to not just United but also the mountainous effort required to take them back to the top.
In small circles across the footballing world, feeble whispers begin to emerge, whispers about a scenario many have been thinking about for quite a while now without discussing it out loud, given how preposterous—yet, given it’s United, typical—it would be. Then, when Erik ten Hag, United’s newly-appointed manager, is asked about the prospect of working with Rangnick at the club in his first press conference as United manager, the Dutchman flatly replies, “that’s club business,” confirming for once and for all that the German was relied upon very little as far as picking the next United manager was concerned.
A reportedly-two-hour-long conversation follows between Rangnick and Ten Hag in the coming days, and, less than a week after the latter’s first press conference as United manager, it is announced that Rangnick will not be continuing his work at the club in any capacity whatsoever. What began as the appointment of the right man in a less-than-ideal role ultimately results in said man leaving without having begun the job he was primarily brought on board for, which made his arrival at the club promising at all. Once again, in quintessential United fashion, another spectacular failure.
The road ahead
Before talking about a new Man United manager, it is imperative to address the hierarchical mess that awaits them at the club on day one.
Over the past nine years, United have, almost proudly, refrained from having a football-first approach. Priority has always been given to the club’s commercial profile and not to the football played on the pitch; the result is out there for everyone to see.
After all, you have to be bad, comically, infuriatingly bad to spend well over £1 billion in player acquisitions spread across several iterations of managerial change and still remain in the same phase you were nearly a decade ago. Granted, that progress is never linear and ups and downs are a natural part of every aspect of life, including, in this instance, football, but when clearly discernible patterns are visible to everyone on the outside to no avail, frustration is inevitable and very much justified.
Clearly, United have the capital. They don’t have the backing of a consortium with near-infinite wealth, nor are their owners interested in treating the club as anything other than a cash cow, but on the back of the success they entertained for two decades before the last one, they remain a global commercial giant. In cases like these, as exemplified by their arch-rivals Liverpool over the second half of last decade, it is absolutely crucial to have in place people who fundamentally understand the sport to make sure that United’s end product—football, that is—remains fresh and relevant. That that has not been the case for them has been credited, for the most part, to Ed Woodward, United’s now former executive vice-chairman who many believe had the Glazers’ blessing to run the club as he saw fit.
Under Woodward, the club’s player-recruitment policy would go something like this: back the manager in their first full season, with most players primarily picked for their commercial potential, and then sit back and expect the players brought in that one time to work for the majority of the manager’s tenure, back them in later seasons ever so reluctantly until they reach the point of no return and have to be relieved of their duties.
Now, according to the former manager of United’s senior women’s team, Casey Stoney, for all his flaws, Woodward did have the club’s best interests at heart. But his obstinacy regarding not relenting his agency in the footballing side of things was unquestionably crucial in stunting the growth of United’s football. Were there proper football people in place, they would have established a proper structure above the manager in the club’s hierarchy to work with them season in, season out, and adhere to the basic principle of squad-building that stands true for any team sport: that squad-building is a never-ending, ever-evolving process, and while some transfer windows and off-seasons require more activity than the other, under no circumstances do player arrivals and departures become one-time affairs.
A proper football structure in place would have resulted in a healthier, more coherent squad, with each player individually assessed and dealt with accordingly. Players would have been moved on in due time and funds would have been used adequately to reinforce the squad as per requirement. Players like Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard would have never been kept till the last day of their contract only to be let go for zero returns. Players like Phil Jones and Eric Bailly would not have been kept at the club in the name of value retention. Someone like David de Gea would have been moved on at the right time, replaced by a player fitting the profile of a modern-day goalkeeper. The club would have never intervened in the Cristiano Ronaldo situation last season, nor would they have to wait this season for Frenkie de Jong, a player who has no interest in joining the club. They would also not have to go after Marko Arnautović as a stop-gap, short-term solution, having already onboarded the likes of Radamel Falcao, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Odion Ighalo and Edinson Cavani over the last eight years for that very reason.
That is the what-could-have-been, however. What United do have in front of them, though, is the biggest hierarchical change over the last ten years. Richard Arnold is the new chief executive officer of the club, and while he, like Woodward, does not have a footballing background, he is reportedly more open to working with people who do than his predecessor did. John Murtough is the club’s first-ever football director, having previously been their head of football development, while Darren Fletcher is the new technical director.
This is the owners-elected triumvirate that is now set to drive United forward. So far this season, as far as player recruitment goes, the club have been relying almost solely on Erik ten Hag’s word. While this is adequate during his first season at the club, in time, they will need to establish a proper footballing structure that would work as an intermediary between the coaching staff and the club executives so as to not repeat the mistakes of the Woodward era.
In due time, we’ll get to see whether the Arnold-Murtough-Fletcher trio proves to have learned from Woodward’s mistakes or not. We’ll also get to see as to how much do the Glazers tend to intervene in their decision-making, giving us further indication about how much of the same they did during Woodward’s time at the club.
Reportedly, Arnold has also set up a “think-tank” that, along with Murtough, consists of the club’s legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson, former United CEO David Gill and former club captain and legend—now a club ambassador—Bryan Robson — three people who played key roles in United’s success over the 90s and the noughties.
Now, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with giving advisory roles to the people who succeeded at the club, having the spectre of Sir Alex loom large over a Man United manager does little to help him establish and secure his authority over the dressing room. It is also representative of United’s obsession with their past and a complete reluctance to accept the root of their present-day mediocrity. As a United fan, one can only hope that this “think-tank” works towards finding modern-day solutions to build the footballing foundations from the ground up.
The challenge for Ten Hag
One of the biggest challenges Erik ten Hag has in front of him is the very same one that his predecessor, Ralf Rangnick, did: what to do with Cristiano Ronaldo?
That Ronaldo wants to leave the club is not even remotely surprising. One season is more than enough for him to understand that staying at Juventus would have been a much better decision than coming back and missing out on winning the Champions League by not being in the competition altogether. Had he stayed in Turin, Ronaldo would have entered this season in complete control of his next destination.
Which is currently not the case. Ronaldo talked of working with Ten Hag and getting Man United back to top when the Dutchman’s arrival was confirmed — a transparent PR move to limit the damage his brand would take once he started looking for pastures anew well before Ten Hag’s term even began.
Ronaldo missed a major chunk of pre-season citing “personal reasons”, which is not unreasonable by any stretch of the imagination. After all, he and his partner lost one of their newborn babies earlier this year, and Ronaldo took no days off at the time, so it’s understandable for him to be wanting some family time in the off-season.
That said, fire is scarcely not preceded by smoke, and his agent Jorge Mendes has been making clear all summer that his client would like to play for a different club. And why shouldn’t he? Ronaldo’s 37 and running out of chances to get that one last hurrah. Like it or not, this want for personal glory is a major part of what keeps driving him, because of which he remains an elite-level footballer even at an age when others call it a day.
With 24 goals and 3 assists, Ronaldo was unquestionably United’s best player last season, just like he was the best player for Juventus during his time playing in the Serie A. Teams mandated to set up for Ronaldo will see Ronaldo succeed, even when they don’t. Because of their ill-planned squad-building, Juventus and Man United failed where Real Madrid succeeded.
Calling Ronaldo a problem at Man United is misleading. If anything, he is a mere representation of the malaise that plagues the club. He was brought back for reasons related to anything but football, and his move was a stark reminder of the fact that the United ownership holds very little intellect and interest in handling the football side of things.
Despite present-day mediocrity, United remain a huge global brand managing to be able to pretend that they are still a “big” club. Their commercial identity is still rooted in the teams that succeeded in the decades gone by. A young Cristiano Ronaldo blasting in goals for the club while being surrounded by the likes of Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tévez in that iconic AIG-branded United shirt remains a major part of United’s present-day brand. With foundations that shallow, it is not hard to imagine what drove the United owners to finally move for him after all this time, even if it is alarming and infuriating all the same.
Ronaldo’s arrival worsened Solskjær’s chances of surviving last season. His presence hampered Rangnick from bringing about any meaningful change to the team’s style of play. The same challenge now presents itself to Ten Hag, and while the Dutchman has been sufficiently diplomatic in his press conferences, calling Ronaldo a vital part of his plans, there is no doubt that he would rather not have him at all while attempting a gargantuan rebuild.
And while both United and Ronaldo will be better off without each other, the likelihood of that happening reduces by the day, because United are too proud to admit their decision to bring him back was a mistake and would want compensation in order to let him go. More importantly, Ronaldo’s party has so far failed to find him a new club. From Atlético Madrid to Bayern Munich, the Portuguese has been linked with every Champions League team under the sun to no avail. Chelsea for a time looked like a possible destination, with their new co-owner and chairman Todd Boehly looking for a marquee signing, but he decided to listen to his first-team manager instead. Paris Saint-Germain, who could always be relied upon to take a superstar football on hefty wages off your hands, have infuriatingly decided to import United’s idea of hiring a football consultant and actually make it work, with Luís Campos installed at the club as Football Advisor and Christophe Galtier brought in as head coach, the two having a decent record of succeeding while working together, which has seen Les Parisiens making sensible footballing decisions all summer.
While Ronaldo does bring a profile teams could definitely rely upon over a 60-game season, the overall package that comes with him, including the financial commitment, the noise, and the mandate of having him in the starting XI as long as he is fit, is more than enough to turn clubs off. And so, he remains a challenge for Ten Hag.
A hope of rain on a patch of desert
As far as a football club’s institutional stability and footballing foundations are concerned, in leaving Ajax for Man United, Ten Hag could not have taken a bigger nosedive. Both clubs have a sense of footballing identity, but while Ajax are still a reputed name aware of their history but ready to move forward, United remain obsessed with their past at the cost of their present and, by extension, their future.
No manager since Sir Alex Ferguson has arrived amid a hierarchical change as big as the one United have had over the summer, whose nascent foundations are effectively non-existent, barely sufficient to work with Ten Hag and help him build a new squad.
So far, United have been relying on the Dutchman’s word to get him the players he wants, which is an understandable strategy given their current predicament. Will they eventually be able to establish their own football framework to support the manager? We’ll have to wait and see. If the early weeks of the 2022-23 season are anything to go by, change will only be gradual, and there’s little precedent to imagine anything otherwise.
Figuring out what sticks
Establishing a style of play sustainable in the Premier League and finding the core of players he can rely on in the dressing room are Erik ten Hag’s immediate priorities for this season. United may very well not win a thing and end outside of top four—even six—but all of it would be worth it if by the end of the season we have some idea about the strengths and potential of Ten Hag’s Man United.
Things haven’t started off well, however. After a promising pre-season that saw the youngsters excite and the team in general seemingly responding positively to Ten Hag’s methods, United have begun their Premier League campaign the same way they ended the previous one: atrociously.
The pre-season saw United trying to play proactive football: play out from the back, mount pressure on the opposition by restricting them into their own half, and involve the fullbacks by inverting them into the central areas to bolster the team’s otherwise mostly inept midfield. While 4-2-3-1 turned out to be Ten Hag’s formation of choice, with the midfielders playing hybrid roles (in the McFred pivot, Fred looked to be the midfielder sitting behind Scott McTominay, reversing Rangnick’s tweaking of the pivot, with either of Bruno Fernandes or Christian Eriksen looking to make forward runs), he occasionally also set his team up in a 4-2-2-2, especially with the likes of Zidane Iqbal, Charlie Savage—the two playing as the sitting midfielders, the former being the ball-progressor—and Donny van de Beek—effectively playing as a second striker, looking to make late runs into the box—on the pitch. Harry Maguire, usually the first-choice left-sided centre-back during the Solskjær and Rangnick reigns, now found himself on the right, with Victor Lindelöf playing on the left. That the now-loaned-out Alex Telles was tried out as a left-sided centre-back and a defensive midfielder hinted at those two being the prominent positions Ten Hag would want new signing Lisandro Martínez to occupy.
This flagged up obvious challenges. At right-back, Diogo Dalot came off as the only reliable option able to take up Ten Hag’s instructions, Aaron Wan-Bissaka having looked completely out of his comfort zone whenever given a run. United’s ineptitude during attack-to-defence transitions persisted and have percolated into the new season, indicating that it will be some time before United become a hard team to score against. That David de Gea is barely able to operate as a modern-day goalkeeper is no news either. Dean Henderson left on loan for Nottingham Forest even before Ten Hag could properly take charge (eventually going on to express his frustration on the way United treated him over the past two seasons in an interview with talkSPORT), leaving the Dutchman to put his trust in the 31-year-old Spaniard, for the time being at least. That United have refrained from not only making a tough but important call in moving De Gea on for years while also not having reinforced their defensive midfield options, which have needed addressing since the early days of Solskjær’s reign, just further goes on to showcase their football-savviness.
Speaking of midfield options, Ten Hag’s pursuit of Frenkie de Jong has also not helped him and United. Given his age and player profile, and the fact that he excelled under Ten Hag at Ajax, it is understandable why the Dutch manager wants him at United. But the Barça midfielder has made it clear in no uncertain terms that he has no intention of leaving the club, despite the Blaugrana wanting desperately to get him off their very muddled books, and even if here to move, United won’t be the club he’d consider, with Chelsea looking a very likely destination for the 25-year-old. There isn’t a like-to-like replacement for him on the market, leaving United going into the last two weeks of the summer transfer window still heavily short of midfield options. That they have had to turn to Adrien Rabiot once again shows how unprepared United are for the new season. The arrival of Christian Eriksen has unquestionably bolstered United’s midfield quality, but he is not of the same profile as Frenkie de Jong.
The incomplete nature of Ten Hag’s first United squad has resulted in a very hefty reality check. Two games into the new season, and all the promising signs United had shown in the pre-season have vanished. Brighton & Hove Albion and Brentford, two well-run clubs with well-built, coherent squads coached by tactically-astute managers, have handed United an aggregate defeat of 6-1.
Injury to Anthony Martial, who shone in pre-season, forced Ten Hag into making changes to his Plan A first day of the season. It didn’t work out. United conceded two very quintessentially United goals to concede all three points — not a good start by any means. Then followed a trainwreck in London. United conceded their first goal thanks to a De Gea howler; by the 35th minute, they had conceded four. Every goal conceded further drained United’s confidence, allowing Brentford to pounce on any and all mistakes they made, which they are wont to do more often than not in the early days of Ten Hag’s reign.
United’s next five fixtures see them face Liverpool, Southampton, Leicester City, Arsenal and Crystal Palace. Given their performances in the last two games, it’s hard to imagine them getting even one point out of those fours, which only makes one worried, very worried, for Ten Hag.
Revamping the current squad will take more than a few transfer windows. United have barely managed to secure the positions Ten Hag wanted reinforcement in from the very start, making them more likely to make mistakes when they are trying to play out from the back. The upcoming matches on the horizon don’t paint a promising picture either, so one inevitably fears what would happen to the manager if United fail to win any of their next five games.
Ten Hag has been given some harsh lessons at the very beginning of his Premier League career. United are not immediately ready to play the proactive football he targets. With tough fixtures on the horizon, it already looks like sink-or-swim time for the Dutchman.
A message to the fanbase
You cannot start solving a problem without admitting that one exists in the first place. Man United have failed to do so, and for the most part, so has their fanbase. Despite a decade’s worth of evidence in front of them, many United fans consider this phase just a blip, something United need to be brought back from and reach the heights of yesteryears.
It’s not going to happen. The sooner one can make peace with the fact that Man United are a mid-table club with a glorious past, the sooner they’ll be able to deal with subpar United performances with some semblance of nuance.
Because United’s mediocrity is not going to disappear anytime soon. It will take time. It will take hours of painful football before the team become competitive again. And it will have to be played out on the pitch; there is no shortcut for going from subpar to superb.
Patience is a virtue long forgotten in the realm of modern-day football and social media. United fans all over the world are already raging over something. It doesn’t help the manager, and while the ownership is and should remain subjected to incessant protest, expectations with this current United setup need to be realistic. A lot of the players looking atrocious will come good in the right setups. A lot of mistakes United are making right now will eventually become rarer and rarer. It will take time, and time is what they need right now.
There is also a lot of wishful thinking involved here. It will take some time before we can properly assess whether the new hierarchy is able to bring about any change to the way the club operate with the Glazers at the helm. If they’re able to do so, in time United will become competitive again. If they’re not, it will be rinse and repeat.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær exceeded expectations in providing Manchester United a relatively stable footing before the club’s self-destructive tendencies undid all of his good work. The same tendencies ultimately botched Ralf Rangnick’s ill-fated tenure at the club. Now, with a new hierarchy in place, things don’t look a lot different than what they used to be, although it needs to be said that it’s still early days. With two heavy defeats, however, new manager Erik ten Hag is already under fire, finding out the hard way how hot the Red Devils’ managerial seat is.
If United want to retain at least their commercial might over the next ten years, they’ll need to get their football structure right sooner or later. If they don’t manage that, always remember that things can get much, much worse.
There are enough lessons in front of the new United hierarchy to learn from. The clock is already ticking against them, and they need to demonstrate quickly whether their modus operandi is going to turn out to be any different than that of their predecessors.
Then again, did I ever tell you the definition of insanity?