Second-highest points tally in the league since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement a decade ago. End of the team’s worst trophy drought in three decades.
Given how the season started, things could have gone very badly for Erik ten Hag in his first season as manager of the Manchester United senior men’s team. However, despite it ending in a disappointing defeat against United’s same-city rivals, who have gone on to match their achievement from 24 years ago and—finally—complete a historic Treble, the Dutchman’s first season at the club has indeed been a step in the right direction.
Then again, managers regardless of their potential have found themselves hamstrung at an institution not interested in functioning like a serious football club. In this article, I try to sum up my views on the season gone by, the various issues that have popped up, and what we, as United fans, need to keep in mind heading into the next season.
Six years a wait
United ended the previous season at the lowest of lows. A series of poor decision-making that began right at the start of last summer and continued well into the season meant quite a few of the club’s chickens came home to roost simultaneously.
A hard reset was required, and that’s exactly what took place. Sort of. New manager Erik ten Hag was greeted at the club by new chief executive officer Richard Arnold, who took over from Ed Woodward, club’s first-ever football director John Murtough, and new technical director Darren Fletcher — all ready to give their best shot and try untangle the spectacular mess that is Manchester United Football Club.
Ten Hag’s tactical preferences in pre-season showcased that he was keen on his team becoming a proactive-football-playing side as soon as possible. The performances looked promising as well, and the players seemed to be taking to his instructions quickly and positively.
Then the season officially began and reminded me once again why pre-season results should never be taken too seriously. Graham Potter’s Brighton & Hove Albion pounced on United’s mistakes duly to win the opening game of the season 2-1 — a sound victory. Then came the away trip to Brentford, where United’s proactive proclivities were properly pounded to put them four goals down after the opening 35 minutes. United managed to concede no more goals until the full-time whistle, but the reality check was well and truly handed to Ten Hag: his preferred way of football would need to be adjusted with a tinge of pragmatism if he was to survive in the job long enough to realise his footballing vision at the Theatre of Dreams.
And he relented. Just enough for United to go on a four-match unbeaten run that saw victories over Liverpool, Southampton, Leicester City and Arsenal. Then, however, United suffered a 1-0 defeat to Real Sociedad in their first Europa League game of the season, which was followed by a 2-0 win over Sheriff Tiraspol in their second Europa League game, after which came a very humbling 6-3 defeat to local rivals Manchester City; two late goals in this game helped United save face to some degree, but this start to the season embodied perfectly the shape their entire season would go on to take: good, but not great.
Nevertheless, United’s performances improved significantly in the lead-up to the World Cup, after which they resumed exactly how they were faring before the pause. In fact, when they registered a comeback win over Man City mid-January—courtesy of a very dubious Bruno Fernandes equaliser followed by a Marcus Rashford winner—genuine questions were being asked about United’s chances of challenging for the league title. A week later, though, Arsenal promptly nipped the situation in the bud with a 3-2 win over the Red Devils as they built up a lead of their own.
United would not be denied silverware for long, though. February brought with itself a Carabao Cup final showdown with a resurgent Newcastle United, which the red United won at the end of a hard-fought 90 minutes with a 2-0 scoreline.
And so came to an end the six-year trophy drought — the club’s worst in three decades. On-loan striker Wout Weghorst probably embodied the sentiments of the majority of the United fanbase best as he looked on to his team’s fans during trophy celebrations, visibly overwhelmed emotionally by the jubilation that came with the end of the wait, the length of which many would say a club like Man United should’ve never had to endure in the first place, but to quote Ten Hag himself: “eras come to an end.”
Ten Hag’s capacity in relenting in his pursuit of dogmatically proactive football to add pragmatic components to his system proved vital in United sustaining an in-general upward trajectory over the course of the season. Sometimes we even saw the team set out specifically to thwart an opposition’s particular way of playing — best demonstrated by the Dutchman’s plan against Barcelona during his side’s Europa League playoff tie, which saw Fred, Casemiro and—in particular—Weghorst carry out a commendable man-marking job on Barça’s central midfielders in their first build-of-play phase. Winning a hard-fought tie against the eventual LaLiga champions helped United demonstrate that they were ready for any side on their day.
It didn’t always work out, however. United’s defeats were few and far between, but they were often scarring. The 6-3 Man City defeat earlier in the season was one. Then, in early March, they went down to bitter rivals Liverpool by a margin of 7-0 — a historic scoreline. As much as this will be remembered as a humiliating day for the Red Devils in the years to come, this result was an outlier — both in terms of how the two sides came into this game and how the two would go on to finish their respective campaigns. But United could make little excuses for this game; simply put, nothing worked for them, and Liverpool compounded their misery by converting seven of the eight chances they got on the day. For me, though, this was not as bad as either of the two defeats (one a 5-0 defeat at home, the other a 4-0 one away) United suffered at Liverpool’s hands the season before, for those defeats were more representative of how the two sides were faring that season — United were in tatters and going bad to worse, while Liverpool were gathering steam towards what could have been one of the most successful campaigns by any team in club football history.
There was a worse defeat to come. United’s second-leg defeat to Sevilla in the Europa League was, at least for me, their worst day out. They were completely stunned by the crowd at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán and outplayed by a team that again reinforced their love for the competition by going on to win it for a record seventh time. This could have been avoided, however, had United finished the tie off when they had the chance in the first leg: after going 2-0 up inside 21 minutes, the first half of the first leg itself saw United create enough chances to seal the tie and make the semis as Sevilla barely managed to keep up, playing exactly like you would expect a side that spent the first half of the season completely out of sorts, flirting with relegation in the league, to play. This was the Europa League, however, and as United declined to put them out of their misery, the Rojiblancos graciously took them up on their offer and came out in the second half like the serial winners they are, ultimately coercing United into supplying them two late own goals; they took the tie with a comfortable 3-0 win at home.
Steady although they were for the majority of the season, when they slumped, United slumped badly. This peculiar marriage of proactive football and pragmatic thinking required not just skill but a lot of concentration on the players’ part, which is why, while we saw United growing this season, we also saw them coming apart spectacularly.
The levels of concentration were bound to take a heavy hit as we reached the business end of the season. From Matchdays 31 to 34, we saw United drawing once (Spurs, 2-2), winning once (Aston Villa, 1-0) and losing twice (Brighton, 1-0; West Ham, 1-0), giving Liverpool an outside chance to replicate in the league the spectacular comeback they made two seasons ago. It wasn’t to be, however, as Liverpool confirmed United’s Champions League berth by drawing 1-1 against Villa in their penultimate league game. United, meanwhile, won their last four league games before losing the FA Cup final to Man City; a first-minute goal from İlkay Gündoğan immediately sunk the United spirits, and he would score again in the second half to nullify Bruno Fernandes’ highly-contentious penalty. United players could all but watch as their once-noisy neighbours lifted the FA Cup in front of them before matching their 24-year-old Treble-winning record a week later.
And so ended Ten Hag’s first season as the manager of the Man United senior men’s team. Many good days, some really bad ones, and the thirst for silverware firmly quenched — not great, but good enough.
Moving the pieces
Erik ten Hag received a lot of praise for the way he handled the Cristiano Ronaldo situation over the first half of the season. In truth, he did not have to do much; the Portuguese did most of the work for him, right from the start of the season.
It was not unreasonable of Ronaldo to take some time off at the start of the pre-season last summer. He and his partner had lost one of their newborn babies earlier in the year. Grief, complicated as it is, sees each person process it their own way, so Cristiano should have been allowed as much time with his family as he wanted.
That, however, is not the only reason that saw Ronaldo miss out on pre-season training at Man United. It also became clear very early on that he had no intention of returning to a club that had no Champions League football to offer him, especially after the “homecoming” season he had experienced. His then-agent, Jorge Mendes, tried very openly to negotiate with any and every Champions League club, offering the services of his client — a five-time winner of the competition. Much to their shock, no club took too serious an interest, with Man United refusing to consider cutting their losses.
Ten Hag, in the meantime, played all the media questions with defensive diplomacy — calling Ronaldo one of the greatest-ever players and talking about looking forward to working with him. And so, unable to find himself an appropriate club in due time, Ronaldo returned to Man United just in time for the team’s final pre-season friendly against Rayo Vallecano, in which he would feature in the first half before walking out of Old Trafford after being subbed off at half time.
Ask any professional footballer worth their salt and they would tell you about the importance of a proper pre-season training regimen in order to get match-fit and ready for a gruelling year ahead. Cristiano needed to only look at his eternal rival Leo Messi, who, after a tumultuous summer the year before that saw him leave Barça under comically dramatic circumstances, suffered from poor performances in his first season at Paris Saint-Germain owing to having not had a proper pre-season.
Cristiano’s non-performance against Rayo Vallecano made relegating him to the bench for his side’s first league game against Brighton an easy call for Ten Hag, though he would sub on the Portuguese in the second half. Since United lost this game, and with Anthony Martial, who showed great promise in the pre-season, injured, Ronaldo went back into the starting lineup for the game against Brentford, and while he had little role to play in the Bees running a 4-0 riot against his side, his well-documented lack of off-ball movement saw him replaced with Marcus Rashford up front for the game against Liverpool. The switch of personnel saw United win against the Liverpudlians, with Rashford thriving up front, making it further easier for Ten Hag to offer Ronaldo a seat beside him in the dugout.
United went on to win four on the trot after the Brentford defeat, with Ronaldo offered only off-the-bench appearances, in which once again his lack of fitness shone as he managed to make little difference when given the chance. The next time he was offered a starting berth on the team sheet was against Real Sociedad in United’s first Europa League game of the season, which they promptly went on to lose. Yet, he started United’s second Europa League game away at Sheriff Tiraspol, in which he slotted away a penalty to open his account for the season. In United’s next game, in which they lost 3-6 to Man City, Ronaldo was not even called off the bench. Martial came on in his stead, and with a quick-fire brace towards the end of the game, he not only helped United save face in what was otherwise a very humiliating performance, he also demonstrated the gulf between what he was bringing to this team—when fit, that is—compared to Ronaldo.
At this point, many started wondering whether Cristiano’s age had finally started catching up to him, while many others—myself included—believed that it was his pre-season decisions that were having a bigger impact on his performances. However, Ronaldo has never been a slouch in training or the gym, so now that he was at the club working with the team, albeit belatedly, things would have started clicking for him, especially with the World Cup, which many believed would be his last, just on the horizon.
And it did not take long for the positive signs to show. United’s game immediately after the Man City defeat saw them beat Omonia Nicosia 3-2 in the Europa League. Ronaldo, having started this game, did not earn himself a goal, but his link-up play was impressive and he even earned himself an assist — easily, his best performance of the season so far. He went back to the bench for the next game, however, but had to be subbed on for an injured Martial in the first half; he went on to score the winner in the first half itself as United beat Everton 2-1, the winner also being the Portuguese’s 700th club-career goal. He started the next two games as well, before returning to the bench for United’s midweek affair against Tottenham Hotspur.
It was in this game that the first major controversy emerged, as Ronaldo walked off the Old Trafford pitch towards the end of the game, having refused to come on for the final few minutes to help United seal the 2-0 win over Spurs. “I’ll deal with it,” said Ten Hag calmly in the post-match press conference when asked about his striker’s walk-off, and deal with it he did, excluding him altogether for his side’s next game — an away affair at Chelsea. Right when it seemed like things were looking up for him, Cristiano punctured the good-feeling balloon with a decision not uncharacteristic of him.
However, he was duly reinstated into the squad immediately after the Chelsea game. He started the next three games, all of which United won, before missing out on the last two games before the World Cup due to an “illness”, as specified by Ten Hag when asked about his absence.
On November 13, after United had played their last pre-World Cup game (a 2-1 win away at Fulham), speculation began immediately regarding Ronaldo’s future, though it didn’t take long for a definitive conclusion to be reached. Three days later, Piers Morgan, himself a very controversial man in the British media circuit, began drip-feeding the footballing world with excerpts from an exclusive interview he had managed to score with Ronaldo — an interview the club had no idea about and one Jorge Mendes would go on to state later was against his wishes. In this bombshell affair, Ronaldo addressed a lot of issues, making some very legitimate arguments about the club infrastructure having not been improved since his last stint there, criticising United’s owners, while also badmouthing his previous manager Ralf Rangnick (who he said wasn’t “even a coach”), Ten Hag himself (who he believed did not respect him enough, hence the substitute appearances), and his former teammates Wayne Rooney and Gary Neville (the former, he wondered, criticised his performances because he was not as good-looking as him), among other things.
It is not unreasonable to assume that this very deliberate act of taking himself to the point of no return at Man United was carried out by Ronaldo because he believed that, if he were a free agent and not tethered to a club, he would have a greater chance of getting himself a contract at a Champions League club by January. Regardless, as far as Man United were concerned, bridges were irrevocably burnt. Within a week after his interview with Piers Morgan surfaced, Ronaldo had his contract terminated by United. By the end of December, on the back of a rather subpar showing at the World Cup, Ronaldo would find himself out of options in Europe and on his way to Saudi Arabia to sign a very lucrative contract with Al Nassr.
And there you have it. Ten Hag arrived at the club praising Ronaldo and looking forward to working with him. In absentia, the Portuguese left him with little choice but to soldier on with what he had at hand. Then, once he returned, Ronaldo did not like being taken off in his first match of the season, not even in a friendly. His lack of pre-season training meant he struggled with whatever chances he got in the beginning. Then, once things started clicking, he felt not respected enough by Ten Hag by keep getting benched, leaving the Dutchman with little choice but to impose a one-match ban on him, after which he was duly reinstated in the starting lineup before blowing things up for himself with an interview, leaving the club with little choice but to let him go. As I wrote at the time, the decisions he made towards the end of his second stint at Man United were characteristic of Ronaldo, though one can’t help but wonder how things would have turned out had he taken a leaf out of Leo Messi’s book and used his club employment as a glorified gym membership to get himself properly match-fit for the World Cup. We all know what transpired in Qatar, so I will save you the trouble of reading through that.
The matter of match-fitness would turn out to be crucial for Cristiano in Saudi Arabia, where in his first half-season for Al Nassr he went on to register 14 goals and two assists in 16 Saudi Pro League matches, taking his overall tally for the season for both club and country to 23 goals and five assists. Even if you take into account the current difference in the inherent quality of the Saudi Pro League and the Premier League, given his age and the tumultuous season he went on to endure, these are not at all bad numbers for Ronaldo on an individual level. In the coming seasons, despite the Saudi Pro League due for a quality boost with its recent cash injection, it wouldn’t be surprising if Ronaldo continued his goalscoring form. It would be even less surprising if he returned to Europe the moment he received an offer to take a shot at the Champions League again.
As for Ten Hag, even though his leg work was done for him by Ronaldo, his very textbook decisions on the back of the Portuguese’s antics and his ultimate departure brought him a lot of leverage in the United dressing room: if he could handle Cristiano Ronaldo, he could handle anyone.
Still the most expensive defender in football history, club captain Harry Maguire has been reduced to a laughing stock over the past two seasons, with recent trends indicating that it is unlikely for things to ever make a complete 180 for him at Old Trafford from here on.
It wasn’t always this way. The odds were always going to be stacked against Maguire when United paid way over the odds to acquire his services back in 2019. However, he did strengthen the United defence almost immediately; the Red Devils had the third-best defensive record in the league in the 2019-20 season. The season after, Maguire once again proved to be crucial in United being defensively solid, going on to be one of the most important and undroppable players in the second half of that season.
Not that he was dropped much in the first place — something that ultimately kickstarted his downfall at the club. As Maguire made himself available for selection in his first two years at the club, he continued playing through injuries, even taking injections to make sure he didn’t let his manager down. This was one of the many issues Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Man United had, as his tactical deficiencies resulted in an over-reliance on his first-choice players, which would go on to affect, in particular, Maguire, Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes. Luckily for Fernandes, this only resulted in a few patches of stunted creativity on the pitch, but the two Englishmen would go on to suffer direr consequences as a lack of proper game-time management from the Norwegian took a physical toll on them both.
We’ll come to Rashford in a while. For now we come back to Maguire, who in early May 2021 sustained an ankle ligament injury that prematurely ended his season. He could only look on from the bench as United lost the 2021 Europa League final to Villarreal on penalties. In those final games, Maguire’s absence was keenly felt, bringing him a degree of respect he would never again receive.
United needed to get a lot of things right to make the 2021-22 season a memorable one — for the right reasons. In they end, a series of decisions taken by them — primarily, no tactical tweaks by the coaching setup to deal with previous season’s issues, the club not recruiting to strengthen the team’s defensive midfield department, only to then cap off the window by spectacularly bringing back Cristiano Ronaldo — left them way worse at the end of the 2021 summer transfer window.
Cristiano’s presence in the dressing room undermined the authority of both Solskjær and Maguire, neither of whom, admittedly, had the demeanour of traditional team leaders. More importantly, having Ronaldo on the pitch resulted in further tactical discombobulation for a side that already had very little foundation to begin with.
When things ultimately started going wrong and goals began to leak, it was inevitable for the United backline to start facing severe criticism. Every player at the back took his fair share of blame, but all of it paled in comparison to what Maguire started receiving, owing further to his price tag and the captain’s armband. After a string of poor performances, Solskjær was sacked in November, which brought Ralf Rangnick to the club, and although he initially stabilised things, the complete 180 his tactics and training regimen brought with themselves weren’t taken to kindly by the ever-dividing United dressing room. Poor results soon returned, and with them came back the volume of criticism handed to the players, criticism that hampered their morale, which further slashed their ability to mount any kind of comeback, which resulted in more poor results, and repeat. With nothing in place to break this loop, things continued getting worse, which stopped only when the season finally came to a close in May 2022.
When you are a football club whose global fans’ count goes well beyond the half-a-billion mark, it is very easy for constructive criticism to dissolve into abuse of unimaginable vitriol, especially in an age where the players receiving said abuse have the luxury of receiving it directly in the inboxes of their many social media profiles. It is a ubiquitous problem in football, and it gets even worse in Man United’s case. After the end of what many believe to be the worst season in the post-Sir Alex era, for reasons already discussed above, it is not surprising—although it is concerning—that Maguire went from being the first name on the team sheet to the first one receiving dog’s abuse, mostly by his own fanbase.
Despite the terrible end to the previous campaign, Erik ten Hag’s arrival ahead of the 2022-23 season meant Maguire had reasons to be optimistic. He is, after all, a progressive ball-carrier of a defender who helps his side assert control in the first build-up phase — something Ten Hag made clear very early on that he was keen to implement at United as soon as possible.
However, there was a problem: for the left-sided centre-back role, Ten Hag specifically wanted someone left-footed, or at least someone comfortable on his left side. Maguire is neither left-footed, nor is he comfortable on his left side. He relies on his right foot to carry the ball up the pitch and also make tackles, and while he is good at those things in isolation, that’s not what Ten Hag was after.
The Dutchman’s wish was fulfilled in the form of Lisandro Martínez, who arrived from Ajax and went on to have a sensational debut season (not to mention winning the World Cup with Argentina), silencing his own critics who had issues with his height. This didn’t immediately spell doom for Maguire, though, who after Martínez’s arrival was simply moved to the right side of the defence by Ten Hag as his first-choice right centre-back.
Keen on playing a proactive style of football, Ten Hag went into the first game of the season with the Maguire-Martínez centre-back pairing. However, defeats to Brighton and Brentford in the opening two games made Ten Hag realise that he would need to adopt a more pragmatic and reactive approach, which begged tweaking his starting lineup. Up the pitch, this saw Ronaldo replaced by Marcus Rashford as the central striker (#9). At the back, this meant either Martínez or Maguire would be replaced. Now, given the fact that the Argentine was on-boarded by the club at the specific request of the manager and cost a reported £56.7 million, it is not too hard to understand why Ten Hag wouldn’t relegate him to the bench immediately, and so it was Maguire who was replaced by Raphaël Varane — someone more capable of complementing a progressive defender like Martínez in a reactive setup than the Englishman.
As United’s results improved, the Varane-Martínez pairing became first-choice for Ten Hag, which made many speculate whether he was already fed up with Maguire. This, however, was merely a result of tactical tweaking the Dutchman felt was necessary to get his side back on track after a poor start.
Maguire would soon start getting chances again once things stabilised, albeit to play on the right of central defence instead of his preferred left. This created a problem, as the subsequent passing, movement and carrying angles this change generated were not something Maguire was comfortable with, and it soon became apparent that this change of position would not work for him in the long term. Ten Hag persisted with him on the right, however, even in Martínez’s absence, which saw the Argentine replaced by Luke Shaw or even Victor Lindelöf — in line with Ten Hag’s demand for a left-sided centre-back comfortable on his left foot.
Maguire never shone as a right-sided centre-back throughout the season. On his best day, he would look solid — composed in general but not outstanding in any eye-catching way. On his bad days, it’s not like he needed much to go against him for his critics to jump on his back again and evolve into abusers, so this positional change soon reinforced the “poor performance results into vitriolic criticism resulting in worsened morale” routine. Maguire’s performances would progressively worsen as the season progressed, dipping in particular in the second half of the season. Finally, Ten Hag took notice as well, which resulted in a left-footed centre-back in Martínez or Shaw partnered up with Lindelöf, not Maguire, towards the end of the season.
And there we have it. Maguire might not have asked for the heavy price tag or the captain’s armband, but neither of these things came to his aid once things started going bad for him after two promising seasons in the beginning. Now 30 years old, the Englishman finds himself out of favour and surplus to demands at Man United, getting stick from the pubs of Manchester to the parliament of Ghana.
For Maguire, the best outcome would be a new challenge elsewhere, where he could once again occupy his berth on the left side of a defence. For United, it would be vital to not repeat the same mistake they made with Paul Pogba and cut their losses while they can instead of letting an expensive asset walk for free. Maguire is still a good defender and, with two years left on his contract, will fetch a decent enough price to suit all parties. It will be interesting to see whether United prove to have learnt anything from their past mistakes.
Make your Case
United’s recruitment policy over the past decade has been, to put it simply, laughably bad. A lot of instances can be plucked out of thin air to establish this. For now, let’s remind ourselves of the fact that United still haven’t found a long-term solution for their deep-lying midfield role since Michael Carrick retired five years ago. They on-boarded Nemanja Matić as a stop-gap solution in 2017 to allow themselves some time, before failing to use said time to arrive upon a proper solution.
After not reinforcing their defensive midfield in the summer of 2021, United entered the first game of last season having, once again, done nothing about it. It wasn’t until they suffered heavy defeats in their opening two games that they decided to go for another stop-gap solution by sending £70 million Real Madrid’s way to acquire the services of the veteran Casemiro. Los Blancos would have actually liked to keep the Brazilian for a season or two more in order to ease the transition of their young midfielders into the first-team setup, but the money they were getting for a player on the wrong side of thirty with two years left on his contract was simply too good to ignore.
Casemiro is not what you’d call an ideal Ten Hag midfielder. He’s not press-resistant, nor is he very good at orchestrating a build-up play from deep, and while he does have the occasional exquisite pass in him, those only come off when he finds himself in a bit of space. And yet, he’s exactly the type of midfielder United have been crying out for for years. His positional awareness and ability to rally the players around him make him an important presence in the centre of the pitch. In his time at Real Madrid, he also became famous as someone who would execute tactical fouls to perfection while getting away with next to no punishment, and while he did bring the former to United last season, he also accrued quite a fair few cards. Also, having an actual defensive midfielder occupy said role meant that the likes of Fred, Scott McTominay, and Christian Eriksen could play further up the pitch and perform better. Who’d have thought?
Throughout the season, Ten Hag worked around Casemiro’s shortcomings in the first build-up phase by asking him to move further up the pitch and have someone like Eriksen or Bruno Fernandes come deeper to try orchestrate play. The Brazilian would then return deeper as United players moved into the final third. Casemiro not only passed this little test with flying colours, the experience and confidence he brought with himself from Madrid proved crucial in him quickly becoming one of the first names on the team sheet — when he was available, that is.
While it is true that Casemiro was one of United’s standout players last season, it doesn’t change the fact that his acquisition is a very expensive gamble on the club’s part — purely because they have been here before and have proved inept in finding long-term solutions. Ideally, they should already be looking out for a deep-lying midfielder more fitting to Ten Hag’s preferred style of play, who should arrive at the club no later than next summer.
David vs Goal-ire
David de Gea is, unquestionably, one of the best Man United players—if not the best—of the last decade. That said, at the end of every season over the past five years, the same question continues to be asked: is it time for United to move the Spaniard on?
From a logical standpoint, the answer to this question has been a resounding “yes” for quite a while, and yet De Gea prevails as United’s first-choice goalkeeper in 2023. Why? Well, there are quite a couple of reasons: it’s hard to move on a player on a £375,000-a-week contract, and when you add to that United’s famous recruitment policy, you can see how De Gea remains at the club despite being well past his prime.
De Gea could have been displaced from his spot last season had Dean Henderson, who has made a good case for himself in his time at United, stuck around to at least discuss things with Ten Hag, but he had left for Nottingham Forest on loan even before the Dutchman took charge and seems keen on a permanent move this summer, bringing us back to the 32-year-old Spaniard.
De Gea came through Atlético Madrid’s academy in the noughties before breaking into their senior squad, earning himself a move to United in 2011. In time, as United slumped into mediocrity, De Gea shone as their shiniest jewel, going on to establish himself as one of the best goalkeepers in Europe. A famous fax-machine breakdown prevented what seemed at the time an inevitable move for him to Real Madrid, and a couple years later followed a confidence slump that coincided with the goalkeeping position undergoing a massive revolution at the top level.
When he arrived at United, De Gea’s distribution was considered one of his strong assets. That, though, was a time when the likes of Manuel Neuer were considered freaks, outliers when it came to what was expected of a goalkeeper. Now, having a keeper comfortable with the ball at their feet and coming off their line is very much the norm, and De Gea is adept at neither of those things.
To his credit, though, the Spaniard did put in a lot of work under Ten Hag last season, doing his best to come off his line and help push his side up the pitch to the best of his abilities. United’s defence, despite some of their spectacular defeats, was adequate for the most part, which is signified by the 16 clean sheets De Gea kept in the Premier League to take home the Golden Glove over the likes of Ederson Moraes, Alisson Becker and Aaron Ramsdale. What is also true, however, is that De Gea felt completely out of his depth every time United tried to play out from the back, which often resulted in the ball being lumped out into the stands instead of any meaningful on-pitch sequence.
What was also worrying watching De Gea last season was that his tendency for making silly mistakes returned — far too often to be chalked off as one-offs. No player is above making mistakes, obviously, but the Spaniard’s record for howlers can be traced back to at least 2018, if not earlier. Maybe that Real Madrid move could have avoided the confidence slump De Gea went on to suffer post 2017, as the inevitable silverware he collected there could have taken him to unforeseen heights; we’ll never know.
What we do know is this: for the kind of football Ten Hag wants to play, and the kind of football teams play at the top level in present-day football anyway, De Gea is out of his depth. He is still one of the finest shot-stoppers on his day, and will continue to do so until he retires, but everything else discussed thus far establishes the fact that the sooner United move on from him and bring in a keeper more suitable for modern-day football, the better.
De Gea’s £375,000-a-week contract comes to an end at the end of this month. He has not been listed on the club’s list of retained players, which was recently released. The general idea on the club’s side is to have him continue with reduced wages. Ten Hag, as expected of him by now, has played things diplomatically in the press, praising De Gea’s performances, avoiding directly going after him for his mistakes, and talking about having him at the club for years to come. In all honesty, keeping a senior figure like De Gea for the sake of the dressing room would not be the worst thing, but he is neither interested in massively-reduced wages, nor is he interested in playing second fiddle to anyone else. United could simply choose to run the clock down, even choosing to go for a phase where they wouldn’t have an out-and-out first-choice goalkeeper, as was the case in the years before when the likes of Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar left.
Whenever we bid De Gea farewell, I sincerely hope that the club acknowledge the work he has put in over the past decade and give him the send-off he deserves.
The #9 dilemma
United’s performances in front of goal last season were a bit of a mixed bag. They could have been a lot worse had it not been for a sensational comeback season from Marcus Rashford, who completely obliterated his demons from the season before.
The two seasons before the infamous 2021-22 campaign saw Rashford make 101 appearances for United alone (22 goals and 12 assists in 44 appearances, 3,465 minutes in the 2019-20 season before producing 21 goals and 15 assists in 57 appearances, 4,147 minutes). Much like Harry Maguire, under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Rashford too was over-relied upon and made to play through injuries, which visibly impacted his performances on the pitch towards the end of the 2020-21 season.
Early in the 2021-22 season, Rashford underwent a shoulder surgery he had been delaying for quite some time, which put him out of action for around 12 weeks. By the time he returned, things had already started getting bad at United, further hampering his rehabilitation back into the side. And as things continued getting progressively worse throughout that season, Rashford became a part of those chosen few on whom the negative light would shine the most. Managing just 1,658 minutes of game time across 32 appearances, Rashford produced five goals and two assists — a drastic fall from the numbers he generated in the two seasons before, which had hinted at him finally coming into his own. Naturally, the criticism-turned-abuse that came the United players’ way saw even a fan favourite like Rashford being told to focus more on his football and less on his off-field philanthropy, with many even suggesting that sticking with him for the future wasn’t worth it.
Things could only get better coming into the 2022-23 season. But Rashford wasn’t Erik ten Hag’s first-choice striker. That would have been Cristiano Ronaldo, but in his absence stepped up Anthony Martial, who was coming off a very underwhelming half-a-season loan spell at Sevilla. The Frenchman shone in pre-season, however, and it looked like things would finally start kicking for him. Unfortunately, he would go on to have an injury-ridden campaign, which restricted his game time to just 1,441 minutes across 29 appearances that resulted in nine goals and three assists.
When he played up front, Martial would come in deep to link up play with the midfielders and even drift out wide moving into the final third. In his stead, Ronaldo would be given the chance, but his lack of match-fitness meant he offered even lesser up front in off-ball movement than usual, this time without the goals that absolved him of criticism the year before. And so, Rashford was handed the role of the central striker by Ten Hag going into the third game of the season.
And he immediately shone, scoring in United’s 2-1 victory over Liverpool. Given Martial’s unavailability and Ronaldo’s inadequacy, Rashford consistently proved a handful for opposition defenders, but it wasn’t until after the World Cup that he completely exploded, exceeding all expectations that he himself had set with his performances not too long ago. The Englishman finished the season with 30 goals and 11 assists in 4,300 minutes of game time across 56 appearances — his most productive season by a mile.
What set apart Rashford’s performances last season than the ones that came before was his positional awareness in front goal and the composure with which he was taking his shots, and while we did see the usual decision-making hiccup here and there, the positives overwhelmingly outweighed the negatives and the average, making watching Rashford grow under Ten Hag a very exciting prospect.
Another person that must not go unmentioned here is Benni McCarthy, who joined Ten Hag’s coaching staff specifically to look after the side’s attacking sequences. McCarthy had a decent career in Europe as a striker and came to United with a track record of improving players under him during his time as a coach in South Africa. Both Martial and Rashford showed visible growth in their game this season; one can only assume the work McCarthy and Co. could do with a promising striker that is consistently available, for, lest we forget, Rashford prefers coming off the left, which he was often allowed to do last season alongside another striker to no detriment of his overall gameplay.
Wout Weghorst was another forward that arrived mid-season on loan from Burnley after a productive first-half loan spell at Beşiktaş. While he offered little goal threat in his time at the club, he did offer link-up options and, more importantly, coherent and consistent pressing up the pitch, keeping the opposition centre-backs engaged and inviting his teammates in for a coup de grâce. His pressing ability would also see him deployed often as a withdrawn forward, which was an interesting experiment that provided fascinating results — it worked in United’s favour during their Europa league playoff tie against Barça, while it completely blew up in Ten Hag’s face during his side’s 7-0 defeat to Liverpool.
In Martial, Rashford and Weghorst, we have three forwards of three distinct profiles, who give us an idea of the kind of forward Ten Hag wants: someone who can engage the opposition defenders with his off-ball movement while also linking up play when his side has the ball — someone who need not be a 40-goals-per-season striker as long as he facilitates his side’s overall play.
Here I discuss other areas on the pitch that warrant taking a look at.
Right-back: Inverting fullbacks are all the rage right now, favoured especially by proactive teams when on the ball. Erik ten Hag himself tried out systems last season in which fullbacks on either side would alternatively invert into midfield during both early and advanced build-up phases.
While the Dutchman at least has options on the left in Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia, on the right he only has Diogo Dalot as someone who can execute his instructions to any degree. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, whenever given the chance, looked completely out of sorts. When he had to play in Dalot’s absence, his role was seemingly restricted to playing simple, short passes and making underlapping runs down the right instead of inverting into midfield. Someone to back Dalot up, therefore, becomes imperative.
Central midfielder: United’s pursuit of Frenkie de Jong last summer and Mason Mount in the ongoing one suggests that Ten Hag wants a well-rounded midfielder who would offer tactical discipline on the pitch and exquisite ball-carrying ability to make defence-to-attack transitions more seamless. Whether Mount joins or not, we shall see, but the profile the Dutchman is looking for is something to keep in mind.
Centre-back: With time, Ten Hag would like to rely less on pragmatic, transition-heavy setups in favour of more control on the ball, so a right-sided centre-back with good on-the-ball ability becomes important. Victor Lindelöf could pull this off ably, but with Harry Maguire having looked uncomfortable in this role, Ten Hag could use another option to at least back the Swede, if not displace him altogether.
Right-winger: This is not an immediate issue, but it needs to be kept in mind that reports have been emerging over the past month alleging Antony having domestically abused his ex-girlfriend. Football, in general, does not have a good track record of dealing with these situations, but if the reports persist and turn out to have more substance, then much like Mason Greenwood before him, the question of football merit should be immediately dismissed and the Brazilian shouldn’t be allowed to play for the club again.
Whether something like that would happen, I highly doubt, but a situation like this would make United look for a replacement in this position. Jadon Sancho can operate here, and Facundo Pellistri was also given a fair few minutes last season, although the Uruguayan didn’t particularly turn many eyes. Amad Diallo is returning to the club on the back of a promising loan spell at Championship side Sunderland, offering further options to Ten Hag. It’s likely that an in-house solution could be found here.
How fared the new guys upstairs?
United’s recruitment policy last summer was mostly “get Ten Hag as many of his ex-players as possible and run with it”. To that end, Lisandro Martínez and Antony joined from Ajax. Frenkie de Jong, pursued all summer, did not budge from his stance of staying at Barcelona, regardless of how much the Catalan club tried to indicate to him that they would prefer otherwise. This season as well, pursuits have begun for ex-Ten Hag players, with Inter Milan goalkeeper André Onana currently first on this list.
It’s not that every player United on-boarded last season had played under Ten Hag before. Tyrell Malacia, Christian Eriksen and Casemiro are in this bracket, having arrived in the summer, with Marcel Sabitzer and Wout Weghorst joining on short loan spells in January. That these players at least adequately performed the role expected of them is a very small positive indication of the new guys being to work with Ten Hag to get him the kind of players he wants, although them splurging £82.2m on Antony also indicates that it’s going to be a while before the club stop needlessly over-spending on players.
This summer, work has already seemingly begun to get the recruitment done as early as possible, though it is even tougher for United to get it done in time this year because of the rumblings of upheaval that go right to the very top of the club.
Let’s talk about the ownership situation.
The Glazers have been unwelcome at Old Trafford for longer than they have been the owners of Manchester United. Under their stewardship, the institution of Man United has graduated into a proper relic of the past, still able to masquerade as a “big” club by the sheer might of its history and global brand.
But the global brand still has its pull. The name “Manchester United” still carries weight. To that end, the club have managed to rake in sufficient money to challenge the financial might of Man City and Chelsea over the years; they could have even challenged them on the pitch properly if they used that money wisely.
The Glazers run Man United like a well-run business but a poorly-run football club. The more-than-£500m debt—albeit serviceable—keeps rising along with the dividend payments they take home every quarter, and the club infrastructure continues to worsen before our very eyes. Even after they promised more communication with the fanbase on the back of the Super League debacle, little has changed. The Glazers have not been and will not be welcome at the club.
For almost 17 years, United fans have had to make do with the fact that, for all of their incessant protests, there’s little they could do to get the Glazers out of the club. Their evaluation of the club has always been projected to be between £4 billion and £6 billion, meaning very few parties could actually afford to even pique their interest.
That, though, changed last season, as in November reports began emerging about the American owners looking for alternate options regarding the ownership of the club. Two principal competitors thus emerged, keen to take over Man United for their own reasons — Sir James “Jim” Ratcliffe and Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani.
Sir Jim is one of the richest men in the UK — a “local lad” who grew up supporting Man United. Sheikh Jassim, son of former Prime Minister of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, also grew up supporting the Red Devils.
Sir Jim owns the multinational chemicals giant INEOS, via which he aims to acquire a majority stake in the club. Sheikh Jassim, meanwhile, wants to buy the club outright via a recently-UK-registered company called “Nine Two Foundation” — a name so comical and on-the-nose it makes one wonder how the whole thing is not one big joke.
Sir Jim hopes to get the fans on his side with his “local fan goes on to own his childhood club” narrative, while Sheikh Jassim promises to rid the club of its debt, revamp its infrastructure as well as its surroundings, and invest money into its teams to take them to the very top.
Both parties also have reasons for reputation laundering. Sir Jim has a penchant for fracking and union busting, while Sheikh Jassim wants to further his country’s foray into the world of sports in order to acquire more soft power by making Manchester United the most resplendent sportswashing project on the planet. Of course, Sheikh Jassim would point out that his bid has nothing to do with the Qatari state. After all, the Qatar Investment Authority, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, only has a 17.17% stake in Nine Two Foundation’s financer, Qatar Islamic Bank, of which Sheikh Jassim is Chairman. The Premier League’s immaculate Owners’ and Directors’ Test will take no issue with this, so I shall leave you to connect the rest of the dots.
What a potential Qatari ownership of Manchester United would mean for the global political scene as well as football is not a subject matter I can address and do justice in this article. We, at SportsKhabri, will address this to the best of our abilities if and when it becomes reality. For now, let’s return to what the current ownership situation is.
To which the answer is: no one really knows. For nearly seven months, these two preferred bidders have been trying to convince the Glazers into relinquishing their control over the club, but to this day, reports from sources that could be considered reliable range anywhere between “the matter is all but done” and “this offer might actually make the Glazers sell”.
And that is a major problem here: the Glazers entered the market not knowing what they were actually looking for, so the bidders don’t know what they can realistically get. A minority stake? A majority stake? Outright ownership? One can all but wonder.
All of this only prolongs the agony both inside and outside the club. The fans, having yearned to see a Glazer-less Manchester United for so long, do not know whether to uncork their champagne or put it back in the shelf. More importantly, as far as the recruitment plans for the teams go this summer, people at the club do not know to what extent they can plan, for they do not know what kind of funds will be allocated towards player acquisitions. Even if a deal were to be finalised tomorrow, a lot more steps will need to be taken, which will take more weeks. In a way, as far as United’s chances of recruiting well this transfer window are considered, it’s already too late. Their competitors have already started getting their shopping done, and while United do plan and are in talks with players as much as they can in their current predicament, said predicament dictates that they operate essentially with their hands tied firmly behind their backs.
After a horrid 2021-22 season, the United boys have embarked on their new journey with Erik ten Hag on a fundamentally solid step. Because of matters beyond the control of the coaching staff, these steps may not crystallise into anything, but to the extent they could matter at all, they have helped United have a “good” season overall.
For the fans, the time right now calls for introspection and patience. The trophy drought is over and should be celebrated as such, and both the good and bad points coming out of this season need to be given their due diligence. Patience is required for not only what happens on the pitch but how things turn out upstairs at the club. A new era of ownership, if and when it arrives, will bring both jubilation and new worries.
For now, however, we wait.