Erik ten Hag’s fresh start at Manchester United is already growing stale before their season gets started.
The Dutchman arrived to replace Ralf Rangnick with many fans finally relieved that a permanent manager with a modern outlook on the game had been appointed.
Before, there were reasons for optimism, even if each tenure ultimately failed. Louis van Gaal had decades of experience at the top, Jose Mourinho had won almost everything that was on offer in the years before his arrival at Old Trafford, and even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sparked some optimism when he improved the mood amongst the players and briefly had them enjoying themselves on the pitch.
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While there were flashes of success under each of the three, those moments were too brief and ultimately they were doomed to failure because of Ed Woodward’s determination to redefine failure.
Every manager was promised players that would arrive, and each manager was stuck with players who were reluctant to go because they were on ludicrous wages and were not good enough to attract bids from the best clubs, because they were underperforming.
Phil Jones, after all, is still at the club and there appears to be no hope of him leaving until his contract expires. Even then it would be no surprise to see him turn up at Carrington in the summer of 2023 and be given fresh terms, because whichever manager happens to be in charge has doubts the executive team can actually sign players.
That’s where Ten Hag finds himself. After losing Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic, Lee Grant and others, the chance for a reinvigorated squad was there. To wipe away underperformers and any negative attitude, younger players could come in, and those who already trusted Ten Hag.
So far, United have Lisandro Martinez, a 5’9” central defender, young left-back Tyrell Malacia, and Christian Eriksen. None of those signings are inherently bad, but unless some kind of alchemy occurs on the training ground there is every reason to doubt that the club will challenge for the top four.
The problem is not just with those who have left and come in, but those who have stayed. Specifically, Cristiano Ronaldo. The club’s most important and consistent player does not want to be there and the side faces an inevitable problem whatever happens. Either they are stuck with the Portuguese striker in a funk over his wasted season, or they sell him and have to replace him in the next few weeks. Anthony Martial’s hamstring injury means that Ronaldo might have to be called up despite barely making the acquaintance of his teammates this summer, and is a player who already does not fit the plans of Ten Hag when he is left to his own devices.
Reportedly, the club have turned to Marko Arnautovic as a solution. The 33-year-old currently plays for European powerhouses Bologna, and before then Shanghai Port. He’s a reasonable solution for a crisis, but it was known a month ago that Ronaldo was a problem and that Martial is unconvincing at the best of times. This isn’t some shocking new problem, simply a variation on an existing weakness that a serious club would have resolved early in the window.
The same can be said for the emergence of Cody Gakpo as a target. A promising young player of course, but his name has come into the frame only after weeks, if not months, were spent dithering over Antony. Even then, Antony was perhaps only under consideration because of the Ronaldo developments. A plan C to a plan B, because United are not capable of producing a plan A anymore. They constantly chase their tail, and while they’re doing that, Harry Maguire has fallen over while Aaron Wan-Bissaka boots the ball into his own net. One problem piles onto another, and the season hasn’t even begun for United yet.
Of course, all this is a doom-laden outlook. Ten Hag earned a chance to do his work on the strength of his efforts at Ajax, and perhaps the club will pull in one direction strategically and tactically, for the first time in almost a decade. Perhaps it will, but already it feels like each of the seasons that followed =Ferguson’s departure. Not enough people know what they’re doing, and those that do are apparently being ignored.
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