Manchester United’s next permanent manager Erik ten Hag has a serious job on his hands to turn the club back into Premier League title contenders.
he Ajax boss (52) has established a reputation as one of European football’s most exciting coaches during his time in Amsterdam. But what crucial areas does he need to first focus his attention on if he is to make a success of one of the toughest jobs in football management?
Settle the captaincy debate once and for all
Harry Maguire had been a United player for all of five months when he was appointed as captain by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer midway through the 2019-20 campaign.
The squad was short of other genuine candidates – David de Gea and a 22-year-old Marcus Rashford were the only other regular starters with any sort of seniority in the dressing-room – and Maguire’s ascension to wearing the armband passed off with little comment.
That has all changed now. After a prolonged spell of inconsistent form, Maguire’s place and status as captain is fiercely debated outside the United dressing-room. Whispers that it is also a point of contention among the players themselves have always been denied.
The squad has more senior figures – with Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo perhaps the most dominant personalities – and though ideally a dressing-room would have several leaders, the armband is a meaningful signifier of importance and status.
Ten Hag has a decision to make on the captaincy, even if it is to change nothing. It may be that Maguire is his skipper, it may be that a new captain is required as part of a wider reset.
Either way, that decision will need to be accepted across the board to bring the sideshow over Maguire’s status to an immediate end.
Plan for next season with or without Ronaldo
A striker is United’s priority in the summer market given Edinson Cavani’s impending departure, with Benfica’s Darwin Nunez understood to be top of the list.
The arrival of a young, emerging talent like Nunez would raise the questions about Ronaldo, who would still expect to start and, tactically, has a greater gravitational pull than any other player at United.
The assumption that Ronaldo, at 37 years old, would not fit into a Ten Hag system is not entirely fair. Ten Hag has switched between using false and traditional nines during his time in Amsterdam to good effect.
Even before Sebastian Haller arrived, Klaas Jan-Huntelaar provided a more traditional presence up top than Dusan Tadic. But Ronaldo’s pressing – or lack thereof – would likely be debated all over again if there were not immediate signs of adaptation and improvement.
His numbers have risen under Rangnick but he remains among the bottom percentile of forwards in Europe for work out of possession.
Over the long term, Ronaldo’s limitations outside of goalscoring would probably need to be accounted for in other areas of the pitch. His limited playing time alongside a younger centre-forward would also need to be managed delicately.
Those will only be an issue if he is still at Old Trafford, though, and it remains to be seen whether missing out on Champions League football forces Ronaldo to rethink these final years of his career.
His departure from Juventus last summer was sudden, relatively unexpected, and driven by a desire to contend for honours right up until his eventual retirement. Time is of the essence for Ronaldo, yet United need a gradual, patient rebuild.
On the other hand, it is not entirely clear where he could go. The uncertainty over Ronaldo’s future could easily extend into the summer, meaning Ten Hag would need a plan for all eventualities.
Get to the bottom of United’s fitness issues
After Paul Pogba limped off the pitch barely 10 minutes into the Anfield humiliation, Rangnick was at a loss to explain why he was now without another first-team regular due to injury.
“This is now the seventh or eighth player missing with injury and we’re only playing in one competition,” he said. “It has to raise some questions.” Liverpool, meanwhile, are fighting on all fronts and could boast a clean bill of health.
Rangnick is not the first United manager to raise this issue during the post-Ferguson era and even the man who is yet to take up the role is concerned. Ten Hag is understood to have reservations over the level of fitness among United’s players, believing they have not been in “Champions League shape” for a while.
United have had 108 matchday absences due to injury this season, with the likes of Cavani, Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane spending the most time in the treatment room. Ten Hag cannot succeed without having key players regularly available.
The Ajax head coach is known to prioritise fitness and sports science.
“If we had to do runs in the woods, to show him we were fit, we’d try and do it in 1.50,” Sjoerd Overgoor, his former midfielder at Go Ahead Eagles revealed. “He said: ‘No, if I say two minutes it’s not 2.10 or 1.50. It’s two minutes.’”
Shape transfer strategy in his image
This may just about still be one of the most coveted jobs in world football but given how dysfunctional United have been for the best part of a decade, it is not one that any manager should accept unconditionally.
Talks between United, Ten Hag and his representatives regularly came back to his role in the wider structure of the club’s football operations and his influence on transfer policy.
The manager’s office at Old Trafford has a veto on potential signings alongside the recruitment department. That department is likely to see change this summer following the departures of chief scout Jim Lawlor and head of global scouting Marcel Bout.
Ten Hag is eager to prevent United from making more mistakes in the market. To do that, new arrivals will have to fill targeted positions and be capable of playing his brand of fast-paced and fluid possession football.
There are gaping holes to fill if that vision is to be achieved. As well as the striker that is a priority, United require a holding midfielder or two who can progress the ball, a right-back who is capable at both ends of the pitch, a goalkeeper who is comfortable in possession and at least one centre-half who can excel in a high line in order to play Ten Hag’s style.
Rangnick suggested after the Liverpool defeat that “six, seven, eight, maybe ten” players could arrive at Old Trafford in the summer as part of a squad rebuild.
That would be a busy and expensive summer, one that is difficult to pull off without the lure of Champions League football.
Above all else, adapt
The scale of the problems which need to be solved at United cannot be underestimated, however, and the truth is that patience will probably be required.
Some of United’s many issues will immediately be within Ten Hag’s grasp, others will take longer to tackle, and a few are entirely outside of his sphere of influence.
More than anything else, Ten Hag will need to adapt. At least he is used to that from his time in Amsterdam.
In an interview after guiding Ajax to the Eredivisie in his first full season in charge, he explained why he moved away from some of the club’s traditional principles – such as a nominal 4-3-3 system – upon taking the job.
“The qualities of the players determine the system, not the other way around,” he told ‘Voetbal International’. “It’s not even about systems. It’s about what you do in possession, when you lose possession and in those turn around moments, and you need to be able to change that up. Like I said, the players’ qualities determine how you play.”
United’s squad is not especially well-adjusted to Ten Hag’s style, which means that his United could well be a different proposition to his Ajax in the first season or two.