There is good news for Manchester United. In Erik ten Hag he has a manager with a clear vision, one who has the personality and single-mindedness to enforce it. There are always stories from every club, particularly under new management, about how tough pre-season training was, how the players are better than ever, but in this case it looks like there might be some substance to it. There was a remarkable 4-0 win over Liverpool in the first friendly, even if results have dipped somewhat since then. These are reasons for optimism.
But there’s also plenty of bad news, most of it to do with aspects of the club’s management that have nothing to do with the manager. United have been chasing Frenkie de Jong, a former Ajax under-ten star at Ajax, all summer and, despite Barcelona’s desire to sell, look no closer to landing him now than they did in May. Indeed, he has made it clear that his reluctance to move is not just about collecting the money Barcelona owe him, but also because he does not wish to go to Manchester or a club as “volatile” as Manchester United. its functions.
This means that with a month left in the transfer window, United are without a commanding central midfielder. He didn’t bring in a right-back either, while centre-forward remains an issue, mainly because Cristiano Ronaldo is still in the squad despite spending most of the summer trying to leave. With very few clubs seemingly interested in signing him, repeated talks failed to resolve the issue and at the weekend, after tweeting, “Sunday, the King plays”, he was sent off at half-time and left Old Trafford before the end of the game of United. friendly draw with Rayo Vallecano.
This act angered ten Hag, who told Dutch media, without naming anyone, “I certainly don’t condone it. This is unacceptable. For all. We are a team and you have to stay until the end.”
Despite this, Ten Haag has maintained the line that he wants Ronaldo to stay and wants to work with him, but the question for United, of course, is how to get rid of the 37-year-old without suffering too much of a loss. Ronaldo has never been one to press – which is why Sir Alex Ferguson moved him off the wing during the club’s pre-2007-08 Champions League run, replacing Wayne Rooney to quell opposing fullback – and now he’s too big, his movement too limited, to do it even if he wanted to. But ten Hug football requires pressing. This is a disconnect that cannot be compromised.
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Ole Gunnar Solskjær faced the same problem. His United finished second last season and while that may have been a slightly wrong position, what he was undeniably good at was sitting deep and striking quickly on the break. Ronaldo forced him to change that. Ralf Rangnik, like Ten Haag, is a pressing coach. By the second day he had realized he couldn’t work with Ronaldo, but he also knew he had to play him. Nor was it simply a case of putting together a system that could compensate for his lack of movement. Ronaldo rejected pressure exercises in training, insisting that practice should be fun.
Ronaldo, it’s true, scored 18 goals last season, eight more than anyone else at United, but the club as a whole scored 16 fewer than last season, fewer than in any season since 2016–17 (replicating the pattern of three of his disappointing years at Juventus). There are still those who bask in his celebrity, including many on the United board, but a new start for the club can only truly happen after he is gone.
Christian Eriksen has arrived and should provide additional creativity in midfield, while Lisandro Martínez, despite his lack of height (5’9″), offers competition at centre-back, where Harry Maguire can benefit from a more defined structure. The forward line still looks short, however, given Marcus Rashford’s loss of form last season and Mason Greenwood’s ongoing suspension over sexual assault allegations. Anthony Martial had a promising preseason but was never a consistent presence. Jadon Sancho may thrive with an approach more akin to the one he experienced at Borussia Dortmund.
United, after all, appear to have a manager with serious modern football credentials, but the biggest problem, as always, is what’s going on above him. Again, there has been a failure to land a player after a long pursuit (and even if De Jong is eventually signed, it would have been much more useful to integrate him two months ago) while the squad continues to suffer from a lack of balance caused by years of uncoordinated hiring.
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