There is good news for Manchester United. In Erik ten Hag it has a manager with a clear vision, one who has the personality and single-mindedness to impose it. There are always stories from every club, particularly under new management, about how tough preseason training has been, about how the players are fitter than ever, but on this occasion it seems there may be some substance to it. There was a notable 4–0 win over Liverpool in the first friendly, even if results have tailed away somewhat since. Those are reasons for optimism.
But there is also a lot of bad news, most of it to do with the aspects of running the club that have nothing to do with the manager. United has pursued Frenkie de Jong, a former star under ten Hag at Ajax, all summer and, despite Barcelona’s desire to sell, seems no nearer to signing him now than it did in May. Indeed, he has explained clearly that his reluctance to move isn’t just to do with collecting the money Barcelona owes him, but also because he has no desire to go to Manchester or a club as “erratic” as Manchester United, in terms of its operations.
That means that with a month of the transfer window remaining, United remains short of a commanding central midfielder. It hasn’t brought in a right back either, while center forward remains a problem not least because Cristiano Ronaldo is still at the club despite spending most of the summer trying to leave. With very few clubs seemingly interested in signing him, repeated talks have failed to resolve the issue, and over the weekend, having tweeted, “Sunday, the King plays,” he was subbed off at halftime and left Old Trafford before the end of United’s friendly draw against Rayo Vallecano.
That act irked ten Hag, who told Dutch media, without naming anyone by name, “I certainly don’t condone this. This is unacceptable. For everyone. We are a team and you have to stay until the end.”
Nevertheless, ten Hag has maintained the line that he wants Ronaldo to stay and is keen to work with him, but the issue for United, surely, is how to offload the 37-year-old without incurring too large of a loss. Ronaldo was never somebody who had the inclination to press—which is why Sir Alex Ferguson moved him off the wing during the club’s Champions League success as long ago as 2007–08, deputizing Wayne Rooney instead to stifle the opposing fullback—and now he is too old, his movement too restricted, to do so even if he wanted to. But ten Hag’s football demands pressing. That is a disconnect that cannot be reconciled.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær faced the same problem. His United finished second the season before last and, while that might have been a slightly false position, what he was undeniably good at was setting a side up to sit deep and strike quickly on the break. Ronaldo forced him to change that. Ralf Rangnick, like ten Hag, is a pressing coach. By Day Two he had realized that he couldn’t work with Ronaldo, but also knew he had to play him. Nor was it simply a case of knocking together a system that could compensate for his lack of movement; Ronaldo would dismiss pressing drills in training by insisting that practice should be fun.
Ronaldo, it’s true, scored 18 goals last season, eight more than anybody else on United, but the club as a whole scored 16 fewer than the previous season, fewer than in any season since 2016–17 (replicating the pattern of his three disappointing years at Juventus). There are still those in thrall to his celebrity, including many on the United board, but a fresh start for the club can only really come once he has gone.
Christian Eriksen has arrived and should offer additional midfield creativity, while Lisandro Martínez, despite his lack of height (5’9”), offers competition at center back, where Harry Maguire may benefit from a more defined structure. The forward line still looks short, though, given Marcus Rashford’s loss of form last season and the ongoing suspension of Mason Greenwood over sexual assault allegations. Anthony Martial has had a promising preseason, but he has never been a consistent presence. Jadon Sancho may thrive under an approach more similar to that he experienced at Borussia Dortmund.
United, finally, seems to have a coach with serious modern footballing credentials, but the bigger problem, as ever, is what goes on above him. Yet again, there has been a failure to land a player after a lengthy pursuit (and even if de Jong is eventually signed, it would have been far more useful to have integrated him two months ago) while the squad continues to suffer from a lack of balance caused by years of uncoordinated recruitment.
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