The preparations are full-fledged for the upcoming season of football and in a little hallowed corner of Manchester, it has been over a decade since Premier League glory was tasted.
Managers have come and gone, philosophies of football squandered, and yet Old Trafford still awaits its great rebuild and change in fortune. With Erik ten Hag, all that and much more is on the cusp of being promised and then some. But first, the former Ajax mastermind must address some core issues plaguing the side.
1. A Clear Style of Football
The interim period of Ralf Rangnick was one where intense pressing would be promised in the press conference only to be reduced to shambles on the pitch. Likewise, the attacking mentality that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was keen on reviving simply did not materialize over the long term. Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho alike appeared to be stretching their respective styles onto a club and a group of players which simply did not wish to adapt.
For Ten Hag to taste even a modest amount of success at the club, he must stamp his style firmly from day one. United have lacked a clear-cut identity even as the club’s DNA mutates into something that is barely recognizable as tactical in front of big and small teams alike.
The Dutch manager has a distinct way of doing things and it will be peculiar to see if he can translate that to redeemable points on the league table. At Ajax, stars were moulded and a specific brand of football was made the identity of Ten Hag’s men. How will he ensure that Stretford End can cheer for a distinct style of football again?
2. Manage the Dressing Room
Sir Alex Ferguson’s genius was embedded not just in his well-timed decision on the touchline but also in the indomitable manner in which he regularly reminded his players of the club they played for. Over the years, fans have been given a spectacle of that love towards the club and its history more in well-curated social media posts rather than behaviour on matchdays.
One of the main ways in which Ten Hag can ape this is if his chosen captain is not just a proxy leader but an actual figure that the fans and the players can unite behind. Harry Maguire’s ability to do so has come under fire on numerous occasions in the past and it will be interesting to see how his role as a skipper evolves under the fresh leadership. Along similar lines, the passion that the likes of Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo exhibit can likewise be translated into an altered dressing-room hierarchy.
Then again, Ten Hag must take notes from Jose Mourinho’s regime and know how to balance the egos of the players given their brand values and wage packages. The psychological game will be just as tense as the physical intensity that managing a Premier League side holds.
3. Apt Recruitment
One of the recurring pleas of the fans in the past decade has been for adequate recruitment in the right areas to take hold of the structure of the club. This has simply not occurred. United have splashed the cash but often for the commercial value of the players rather than any proper technical merit.
The current transfer window has been one where the club has been linked to at least twice the number of players it is usually associated with. Having said that, the transfer windows of this season simply have to be one where massive amounts of meaningful businesses are executed. One part of it is already underway with a mass exodus being implemented at the Theatre of Dreams. Deadwood and players past their glory years have already been shown the door, due diligence and respect being paid. Now the onus must shift to hiring right and spending smart.
Ten Hag simply cannot become yet another manager who brandishes his helplessness in the transfer market owing to the tight-purse strings of the Glazers. As such, he must assert the reality that if he is hired to deliver results, he must be accorded the financial tools to deliver the same. The key here will be to balance signings which can make an instant impact and those that will deliver in the long run.
4. Squad Management
Over the course of the past two seasons, Pep Guardiola scripted the textbook on how to craft a winning team by engineering an able and fit squad and not necessarily relying on a magic starting XI to bring in the results week in and week out. Manchester City’s trophy cabinet illustrates the efficacy of that technique.
In comparison, United have been a case study in poor man-management. Ten Hag has to bring in a mentality shift in this regard. Specifically, the fitness issues that plague the side demand to be solved. Fielding veterans and prized players for cup games simply cannot continue to be the norm. Likewise, squad rotation needs to be the name of the game. This will be particularly crucial when it comes to fielding Cristiano Ronaldo, now closer to his 40s than ever before. Each of Ten Hag’s substitutions can no longer afford to become front-page headlines whilst running the risk of woeful injuries over the course of the season.
On the same stride, the culture of promoting young talents at the club needs to continue. Ten Hag must learn from the hesitancy of his predecessors and take a calculated risk in developing the likes of James Garner and Alejandro Garnacho to become regular names at Old Trafford. The same mentality will also power the roles that Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay could evolve into.
All in all, ten Hag’s task is not an enviable one. Veterans of the task have failed to tame the ever-rolling stone that the club has become in the past few years. Having said that, hope is yet again in the air around Sir Matt Busby Way and United may just emerge from this reign a better club.