Talk of a quadruple might have been premature, but there’s no doubting the progress Erik ten Hag has made since taking over at Manchester United.
Third place in the Premier League – and a return to the Champions League – seems to be theirs for the taking, the Carabao Cup is already in the cabinet and there could be two more trophies before the Dutchman’s first season is done and dusted. United are competing at the sharp end of English football once again.
Much of the progress stems from the good work Ten Hag and his team did in the summer transfer window after taking the reins from Ralf Rangnick in May 2022.
Casemiro, Lisandro Martinez, Christian Eriksen, Tyrell Malacia and Antony were all signed up and all have made their mark at Old Trafford this season. Casemiro and Martinez in particular have given United a hard edge in defence, a nasty streak that was lacking in their fallow, post-Sir Alex Ferguson years. Eriksen brought class and composure to the midfield before his recent injury while Malacia is a very able deputy for Luke Shaw at left-back. Antony has come under fire from some but there’s no questioning his talent and he’s scored some vital goals for the club.
Rangnick was widely derided for his coaching credentials – or lack thereof – during his ill-fated interim spell in charge, but he was brazen in his press conferences and often hit the nail on the head.
United could do worse than follow the German’s advice as Ten Hag’s second summer transfer window approaches.
Because although the incoming transfers were smart in 2022, and will be vital again in 2023 with an elite centre-forward top of the shopping list, selling players will be critical for Ten Hag’s United to keep marching on.
Rangnick told United, towards the end of the 2021/22 campaign, they needed a complete squad overhaul: “there will be a rebuild for sure”. That rebuild is not yet complete.
Some were offloaded last summer, of course. Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata were past their peak and ran their contracts down, Andreas Pereira was sold to Fulham, Edinson Cavani was released and United’s unhappy marriage with Paul Pogba finally got the divorce both parties needed. Jesse Lingard left for Nottingham Forest.
Then the big Cristiano Ronaldo exit happened in November. And it seemed Ten Hag had got a real grip of his squad, preferring younger and hungrier players, complemented with the experience of Casemiro, Eriksen and Raphael Varane.
But United kicked some issues down the road last summer and now they must be addressed.
Alex Telles and Eric Bailly were both loaned out, to Sevilla and Marseille respectively, and permanent moves for them both must now be found.
The same might well go for Dean Henderson; it doesn’t seem like he’s the long-term heir for De Gea in goal and he might not even get in the Nottingham Forest team when he returns from injury. David De Gea’s contract is up in the summer and still hasn’t been renewed; he could be released if Ten Hag really wants to shake up his goalkeeping department.
A defensive reboot is certainly necessary and United might have to choose between selling Harry Maguire or Victor Lindelof.
One of them should join Telles, Bailly, Phil Jones and Brandon Williams in leaving this summer, with the club considering the signing of a younger central defender to back up Varane and Martinez.
Then there’s the enigmatic Anthony Martial who remains a rubix cude that a succession of United managers have been able to unjumble. For too long, consistent fitness and form have eluded Martial and United simply haven’t been able to rely on him up front. He and namesake Anthony Elanga could both move on this summer, to make room for that top drawer centre-forward that Ten Hag so desperately needs. Donny van de Beek is another whose time at Old Trafford is surely up.
Recent reports have claimed United have identified six ‘sellable’ players to ship out this summer, but in reality it could be a few more.
Speaking about potential signings in January, Ten Hag said: “I think this club always has to have the approach that every day you have to get better so if there are opportunities to get better then you have to strike.”
That applies to selling players as well as buying them. It’s a sizeable task but one you suspect Ten Hag will approach with relish and ruthlessness.