Erik ten Hag has created a problem for himself at Manchester United, but at least it’s a good one. It’s been a while since the club have been in a position to look forward with optimism. That is down to the man who ended a six-year trophy drought and secured Champions League football in his first season as manager at Old Trafford.
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But the problem for Ten Hag is that, by overperforming in Year 1, he must now find a way to build on his initial success and be even better next season. As Saturday’s 2-1 defeat against Manchester City in the FA Cup final (stream the replay on ESPN+) showed, however, United have only reached base camp in their ultimate challenge of returning to the top of the game. The summit, occupied by City, still looks a long way off.
The next step for Ten Hag is to make United the best of the rest. His team are still too inconsistent and the squad depth too shallow for United to have any realistic hope of beating City to the Premier League title next season, but for progress to be made, they have to catch this season’s runners-up Arsenal and fend off the likely challenges of Liverpool, Newcastle United and Chelsea.
All four of those teams will be better next season, either because their recent signings will have had time to bed in or the summer’s new arrivals will bolster depth and quality. In Chelsea’s case, it will be both, plus the arrival of new manager Mauricio Pochettino finally bringing some stability and focus to Stamford Bridge. But the big question hovering over United is: will they be better next season?
There are so many unresolved issues to be addressed in the days and weeks ahead. The biggest of them all is the situation surrounding the ownership of the club. Are the Glazer family staying? Are they selling? Are they attempting to sell some of their stake but keep a percentage? Those questions have been left unanswered for more than six months and there is nothing that Ten Hag can do to influence the outcome.
But he can make a firm decision on the future of goalkeeper David de Gea, whose contract expires at the end of June. A series of high-profile mistakes by De Gea have cost United in recent months — and he was at fault for Ilkay Gundogan’s winning goal in the FA Cup final — but sources have told ESPN that a new contract is on the table and close to being signed. If Ten Hag wants to accelerate United’s return to the top, he should offload the former Spain international and find a new No. 1. However, finances will be tight at Old Trafford this summer, due to last year’s £220 million recruitment outlay and a drop in commercial revenue in recent years, so De Gea may survive because other priorities must be dealt with.
Top of that list is a new centre-forward. The future of Mason Greenwood — who had charges of attempted rape, assault occasioning actual bodily harm, and controlling and coercive behaviour dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service in February — is another issue that is out of Ten Hag’s hands. But, no matter what the United hierarchy decide to do with Greenwood, 21, the team need to recruit a new forward who can be relied upon to score in the biggest games.
Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane and Napoli’s Victor Osimhen are leading targets, but signing either at over £100m would blow a huge hole in United’s recruitment budget. Yet after so many years of patching up with short-term solutions including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Radamel Falcao, Edinson Cavani, Odion Ighalo and Wout Weghorst, United need to sign a proven striker at the peak of his powers.
Their main striker, Marcus Rashford, is too inconsistent — he scored 11 Premier League goals in the two months after the World Cup but only a further three in the final three months of the season. His future is also shrouded in uncertainty. Rashford, 25, is out of contract in June 2024 and is likely to become United’s top earner if he commits to a new deal. Ten Hag won’t want to lose him, but equally, he needs more from the England forward than sporadic bursts of form followed by disappearing acts when the team need him the most.
Also in Ten Hag’s in-tray are the futures of Harry Maguire and Jadon Sancho, two expensive signings (Maguire £80m; Sancho £73m) who have consistently failed to perform and look ill-equipped to be United players. Neither appear to be good enough to be a part of the future under Ten Hag, with Maguire now fourth-choice centre-back and Sancho’s place on the wing increasingly threatened by the emerging talent of Alejandro Garnacho. But offloading them will be difficult due to their lack of form and the financial cost to any club interested in signing them.
Forward Anthony Martial and midfielder Scott McTominay may also head for the exit, but if they do Ten Hag will need to replace them as United’s substitutes’ bench at Wembley highlighted an alarming lack of quality beyond the first XI. That reality was brought into sharp focus when compared to City’s formidable array of substitutes.
That United are a team in transition is without question, which makes Ten Hag’s achievement of winning the Carabao Cup, reaching the FA Cup final and finishing third in the Premier League even more impressive. It will take time to unpick the tangled mess that he inherited. He will need longer to move on the sub-standard players on long-term contracts, too many of whom have been allowed to survive at Old Trafford because it was easier to keep them than find the money to sign better players.
But even though Ten Hag has somehow dragged United to a successful season this time around, the reset button has now been pressed and he has to continue the upward trajectory next term. For that to happen, United must back Ten Hag’s decisions and meet his requirements. But until the ownership issue is resolved, he may find that United stand still just when they need to be striding forward.