Manchester United’s latest attempt at a fresh start begins on Monday, when their non-international players return for the start of pre-season training and the start of Erik ten Hag’s time at the club.
The former Ajax coach has accepted the challenge of becoming United’s fifth permanent manager in an attempt to return the club to its pre-Sir Alex Ferguson era.
However, there is already apprehension among fans. Players have left or are about to leave, and while some bids have been made and interest has been expressed, no signings have been made to replace them, despite rivals Manchester City and Liverpool strengthening.
Dissatisfaction with United’s owners, the Glazer family, is growing. As they received £11 million in share dividends, new chief executive Richard Arnold felt compelled to meet with some fans in a local pub and admit the club had “burned” the better part of £1 billion.
It is not the ideal setting for Ten Hag to begin his work, which will take him to Thailand on 12 July for a meeting with Liverpool, then to Australia and Oslo before the start of the Premier League season on 7 August against Brighton at Old Trafford.
United’s season could not have ended any worse as they finished sixth, extending their trophy-less streak to a fifth season. The squad was split after a disagreement over captaincy, with Cristiano Ronaldo at the helm, leaving Harry Maguire dissatisfied.
The much-touted arrival of Ralf Rangnick disintegrated to the point where the German was barely speaking with the man who hired him, football director John Murtough. Rangnick, for one, did not feel he received adequate support, and too many players failed to accept responsibility for their own performance.
Rangnick’s forthright observations in press conferences, such as describing the club’s need for “open heart surgery,” may have gone down well with the media and fans present, but Murtough didn’t feel it was the right forum to express them and was concerned that no attempt was made to protect the club’s reputation.
The 4-0 defeat at Brighton in United’s final game was humiliating. Given Ten Hag’s presence in the stands, a response was expected in the final-day match at Crystal Palace. But United also fell short.
This summer, United has been linked with a slew of players, as is customary. One stands out from the crowd. Even when Sir Alex Ferguson was at the helm, United’s recruitment department always knew which players the Scot desired above all others.
If the number one option was caught, second or even third choice targets in other positions would be accepted. They feel the same way about Frenkie de Jong of Barcelona.
Ten Hag is familiar with the Dutch international from their time at Ajax. He understands De Jong’s style of play and believes he would be ideal for the plans he has for his time at Old Trafford. It has been established that the alternatives simply do not fit the template or are insufficient.
Ten Hag wants to bolster a variety of positions, including an attacker. However, central midfield is crucial, and there is a fear that if De Jong is not included in the package, the new manager will be operating from a weaker position than he desired.
Depending on who you listen to, United has either been left behind by Manchester City and Liverpool, both of whom have been active in the transfer market, or is wisely retaining what is described as a “large” budget by negotiating the best deals.
De Jong is crucial in terms of both availability and cost. Christian Eriksen, the Danish midfielder, is a live target, and it appears to be a straight choice between United and Brentford for the Dane, with the not insignificant advantage of keeping his family in London, where they prefer to be.
Man United are looking for another attacker who can play in a variety of positions. Antony, a Brazilian international for Ajax, is at the top of that list, and the fact that he missed the first day of training with the Dutch club has fueled speculation about a move.
However, Man United is aware that Ajax are in a strong financial position, having sold Ryan Gravenberch to Bayern Munich and Sebastien Haller to Borussia Dortmund. Murtough, who is in charge of transfer operations, and his team do not take it for granted that the talks will end successfully.