End the Cristiano Ronaldo saga, unite a fighting fanbase and FINALLY add that elusive midfielder… 10 problems Erik ten Hag MUST fix at Manchester United after a disastrous start to life in the Premier League
- Manchester United are once again in crisis after an opening defeat vs Brighton
- The Red Devils deservedly lost 2-1 against the Seagulls at Old Trafford on Sunday
- Manager Erik ten Hag’s new era at United has got off to the worst possible start
- Star man Cristiano Ronaldo was benched and has admitted he wants to leave
- There were more fan protests against the reviled Glazer owners at the weekend
- Supporters are literally fighting amongst themselves amid the chaos at the club
- Below, Sportsmail looks at 10 problems Ten Hag must fix after a disastrous start
If Erik ten Hag had any doubts about the magnitude of the task facing him at Manchester United, they quickly dissipated in the space of 10 minutes on Sunday afternoon.
Pascal Gross’ first-half double saw United go in 2-0 down at half-time against Brighton in his first competitive game as manager, and although they improved after the break and fought back to 2-1, the new era still got off to the worst possible start.
The club is once again in crisis, with a fragile, imbalanced squad, an unfit star man in Cristiano Ronaldo who has openly said he wants to leave, an unpopular captain, and several players not at the required level. And that’s just on the pitch.
Fans are divided – literally fighting amongst themselves – and protesting against the hated Glazer owners, who are taking money out of the club and seemingly not backing the team in the transfer market.
Moreover, there are plenty of high-profile ex-players and pundits in the media willing to pour scorn on the club’s situation – meaning the pressure is on Ten Hag to sort things out quickly.
So below, in no particular order, Sportsmail looks at the ten things the Dutchman needs to sort out to get United’s season back on track.
If Erik ten Hag (pictured) had any doubts about the magnitude of the task facing him at Manchester United, they quickly dissipated in the space of 10 minutes on Sunday afternoon
The club were beaten 2-1 by Brighton at Old Trafford in their Premier League opener on Sunday
1. Clear the decks
It’s a case of nine down, several more to go for Manchester United.
They’ve already got rid of Lee Grant (retired), Dean Henderson, Alex Telles (both loan), Andreas Pereira (sold) and Paul Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic and Jesse Lingard (released). But the squad rejuvenation is far from over.
Defenders Eric Bailly, Phil Jones, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Axel Tuanzebe, as well as Tahith Chong, are surplus to requirements but the club is evidently having trouble shifting the players, many of whom are on big wages, relative to their contribution.
Suitable loans should also be found for youngsters like Di’Shon Bernard, Ethan Laird, Ethan Galbraith, and potentially talented teenagers like Will Fish, Zidane Iqbal and Charlie Savage.
Ten Hag will want a lean and hungry squad with no passengers – the club has around three weeks to help him achieve that.
There is plenty for Ten Hag to do to sort things out – including selling players like Phil Jones
2. Finally sign a midfielder
After the summer that was supposed to herald the big rebuild at Old Trafford, United started their first game of the season with… Fred and Scott McTominay in central midfield. Unsurprising, but uninspired.
The prosaic duo again struggled, giving the ball away constantly, and were blasted by legendary former United midfielders Roy Keane and Paul Scholes.
Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong has been Ten Hag’s top target for three months, but despite a £71million deal being agreed, a row over the star’s £17m in unpaid wages and De Jong’s lack of desire to make the move have held it up.
Finally signing a midfielder could be key to United’s success – but it won’t be Frenkie de Jong
It has now got to the point where United must cut their losses and look elsewhere.
Links to Adrien Rabiot have been met with a mixed response. The Juventus player is a gifted French playmaker but has a difficult agent and has often been accused of a lack of professionalism. Sound familiar?
Whether Rabiot or someone else – Ten Hag needs to upgrade ‘McFred’. There are potential candidates even within his own squad, with Donny van de Beek, who worked under the 52-year-old at Ajax, and youth product James Garner.
Juventus’ Adrien Rabiot looks the most likely midfield addition to Ten Hag’s squad this summer
3. Unite the fans
‘If we bring commitment then I think they (the fans) will like it and they will bring the fight back. The stadium I think is meant to bring fight and co-operation.’
When Ten Hag urged supporters to get behind the team before the match, he hadn’t intended for those words to be taken quite so literally, with fans involved in a scuffle in the home stand on Sunday.
Who knows exactly what it was about, but the turmoil surrounding the club doesn’t help. Cristiano Ronaldo was booed as he came out to warm up and the players were booed off at half-time too.
To make matters worse, fury aimed at the owners, the Glazer family, will see some fans boycotting their upcoming Premier League clash with Liverpool.
It comes just 15 months after protestors broke into Old Trafford ahead of the same fixture, forcing the game to be postponed. These are scenes United, and Ten Hag, will be desperate to avoid a repeat of.
This discord and discontent in the stands can only harm the players, so Ten Hag needs to get them united behind the team and buying into his vision and style of play. Old Trafford will likely need to be a fortress for the club to succeed this season.
It’s important for the Dutchman to unite the fans after there was a scuffle in the home stand
4. Win when it counts
Anticipation was sky high among United fans after their fine pre-season, which included eye-catching wins against Liverpool and Crystal Palace. That has all but evaporated after just one game.
Truthfully, the final scoreline of 2-1 flattered United against Brighton.
Scott McTominay somehow escaped a red card despite a VAR check after a wild lunge on Moises Caicedo and Lisandro Martinez, shaky on debut, was lucky not to give away a penalty after clumsily barging over Danny Welbeck inside the area.
Games away at Thomas Frank’s well-drilled Brentford and then against title contenders Liverpool – who beat them by an aggregate score of 9-0 in their two matches last season – will provide tough opposition in the next two fixtures.
It is all well and good beating your rivals in a no-risk game on the other side of the world. Ten Hag needs a competitive win under his belt, and ideally this weekend at Brentford.
5. Sort out the Ronaldo situation
The Ronaldo Situation. Three words that probably have Ten Hag waking up in cold sweats.
At first the manager could explain away Ronaldo’s absence from their pre-season tour as being for ‘personal reasons’, vague and private enough to discourage further inquiry, and insist he was looking forward to working with a player of his talents.
But even if Ten Hag genuinely has no issues with Ronaldo, the cult of Ronaldo, his rampant self-obsession, his pride and expectations and complete and utter lack of ability or willingness to fit into his pressing system that places the importance of the team above the individual, how can he countenance his recent actions?
Sorting out the Cristiano Ronaldo one way or another should be near the top of Ten Hag’s list
Letting it be known publicly that you want to leave undermines the manager and threatens to split the dressing-room. His faults as a player aside – he still remains a supreme finisher – Ten Hag must decide one way or another what Ronaldo’s future is.
Either he goes, and fast, or he stays and he is put on a leash. At the moment, Manchester United is a circus and Ronaldo getting booed by his own fans on Sunday only underlined that.
6. Reintegrate his missing men, and quick
When fully fit, Ronaldo and Raphael Varane, plus potentially Tyrell Malacia and Donny van de Beek, will likely be in United’s first-choice starting XI.
Ronaldo’s lack of pre-season minutes is not Ten Hag’s fault but with fixtures now coming thick and fast, getting everyone up to speed is crucial.
The team needs freshening up and the sooner that happens, the better. United’s physical coaches have a job on their hands.
7. Decide on his full-backs
Full-backs are so key to Ten Hag’s system, it’s no surprise left-back Nicolas Tagliafico and Noussair Mazraoui – who moved to Lyon and Bayern Munich respectively this summer – were two of the most sought-after players at the club.
They must be quick, skilful, good on the ball, supporting the widemen as well as sometimes playing as auxiliary wingers, and are as important as Trent Alexander-Arnold is for Liverpool or Joao Cancelo is for Manchester City.
And yet the full-back situation is a bit of a mess. Luke Shaw has done OK in the last few seasons but the new signing from Feyenoord, 22-year-old Tyrell Malacia, might be more suited to Ten Hag’s style of play.
Similarly, Aaron Wan-Bissaka – and potentially Brandon Williams – are seemingly trusted by Ten Hag to contribute regularly, meaning a player to provide competition for Diogo Dalot at right-back would be useful too.
Full-backs are key to Ten Hag’s system, so the 52-year-old should decide on his first-choice two
8. Get Rashford and Sancho firing
When Jadon Sancho completed his £73million move to United last summer, the club were delighted at signing one of the most promising players in world football for what they felt was a bargain fee.
But by the end of the season he had only scored five goals in all competitions – just two more than 20-year-old youth product Anthony Elanga, having played in more matches – and seemed to suffer with the general malaise at Old Trafford.
Similarly, forward Marcus Rashford scored 22 and then 21 goals in 2019-20 and 2020-21 and had a deserved spot in the England team.
But, perhaps drained by the weight of his extremely impressive off-pitch activism and the constant abuse received – something familiar to Sancho after both missed penalties for England in the Euro 2020 final – he has suffered a crisis of confidence.
Both are extremely talented players and could well be first-choice on the wings, with Bruno Fernandes and Christian Eriksen competing for the No 10 role – but Ten Hag needs to get the pair to believe in themselves first.
9. Demand more from Bruno
It was always going to be hard to live up to his first full season for Bruno Fernandes, after scoring 28 goals in just 55 games and dictating play brilliantly from attacking midfield.
But last campaign saw him criticised by fans as he sulked around the pitch, ostentatiously throwing his arms around at his team-mates’ mistakes and berating referees over not very much.
There’s a fantastic player in there somewhere – and maybe the way to coax him out is for Ten Hag to give him more responsibility, more expectation. At times the Portuguese star is unplayable. He can carry the team – let him.
10. Choose Maguire’s role
It was a big show of faith for Ten Hag to keep Harry Maguire as captain. A lot of fans were very critical of the centre back’s performance last season, and called on the manager to change the skipper – which he did not.
Ten Hag will need to rely on players like Harry Maguire (left) and Bruno Fernandes (right)
So Maguire remains. But does he get in Ten Hag’s strongest side? When everyone is fully fit, you would imagine Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane would be the best centre half pairing.
So is the 29-year-old England international going to be a press-resistant ball-playing defender? A head-it-kick-it defender who will leave the fancy stuff to his partner?
Or a good solid pro to provide backup to Martinez and Varane, leading off the pitch with his professionalism and influence among the players, like, say, Newcastle’s Jamaal Lascelles, Everton’s Seamus Coleman or Crystal Palace’s Luka Milivojevic?
Whatever he decides, Ten Hag should be open and honest about it and stick to his guns.