Ten Hag Begins Work As Manchester United Seek Complete Fresh Slate

So Manchester United’s season is now officially over.

Of course, we suspected that it was effectively over in November, when the club made the decision to appoint an interim manager, and that was again more or less confirmed to us when that interim manager, Ralf Rangnick, told reporters that his request to sign one of three strikers in January was denied.

The campaign began with Raphael Varane being unveiled before a 5-1 win over Leeds United in which Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes starred – and shortly after that, Cristiano Ronaldo made a stunning return to Old Trafford in the biggest transfer story of all time.

Ronaldo has been, by some distance, United’s best outfield performer, scoring some great goals and some dramatic goals to prove that he still possesses a threat.

In spite of Rangnick’s recent admission that the forward doesn’t usually press, he’s still been better than most at it; but the criticism remains (and has some validity) that the signing was one that created a number of problems at the club.

The first was the impractical raising of expectations. United finished second last year but most reasonable observers would have concluded Liverpool, without their injury issues, would be much stronger, and Chelsea, with their powerful squad, would improve from their Champions League victory.

Varane, Sancho and Ronaldo most definitely improved the squad – but the latter’s arrival caused a domino effect. The first was that he would dominate one of the starting positions. So Jadon Sancho, ostensibly signed to solve the right wing issue, was forced to play from the left due to Mason Greenwood starting the season in the strongest form.

This impacted the playing time and form of Martial, Lingard, Rashford and Cavani, and Solskjaer was not able to quickly establish an in-form and fluid attack, instead favouring rotation, which did not work either.

Ronaldo’s return was mostly welcomed but did raise suspicion; supporters had been briefed that there was no more money left for transfers, so the much-needed midfielder could not be signed – but the financial incentive to sign Ronaldo was obvious.

It raised share prices and the Glazer family cashed in dividends shortly after this boom, confirming fears that promises earlier in the year to be more transparent were not going to be made good on.

Signing one of the world’s greatest players raised United’s level of expectation from improvement to instant challengers and almost everyone failed under that increased demand – and in this regard perhaps we can show some sympathy to many of the players who have received fair criticism this season.

After all, it’s not necessarily fair to criticise a player for not being good enough, because there’s no crime in that; it’s just that the line has been blurry between that and those who have been criticised of showing they don’t care.

In addressing the unavoidable fact that this squad failed to deliver, criticism must go to the hugely popular Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, whose protection of the players, which helped to deliver some improvement, unfortunately also led to an apparent feeling of entitlement; a feeling indulged by the club who have been happy to proclaim them as social media superstars. Solskjaer’s lack of experience at the top level could be one reason; perhaps he was just not a strong enough coach.

What we do know is that he was unfortunately unable to pass on a trait that he embodied so perfectly as a player – that of a squad player willing to give everything because they knew what it took to represent Manchester United.

The protection he had offered the squad looked like it had become a culture of unaccountability in the autumn as the Manchester United first team put in some of its worst-ever performances.

Solskjaer was unable to turn that form around and was sacked, possibly as much as a month after he should have been. He did not have control of the dressing room; and his faith in giving players time and patience to come good came back to haunt him as multiple players now inhabited a squad with contracts that were running out and a clear eye on a future elsewhere.

This was a problem not helped by Solskjaer but not created by him; that responsibility fell on the shoulders of Ed Woodward, whose intervention to prevent Jose Mourinho from making the transfers he wanted kept Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial at the club in 2018.

A move for all parties would have been the sensible option, and we did not need hindsight to tell us this. Mourinho was forced to unhappily soldier on, and he did what he traditionally does – the long-term harm inflicted upon the club by itself by backing players over a manager is still suffered today.

Solskjaer’s replacement was Ralf Rangnick, a man with a history of putting in strong structures at smaller clubs, and a man with a tremendous reputation as a tactician, but not as a coach at an elite club.

This final factor was significant as United saw little, if any, improvement – to say they were better than the catastrophic defeat to Liverpool in October is no particular compliment, as the team constantly fell short of the standards expected.

There was a growing apathy and resentment towards the players with more than half a dozen of them expected to leave when their contract expired; a feeling exacerbated by numerous incidents which created and invited conflict.

Instagram posts by players and their relatives, confrontations outside the ground, boos by supporters to individual players, players reacting to them just before they got into the tunnel, and even yesterday, the hugely popular Edinson Cavani gave a lovely parting farewell with the bird to a supporter.

United came into the season carrying a tremendous long unbeaten record away from home and ended it with a dismal run of form in front of those wonderful travelling fans.

All this without even mentioning the Greenwood controversy and the constant speculation of in-fighting which is much too prominent to be smoke without fire.

United finished 6th in the Premier League which is a testament to how poor the division currently is. They were only able to achieve Europa League qualification thanks to West Ham failing to hold on to their lead at Brighton, which sums up this squad perfectly – still only able to underachieve in an underwhelming way thanks to someone else.

At Crystal Palace, they fell behind thanks to a ridiculously careless pass from Bruno Fernandes, and then failed to assert themselves on the game, barely testing the goalkeeper as the team seemed desperate for the misery to be over.

United’s great away support had one ear back north, depressed that they were once again forced in a position to hope for the relief (not pleasure) of City winning the league instead of Liverpool.

The hope that Rangnick’s tactical excellence would trump Solskjaer’s naivety was not forthcoming as the team looked just as lost. Instead, the positives from Solskjaer’s reign – the frequent comebacks and the generally well-disciplined big game performances – evaporating, eliminating any sense of optimism.

The only cheer United supporters tended to have was found in Rangnick’s brutal honesty, but it is probable that such transparency contributed towards the team’s below-par performances in the latter stages of the campaign; as far as the supporters are concerned, now that the whole damn thing is over, it might all still turn out to have been for the best. A little more short term pain for long term gain.

Change – in Erik ten Hag’s appointment, with his era officially now underway – does bring its own sense of positivity, as it inevitably does.

Change has already been underway with Richard Arnold seemingly aware of the issues and proactively trying to address them in a proper and sensible way; and while there’s no way of knowing in advance that those changes will be successful, there’s also no way of ever knowing that in football.

If we have to accept that the owners will remain in charge then the best we can hope for is someone making the right football decisions and Arnold certainly seems to be conscious and, as stated above, proactive on this front.

The timing of Ten Hag’s appointment is crucial because it gives him the responsibility of overseeing these expiring contracts and – potentially, hopefully – gives the manager of Manchester United some of that power that was so severely diminished in 2018, incidentally in a year where the club are now finally just about free of the financial disaster that was the Alexis Sanchez signing.

There are no hiding places for these players anymore, with it clear that not many of them can expect to have a long term future at the club if they are to seriously challenge for honours again.

Liverpool and to a lesser extent Chelsea serve as good examples for United to follow, certainly in their short-term histories; Chelsea have proven how quickly it is possible to move up the table in such a weak league, while Liverpool have cottoned on to the hard reality United had to face in 2007 – that against an opponent you cannot financially compete with, the answer is to be as consistent in every other game and then go for broke in the head-to-heads.

United, in spite of the owners being who they are, theoretically have the resources to do this; they’ve certainly wasted enough of them on top of the debt over the last decade to know they should have done better than just three trophies since Sir Alex retired.

These are simple lessons but sometimes the most simple lessons are the hardest to put into practice, especially in football, where patience is required but rarely provided.

United’s support has generally been strong in showcasing their patience, which has been sorely tested this season – and though at times that has manifested itself in a few boos, or even protests, season tickets have again sold out in a stadium that holds more than seventy thousand and every away game will be over-subscribed as usual.

Nobody knows what the next year holds but United’s support will just want to watch a team they feel proud of applauding for their efforts when the final whistle blows to mark the end of next season.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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