A month ago Manchester United had an obvious target to present to Erik ten Hag. The rebuilding job is a major one at Old Trafford but this club knows better than anyone how the departure of a long-serving, successful manager can prove destabilizing, so the prospect of the end game coming into sight for Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp was encouraging .
Guardiola’s City contract was up at the end of next season and Klopp had always planned to leave Liverpool in the summer of 2024. That gave United a target of 2024/25, giving Ten Hag a couple of years to build a team ready to take advantage of any drop in standards at the Etihad or Anfield.
That certainly felt possible, given the modern version of City has been built entirely to suit Guardiola, and Klopp’s departure will surely leave an emotional void among his Liverpool squad. The problem for United now is that what seemed certain a month ago is no longer so. Waiting to pounce at the end of the Guardiola and Klopp era is suddenly not an option for this club.
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Klopp has already extended his contract until 2026 and while Guardiola has insisted he won’t make a decision until the end of next season, the feeling at the moment is that he will stay for longer as well.
For the clubs queuing up to challenge them, that will force a change of approach. After another season in which the two clubs have dominated the English game, the chances of either slipping below the 90 point mark looks unlikely.
Had Guardiola and Klopp departed, then the natural upheaval that created might have meant a total points in the mid-80s was once again capable of winning the title. United lost 25 points in their first season after Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, although City and Liverpool have stronger squads than the one Ferguson bequeathed Moyes.
With at least one – and probably both – now staying in post the onus is on United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal to scale new heights, or write off the next four years.
That isn’t an option for United and if Ten Hag isn’t close to winning the title in that period, the reality is he won’t still be in a job at OId Trafford.
The most upbeat tone he struck in his introductory press conference was when he suggested the era of City and Liverpool dominance could end with Guardiola and Klopp still in situ. Given Ten Hag was talking at Old Trafford, as United manager, it’s pretty obvious it’s his own club that he believes could do the upending.
To achieve that United will almost certainly need a total points in the 90s – something they’ve only managed twice in a 38 game Premier League season.
In the campaign that has just finished, United ended an eye-watering 35 points behind City. That’s 12 extra wins in a season. United lost 12 times this season, so to reach City they would need to win all of those matches.
That’s a turnaround that will take more than a season or two to achieve. Ten Hag struck the right note when he talked of the first target being a return to the Champions League. Fourth would be a success for United next season.
But they can no longer give their time waiting for Guardiola and Klopp to ride off into the sunset. If they have ambitions of a title in the next few years then the target has just changed.
This summer’s transfer window is a challenge for United, given the number of players required and a budget affected by the lack of Champions League football. But to close the gap to City and Liverpool entirely they will have to maintain an aggressive approach in the transfer market.
Waiting for a change in circumstances at their rivals is no longer an option.
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