Manchester United season preview: Ten Hag, squad uncertainty, much to prove

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What’s a reasonable aim for Manchester United this upcoming season?

Can new manager Erik ten Hag get the players to buy into his methods? Will the fans find him charismatic or out of his depth?

Should United try to win the Europa League after missing out on the Champions League, or see it as a way to blood youngsters? Will Harry Maguire come good again? What’s United’s best XI? Will the club’s fans and owners ever see eye to eye?

There will be a lot of questions swirling around Old Trafford before Sunday’s opener there against Brighton.

Our Manchester United writers have had a go at unpicking things…


What would be a good season?

Carl Anka: Listeners to the Talk Of The Devils podcast will know the answer to this remains “The Andy Mitten Standard” – a year where United earned a top-four finish and won a trophy.

If Ten Hag is to get United back to the Champions League, he may be tempted to take a leaf out of Jose Mourinho’s book from his time as manager and attempt qualification for UEFA’s blue-riband club competition by winning its little brother, the Europa League .

The two-part nature of 2022-23, either side of the World Cup in November and December, will give Ten Hag a very obvious period to pause and take stock of the Premier League landscape and where his resources may be best directed.

Dan Sheldon: United finished 13 points behind fourth-place Tottenham Hotspur last season. That is not good enough for a club of their size and stature. Champions League qualification should be the minimum expectation when you consider the players at their disposal and the presence of an exciting new manager in the dugout.


And what would be a bad season?

Sheldon: Finishing outside the top four again and failing to take any steps forward under Ten Hag’s management. Pre-season has been full of promise in terms of an aggressive, on-the-front-foot style of play and it will be down to the squad to carry that on throughout the 2022-23 campaign.

This club fell off a cliff last season, both tactically and motivationally, so to repeat that would be a disaster and lead to further questions.

Anka: One of Ten Hag’s secret aims for the season is to make sure no United fan/pundit/commentator says, “We’d have been better off with Mauricio Pochettino.”


(Photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

The new manager wants to play a style of possession-based football that can leave his team vulnerable on the defensive transition. It also needs better central midfielders than the ones currently on the books. If Ten Hag doesn’t get Frenkie de Jong from Barcelona and the methods don’t get good results, the tide will turn.


What could be the manager’s undoing?

Sheldon: This could depend on how the Cristiano Ronaldo situation develops over the coming weeks. Ronaldo is the most senior player in the dressing room and if he ends up staying, it will be essential to manage him properly.

Ten Hag has already proven to be enthusiastic about working with the 37-year-old but if the relationship turns sour at any point, that could be an issue for the Dutchman as far as the dressing room atmosphere is concerned.

Anka: It’s not Ten Hag’s fault that United have been hamstrung by executive dysfunction for years. It is not his fault that the central midfield areas of the squad he’s inherited are wildly understocked. It is not his fault that De Jong is owed €17 million (£14.2m, $17.4m) by Barcelona and appears unwilling to leave Camp Nou. It is not his fault that United appear to be lacking in firepower up front, even if Ronaldo stays.

All of these things will become his fault if things go wrong, though — whether he likes it or not.


Player who will impress the most

Laurie Whitwell: Marcus Rashford has returned after a summer off with renewed focus and sharpness, but Bruno Fernandes could be the biggest beneficiary of a manager giving clear instructions in a defined team shape. He had a really positive tour to Thailand and Australia, reveling in the shirt-signing for fans and getting back to the kind of creativity that lifted United on his arrival in January 2020. Fernandes has seemed more measured in his passing during the warm-up games, while still having that capacity to shock.

Anka: United spent the better part of two summers chasing Jadon Sancho, believing him to be the answer to their attacking woes on the right. Then they spent most of his 2021-22 debut season playing him on the left side, and he flattered to deceive. The jokes were funny but “Sancho on the right” finally looks to be happening. It’s going to be fun.


Most exciting signing

Anka: While we wait to see if a De Jong deal is ever done, let’s talk about Lisandro Martinez.

Much has been made of the Argentina defender’s 5ft 9in (175cm) height, but Martinez’s aggression, passing from deep and communication will make him a key part of his old Ajax boss Ten Hag’s system for the upcoming season. Ten Hag trusts “The Butcher of Amsterdam” so much after working with him for the past three seasons, he is moving club captain Maguire over to right centre-back and benching four-time European Cup winner and reigning World Cup champion Raphael Varane to build around Martinez’s skills.

Whitwell: To call a free transfer exciting may seem oxymoronic but, in Christian Eriksen (main photo), United have added a technical player who can really alter the team dynamic. Precision underpins his set pieces, an area where this team needs to improve, and he understands what Ten Hag wants from his midfielders having been versed in the Ajax way.

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He played 90 minutes in 10 of Brentford’s final 11 Premier League games last season, a sign his match stamina remains. Although it remains to be seen how he fares with United’s midweek European fixtures added in, his recovery from the cardiac arrest he suffered playing for Denmark at the European Championship 14 months ago has been extraordinary. Eriksen now succeeding at United would be an uplifting story.


Player with the most to prove

Sheldon: Maguire was ridiculed for his performances last season and found himself subjected to jeers while in Australia last month on United’s pre-season tour, but Ten Hag has backed him and also accepted him as captain. The England international himself has accepted that 2021-22 was not good enough from a personal point of view. He will likely feel under pressure to hit the ground running and show his worth to his new manager and the supporters.

Anka: Manchester United are coming off their worst ever Premier League season. They finished sixth, with only 58 points and a goal difference of zero. So everyone who was part of that should have something to prove.

One of the louder chants from United fans during that dreadful 4-0 defeat away to Brighton in the penultimate match last season was that those playing “didn’t care about the shirt”. The squad will have to go some way to correct that.


Song the fans should sing that they don’t

Anka: I asked season-ticket holder and Game Of Thrones actor John Bradley for his thoughts on this one, and he said, “Players get songs sung about them. Sometimes managers get songs sung about them. Assistant coaches never get songs sung about them.

“I, for one, am really excited to see Steve McClaren back at United. For all of his apparent comedy value, it shouldn’t be forgotten what a great coach he is. He’s a connective thread back to 1999 and Sir Alex, and was there for all of those moments that are imprinted on our brains forever. He deserves the respect and love of the fans for that.

“If they decide to knock up a song in celebration of McClaren, I’ll be joining right in.”

Whitwell: How about one for Fred? He’s become a bit of a cult figure but doesn’t have a standout chant. What about lyrics to the tune of I’m Too Sexy by Right Said Fred? “He’s too silky for the shirt / so silky it hurts”? Some element of irony, perhaps.


How affected will they be by World Cup absentees?

Anka: United are one injury away from being short-stocked both in central midfield and at centre-forward. Fred typically starts ahead of Fabinho for Brazil, but I wouldn’t mind him getting a rest while they are in Qatar.

Whitwell: Not as much as in previous years, possibly.

Rashford and Sancho have work to do to get back in Gareth Southgate’s England plans, while Scott McTominay will get a rest as Scotland lost to Ukraine in that June play-off. Does David de Gea make the Spain squad? Does Anthony Martial get picked by France?

It might turn out to be a month when several United players get to recharge their batteries.


Should be in the England squad but isn’t

Sheldon: As mentioned earlier, Sancho’s first season at United did not go to plan, but he is a precocious talent with the ability to impact games in a positive way. The 22-year-old has more than enough experience, having played 26 in the Champions League for Borussia Dortmund and now United, to earn a spot in Southgate’s World Cup squad.

Anka: During the run of four Nations League games in June, Southgate said of Sancho and Rashford: “They’ve got a lot to do to get back in the squad.” Since then, Southgate has suffered his worst defeat in the job, and the squads for the World Cup finals have been expanded from the traditional 23 players to 26.

Both will still need to hit the ground running to make the 26. Both should have enough talent to do so. Expect outrage and headlines if only one of them manages it.


The best XI

Anka: Please see The AthleticS ‘ 2021-22 and 2020-21 attempts to select a United Best XI as reminders that such line-ups rarely come to regular fruition over a season.

This XI is being chosen under the assumption that everyone is match-fit, that De Jong isn’t coming (*Sad face*), that Ronaldo is staying, and that Ten Hag wants to continue with the 4-2-3-1 we’ve seen over pre-season.

De Gea; Tyrell Malacia (left-back), Martinez, Maguire, Diogo Dalot; Fred, McTominay; Rashford (left-winger), Fernandes, Sancho; Martial.

Additional contributor: Dan Sheldon

(Top photo: Getty Images)

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