Manchester United transfer priorities: How can Erik ten Hag build around Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes?

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Ralf Rangnick is gone and Erik ten Hag is officially in charge at Manchester United. He can be forgiven if he looked around and came to the conclusion that the job ahead of him is larger than he expected coming in. United finished sixth in the Premier League with only 58 points which is their worst ever season of Premier League soccer. Missing out on the Champions League is a critical blow to a team that needs to purchase players at every position, even after spending significant amounts of money over the past few years.

The board should back ten Hag but the depth of the issues facing the club will not be able to be righted in only one season. Installing ten Hag’s preferred new system, likely an aggressively pressing 4-3-3 setup, will require buy in from the players that Rangnick was not able to get but with more than a six-month contract, ten Hag has more lattitude to get the squad in line or get new players. Those who can not be part of United’s future will likely be moved on but things may have been easier to deal with if United had no European soccer at all.

With the Red Devils in Europa League, they’ll need to strike a balance to ensure that they have cover while also clearing out what they can. Quite a few free agents have already announced their departure from the club, giving ten Hag holes to fill before preseason gets underway. He won’t be able to bring everyone from Ajax with him, which makes it an interesting challenge in the biggest managerial job of his career and his first top-flight position outside of the Netherlands.

Here, we break down the Manchester United senior men’s roster and try to figure out what is going to happen this summer and what is not:

Manchester United goalkeeper outlook

  • Staying: David De Gea
  • Uncertain Future: Dean Henderson
  • Leaving: Lee Grant

Keeper is a position that should be simple for Manchester United but getting it right will be critical to ten Hag’s tenure with Manchester United. David de Gea is coming off of one of his best seasons in years as he was third in the Premier League with 128 saves but it’s a stat that is slightly misleading. He faced the fifth most shots of any keeper with 513 but posted a pedestrian save percentage of 69%.

With a rotating cast of defenders in front of him, De Gea faced more shots on target than any top five keeper and he did the best he could, but if he was not under so much pressure, his long-standing weakness addressing crosses may have become a glaring issue. De Gea only claimed eight crosses out of the 648 that he faced, helping create some issues for himself in the box. Waiting in the wings is Dean Henderson, who thought that his strong spell with Sheffield United would give him a chance at the starting job, but has since spent two years mostly manning the bench.

Henderson only made three appearances in all competitions last season. With Newcastle United on the lookout for a goalkeeper, Henderson could be on the move this summer but if he stays, he should get a shot to unseat De Gea.

Ideal moves: Hopefully, United will not need to make a move at goalkeeper outside of adding an experienced option as their number three. If Henderson does leave, United could enter the chase for West Bromwich Albion’s Sam Johnstone a player who would both help with the foreign homegrown quota, but, at 29, could also step in for De Gea if needed.

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Manchester United defensive outlook

  • Staying: Diogo Dalot, Raphael Varane, Luke Shaw
  • Uncertain Future: Alex Telles, Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Brandon Williams
  • Leaving: Eric Bailly, Phil JonesAxel Tzuanzebe
  • Loan Candidates: Teden Mengi, Alvaro Fernandez

Things start getting interesting when we get to the United defense as the team will look to improve at every position. Ten Hag would like to bring Jurrien Timber from Ajax with him but like some other positions, the lack of Champions Leauge soccer will cause issues with recruitment. The trio of defenders leaving won’t be missed, outside of lack of depth if they aren’t replaced, and clearing wages will be important for a team that has been making transfers without a consistent plan for years. The question is what they do with the money they free up.

Ten Hag is likely to employ a pressing 4-3-3 which will see Dalot, Shaw, and likely Telles’ ability to go both ways be used in a big way. But centrally, things are tougher as United have center backs who can work individually but likely can’t work together due to their lack of pace. Varane and Lindelof are the better center backs positionally, but Varane’s consistency is what gives him a bit of a leg up for me, if he can stay healthy. It will be hard for United to move on from Maguire this summer without taking a loss on the defender but a refresh at center-back is certainly needed.

If anyone will take on Maguire’s wages, it makes sense to let him go in a second as it also allows ten Hag to put a new captain in place, further stamping his authority on the team. Ten Hag will need to watch closely and see who impresses in preseason play as with Europa League commitments too, there will be a lot of games for United defenders and establishing the pecking order early will be key.

Ideal moves: The Red Devils would love to get one of the top center backs on the market, but they’re competing with the likes of Chelsea for names like Jules Kounde and Pau Torres. It will be hard to beat them out without Champions League soccer. Plus, given the sheer number of areas that United need to improve these days, looking at budget signings in defense makes a lot of sense.

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While it’s not a United-esq thing to go for an older player that is not a star, things need to change in the front office as much as they need to change on the field. A few names who could fit the bill are the out-of-contract James Tarkowski who excelled while being involved in the second most duels of any defender in the Premier League. If they do not want to look younger, Southampton‘s Mohamed Salisu is a more mobile option that could also be available with Premier League experience.

Manchester United midfield outlook

  • Staying: Fred, Donny van de Beek, Bruno Fernandes
  • Uncertain Future: Scott McTominay, James Garner
  • Leaving: Jesse Lingard, Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba, Juan MataAndreas Pereira
  • Loan Candidates: Amad, Facundo PellistriHannibal

Midfield will be where ten Hag has critical decisions to make for how the United engine will tick. At a minimum, van de Beek, who played for the Dutch coach at Ajax, will be able to help transition ten Hag’s ideas to the rest of the squad which is why I see him staying while Bruno Fernandes is too talented to lose. Manchester United need a system that suits Fernandes as well as Cristiano Ronaldo (who we’ll get to in a second). Fred is where things get interesting, a player who is so good playing further up the field for Brazil but more mediocre for United generally playing as a more defensive midfielder. United will hope that a more proactive system from ten Hag will get the best out of him.

Getting Fred going could save United quite a bit of money to utilize elsewhere in the squad. Fred isn’t a complete midfielder by any means but loosening him from some of his defensive duties and asking him to dribble less could help. ten Hag will also need to determine if James Garner is ready for the Premier League after a strong season helping Nottingham Forest get promoted. If United wants to see more, letting him spend another season with the Tricky Trees to get experience makes sense. McTominay may have a role if another defensive midfielder has not been added during the offseason but as a midfielder with limited range, he is someone who should move if better options can be added.

Jesse Lingard’s contract expiring after both West Ham United and Newcastle United came in with offers while he was not being used by either United manager shows the failings of the front office. Does a few million dollars in the transfer market move the needle for a team the size of United? Probably not, but when you have no plans on using a certain player, it’s always better to cash in then lose them for free. Then of course there’s the star who never quite was, whose time at United has come to an end. The Paul Pogba era is over and while he may not be up to his old level anymoreit’s quite a bit of midfield talent walking out the door on a free.

Ideal moves: One of United’s top targets is Frenkie de Jong a move which is possible because for yet another summer Barcelona are in a dire financial situation. The United board hopes that Barcelona will be pressured to sell but with such a deep squad, Barcelona could find another way around La Liga’s financial rules. Even if United can come to a financial agreement, does the pull of reuniting with ten Hag outweigh playing in the Champions League? Probably not, which again takes United down to the second tier of targets.

There is a large need for a proper defensive midfielder, and players like Brighton’s Yves BissoumaAston Villa’s Douglas Luiz, or someone of their style could raise the levels of the team. But, the fact that that level of target would be a clear upgrade says more about where United are than anything else. United’s recruitment pull will be put to the test during the summer.

Manchester United attack outlook

  • Staying: Jadon SanchoCristiano Ronaldo Anthony Elanga
  • Uncertain Future: Marcus Rashford
  • Leaving: Edinson CavaniAnthony Martial
  • Loan Candidates: Tahith Chong, Shola ShoretireAlejandro Garnacho

The area of ​​least concern for Manchester United is the attack. Year two of Jadon Sancho should go better than his initial transition back to England from Germany, especially if ten Hag allows him to play in his favored left wing position. One of the best things that Rangnick did was give Anthony Elanga the confidence to perform and that will pay dividends over a full season. A willing shooter and presser, Elanga will quickly become a favorite under ten Hag.

Ten Hag has already stated that he will use Ronaldo next season, not that he has much of a choice, with Ronaldo scoring 18 of United’s 57 league goals. The challenge will be making the press work with Ronaldo and figuring out a way to manage if things go south. It won’t be a huge issue, but it could crop up if Ronaldo’s goal scoring takes a hit as he inches closer to 40. Ronaldo’s goal scoring makes up for his increasing less elsewhere, but if the goals stop, the calculus changes, and fast.

Marcus Rashford’s Manchester United career could be coming to an end as he comes off of his worst Premier League goal output ever only scoring four league goals in his seventh top flight season. There were times when it seemed like Rashford’s injuries were catching up to him. If he’s fine with being Sancho’s backup on the left wing, there are enough games to go around but this could be a scenario where a change of scenery makes sense for both parties.

Ideal moves: Along with every other club, they’d like to add Darwin Nunez after he went nuclear for Benfica in the past year. Nunez is 22 and one of the most wanted strikers in the world for good reason after scoring 26 goals in the Primera Liga in his second season as a starter for Benfica. But they want a lot for him and United may be outbid for the young striker. Ten Hag moving for Ajax’s Antony or even see if Chelsea may do business selling Hakim Ziyech to help turn this into a more balanced squad.

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