There is no doubt Erik ten Hag did his homework on Manchester United before taking the job, but testimonies from friends and colleagues can only inform so much. Little prepares a new manager for the realities at Old Trafford until he is in the dugout.
Now, in the week preceding his first Premier League match, Ten Hag has a better idea. So much for a smooth start to his debut campaign in England — the distractions keep coming like speed bumps and are magnified by the scale of interest in United.
Cristiano Ronaldo provided the biggest issue for Ten Hag to navigate by leaving Old Trafford before the final whistle against Rayo Vallecano on Sunday, having started the friendly. Ronaldo did so of his own accord, forcing United to figure out how to respond. It was the same when Ronaldo flew to Portugal last season instead of attending the Manchester derby.
Ten Hag did not conduct a press conference after the Vallecano game but as part of the Premier League build-up, gave an interview to Dutch broadcaster Viaplay in which he made his views plain.
Ten Hag began by emphasizing how Ronaldo was not alone in exiting early. “There were a lot more who went home,” he said, moderating the focus so that what came next was not an isolated reprimand.
“It’s unacceptable, for everybody,” he added. “We are a team and you have to stay until the end.”
At Ajax, where Ten Hag had total authority, that might be matter closed. At most, further scrutiny would have been confined to the Netherlands. But the attention is global at United and, faced with a player whose following measures in the hundreds of millions, the questions will keep coming.
How Ten Hag responds to that dynamic will be fascinating. His driving ethos is the collective, a compelling factor for United executives in his appointment. Ronaldo is a man apart, though, and has been acting as such during his attempts to get a transfer to a Champions League team.
An exit appears increasingly unlikely, however. Sources regarded his full participation in United’s Premier League media day at Carrington on Tuesday as notable, and the pool of potential buyers has shrunk. United have not fielded a bid, other than from an unnamed Saudi Arabian club.
United have insisted all along that Ronaldo is not for sale, with Joel Glazer involved in discussions, and although it is understood some at the club voiced an alternative opinion as the 37-year-old stayed away from the pre-season tour, the prospect is high of Ten Hag needing to figure out a way to incorporate him into his side — and manage those inevitable flashpoints when he selects others.
Part of the motivation to keep Ronaldo has been that selling him would leave United threadbare in attack. Doubts remain over Anthony Martial’s abilities to lead the line for a whole campaign, despite a promising pre-season.
United are searching for strikers and football director John Murtough met the agent of Benjamin Sesko last Wednesday. More talks are planned over the Red Bull Salzburg centre-forward, but United face competition from Chelsea and possibly Liverpool, who have a good relationship with the Red Bull group. Sesko scored against Liverpool last week.
United have scouted Sesko since he was at Domzale, a club in Slovenia. Back then, in 2019, United viewed a €3million (£2.5m, $3.1m) price as excessive. The cost now would be much higher, to the point that a deal is seen as complicated.
Staff at Salzburg have speculated that Sesko, whose contract runs to 2026, could be even better than Erling Haaland, so the Austrian side are not willing sellers.
Even if United can agree terms, sources do not believe Sesko, 19, should be relied upon to produce immediately in the Premier League.
Experienced alternatives are scarce. United declined to act decisively on the opportunity to sign Darwin Nunez in April, preferring to wait on Ten Hag in the belief Ronaldo was committed for another year.
Instead, United prioritized the pursuit of Frenkie de Jong, starting talks in May. Twelve weeks on, Ten Hag is still waiting for his primary target.
Senior United sources continue to reject claims that De Jong is not interested in moving to Old Trafford. They see the primary obstacle as financial rather than emotional — wages owed to the player and payments due to his agents. Much rests on that judgment being correct.
Alternative views abound that De Jong would prefer to stay at Barcelona or go to Chelsea, a team in London as well as the Champions League. A wrong call by United there, even if based on Ten Hag’s guidance, would be calamitous to this summer’s recruitment.
De Jong is the crucial piece of Ten Hag’s envisioned team, the heartbeat in midfield making those around him function better. It was July 14 when United agreed a deal worth €85 million with Barcelona — chief executive Richard Arnold even joined Murtough in Catalonia to finalize the finances — yet the season will start without him in the squad.
There are echoes of the 2020 window when United waited in vain for Borussia Dortmund to lower their price on Jadon Sancho and then signed a flurry of players close to the deadline.
Amad and Facundo Pellistri are yet to secure first-team places, Edinson Cavani has left, and Alex Telles is off on loan to Sevilla. United will not receive a fee for the Brazil left-back, who joined in a £15.4 million deal. United’s budget is yet to be topped up by sales, as Ten Hag had anticipated.
Dean Henderson left temporarily rather than permanently for a fee, and an interview with Talksport laid bare his frustrations with the dysfunction at Old Trafford. Clearer thinking on exits would enable United to sell decisively and bank more money for signings.
Ten Hag has obviously influenced the transfer strategy, with Tyrell Malacia, Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martinez all his picks. There is something to be said for backing a manager’s wishes, but a recruitment department the scale of United’s should produce genuine, attainable alternatives.
United will have alternatives to De Jong, but the feeling is that the best are only available next summer. Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham, at the top of the list, will continue to be watched. De Jong is seen as the pre-eminent choice now.
The friendly against Atletico Madrid showed they need depth of creativity. Sancho’s absence through illness had a significant effect. He was seen looking poor at the reception of the team hotel in Oslo, asking to change rooms, but is expected to recover for the opening game against Brighton & Hove Albion.
The tremors for Ten Hag are set to keep coming, with protests planned by the 1958 group before that opening fixture on Sunday. After the near bliss of pre-season tours to Thailand and Australia, the brutal truth of life at United has arrived for Ten Hag.
(Top photo: Dave Thompson/PA Images via Getty Images)