Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United Premier League report card after 13 games reads 23 points, a goal difference of -1 (18 scored, 19 against), and fifth place before the weekend’s matches. As United visit Fulham for Sunday’s late match, the verdict on the Dutchman’s fledgling tenure might be one of fair progress given the surgery required on a team that trailed in 35 points behind Manchester City last May.
But the nine years since United’s last Premier League triumph in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season have featured a catalogue of missteps and false dawns, and Ten Hag is the fifth manager who is attempting to solve the United conundrum: how to make England’s record champions contenders again.
Millions have been handed to each of the Dutchman’s predecessors yet the quest for a league-winning side is almost certain to reach a decade with no 21st crown. Ten Hag’s summer spend was a record single-window sum of £220m. David Moyes’s truncated 34-league-game tenure cost £64.6m, the bill for Louis van Gaal’s (2014-16) was £244.5m, José Mourinho’s (2016-18) ran to £376m, and Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s ended in November 2021 at £403m.
Last Sunday’s 3-1 loss at Aston Villa was the latest instance of a chronic fragility of which the prevailing factor has been the failure to build a progressive and consistent XI. Achieve this and Ten Hag will send out a side for each game that can challenge the might of Manchester City.
In Pep Guardiola’s opening year in east Manchester he repeated the need for “solidity” as he constructed his winning machine. Now “being there” is the Catalan’s mantra: City cannot win every trophy but Pep’s men should always compete. Guardiola, though, made errors in his first summer by failing to replace the ageing full-backs Pablo Zabaleta and Gaël Clichy, and judging the hapless Claudio Bravo to possess the nerve to be his play-from-the-back No 1.
At this juncture Ten Hag’s opening window appears more successful as his major arrivals – Casemiro, Christian Eriksen, Lisandro Martínez, Antony and Tyrell Malacia – may all prove the nucleus of a bright new side. Yet there is a caveat: Guardiola inherited a squad that had been champions twice in four seasons and which boasted the lethal Sergio Agüero, David Silva’s silken talent, Vincent Kompany’s leadership, Fernandinho’s guile and the superb Kevin De Bruyne.
Ten Hag has to lead United from the psychological wreckage of a half-generation of failure while integrating his gang of new acquisitions into a squad of which only Luke Shaw and Bruno Fernandes may be of the requisite quality. Cristiano Ronaldo is 37 and temperamental, Marcus Rashford ranges between potent and peripheral, David de Gea’s errors can cost points, Harry Maguire is sluggish and Scott McTominay would not feature in a Guardiola reserve side.
So we observe the lurch between convincing (2-1 versus Liverpool, 3-1 over Arsenal), embarrassing (1-2 to Brighton, 4-0 at Brentford, 6-3 at City), and disappointing – the losses to Villa and Real Sociedad, the latter handing Ten Hag’s men a Europa League last-32 tie against a Barcelona of Robert Lewandowski, Pedri and Gavi.
The Dutchman also has to deal with the entitled late-career Ronaldo, who believes it is acceptable to walk out on team and manager – against Rayo Vallecano and Tottenham – plus an attack that can seem toothless and has missed the serially injured Anthony Martial. To find United’s highest Premier League scorer you must scroll to 18th place in the charts, where Rashford stands on four goals, with Fernandes next in 49th (two), while Casemiro and Ronaldo have one apiece.
Fernandes’s goal drought is a puzzle Ten Hag has to solve. The playmaker seems caught in a perpetual game of kick-and-rush, chasing the ball rather than finding space and scoring positions. It is a miscalculation that if corrected can return him to the form of two seasons ago when he scored 18 goals in 37 league appearances.
Ronaldo, too, is a factor in this: Fernandes’s rampant campaign of 2020-21 ended in United finishing second under Solskjær but was followed by the No 7’s arrival in the close season. Wrong player at the wrong time.
Solskjær should have bought a midfielder of Casemiro’s or Declan Rice’s quality; instead the Portuguese remains at the club, taking up a centre-forward berth and draining £500,000 a week from the budget for any replacement. In this sense the petulant Vallecano and Spurs exits plus Ronaldo’s desire to leave in the summer have worked for Ten Hag, as a footballer whose powers are obviously waning can more easily be left out of the team.
If it is difficult to find a taker for Ronaldo’s eye-watering salary in January – a payoff could be the way to engineer his departure – the emergence of Alejandro Garnacho is a definite boon for the Ten Hag project. The winger’s latest impressive display came as a substitute in Thursday’s Carabao Cup tie with Villa, when he lit up Old Trafford, creating the goals for Fernandes and McTominay that took United through.
The Argentinian is fast, direct and fearless and at 18 represents a gleaming future: an apt symbol of the era Ten Hag hopes to create.