Ahead of Thursday’s League Cup clash with Aston Villa, it came as no surprise to hear Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag talk about his hopes of repairing the relationship between the club and its long-suffering supporters.
Frustration remains the overriding feeling among the fans who have seen their side suffer a dramatic decline since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
Progress is undoubtedly being made under Ten Hag, who took over during the summer, after United’s worst-ever Premier League finish.
But there’s no denying that United have played only in fits and starts this season.
A four-game winning streak that included the scalps of Liverpool and Arsenal was ended when they were thrashed 6-3 in the Manchester derby, and morale-boosting victories over Everton and Tottenham were followed up with disappointing draws against Newcastle and Chelsea.
The players showed plenty of grit in the subsequent 1-0 win over West Ham only to then turn in a dreadful performance in last weekend’s loss at Aston Villa that Ten Hag admitted was “not acceptable”.
It’s clear, then, that ruthless decisions must be made if United are to achieve their twin objectives for the current campaign: ending their five-year trophy drought, and securing a return to the Champions League.
GOAL runs through their five main problems below…
Get rid of Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo’s punishment for sulking off early against Tottenham should have marked the end of his United career.
Ten Hag initially appeared to have handled the situation perfectly, dropping the 37-year-old for the subsequent 1-1 draw against Chelsea, but the Dutchman failed to stick to his guns.
Ronaldo has started four games in a row since then, including the defeat at Villa. He has only managed to score once, in the 3-0 home win over Europa League minnows Sheriff, and has looked a shadow of the man that terrorised defences for fun during his first stint at United and nine-year spell at Real Madrid.
Against Villa, the Portuguese striker recorded just 25 touches and one shot on target, a point-blank header that he should have buried. His only noteworthy contribution came in the form of a grappling match with Tyrone Mings after Jacob Ramsey had put the hosts 3-1 up.
Ronaldo was inexplicably handed the captain’s armband for the clash, and certainly did not lead by example with his behaviour or performance. He is a hindrance to this United side, not a help, and they simply will not progress if he continues to enjoy such a prominent role.
Ten Hag threw the veteran forward a bone when he didn’t deserve it, and the decision has backfired. The United boss must now re-affirm his authority by making sure Ronaldo is either sold or released in January, which would give him the room to really kick-start his long-term project.
Make Bruno captain
Harry Maguire is still United’s official club captain, despite having only appeared in four Premier League matches so far in 2022-23.
The England defender was benched in favour of Lindelof against Villa, which again showed that he doesn’t enjoy Ten Hag’s full trust.
De Gea should have taken up vice-captaincy duties at Villa Park rather than Ronaldo, due to his standing as the most senior member of the squad in terms of appearances and Varane’s continued absence, but Fernandes has worn the armband for the majority of the campaign.
The Portugal international’s goals and assists output may have dropped since his first full season at Old Trafford, but he remains their creative hub and the player who takes on the most responsibility from game to game.
Fernandes directs his team-mates with and without the ball, and is seemingly the biggest advocate of Ten Hag’s pressing philosophy as he often posts the highest numbers for distance covered per 90 minutes.
Off the pitch, he faces up to the media in a refreshingly candid fashion and appears to be one of the most popular and respected members of the squad, just like all of the very best captains in United’s history.
Maguire has never felt like the right fit for the armband, and the sooner Fernandes assumes the responsibility in an official capacity, the better.
Increase the strength in depth
United knew they were in for a tough season after qualifying for the Europa League, and they made life even more difficult for themselves by failing to finish top of their group.
Two games against Barcelona now await in February, and the Premier League were already struggling to find any room for United’s postponed fixtures against Crystal Palace and Leeds United.
One possible solution could see them playing a Friday-Monday-Thursday-Sunday schedule between European rounds, which would stretch Ten Hag’s squad to the absolute limit.
The Villa game should serve as solid evidence that United won’t cope unless they bolster their ranks in the winter transfer window.
Victor Lindelof was bullied all afternoon after filling in for the injured Raphael Varane and Donny van de Beek proved to be completely ineffective after being selected to fill the void left by the suspended Bruno Fernandes.
Antony was also carrying a knock, and so Marcus Rashford was forced into the unnatural right-wing role that he struggled in for much of last season.
United need two or three new signings to reduce the risk of further setbacks as Ten Hag will have no choice but to rotate more frequently in the new year.
However, it remains to be seen how much backing he will be given after a summer outlay of over £220 million ($250m).
Sign a new No.9
United’s improvements in general play under Ten Hag have been undermined by a lack of clinical edge in the final third of the pitch.
Indeed, Manchester City’s prolific Norwegian Erling Haaland has scored as many goals (18) as United have managed as a collective in their first 13 Premier League outings this term.
Rashford has been handed a central striker role more often than not, but always ends up drifting to his favoured position on the left, while Anthony Martial has once again struggled to stay fit consistently since returning from a loan spell at Sevilla.
Beyond Ronaldo, whose powers are now all but gone, United do not have a natural No.9 to call upon, and its costing them week after week.
Ten Hag has transformed United into a more fluid, dynamic attacking outfit, with a forward-thinking philosophy based around quick passing interchanges delivering chances in abundance, but they are not being converted.
The powers that be at Old Trafford should be prioritising the signing of a new forward in January, with it reported that Napoli’s Victor Osimhen and Lille forward Jonathan David could both be available for the right price.
Time to move on from De Gea
De Gea became only the 11th player to bring up 500 games for United in the 0-0 draw against Newcastle last month, and he has undoubtedly been the club’s standout performer in the post-Ferguson era.
That’s not to say he has been beyond reproach, though, particularly in recent years. The Spaniard has been prone to high-profile errors, particularly in the Premier League, as he has made a grand total of 11 mistakes leading to goals since 2016 – the third-worst record in the competition.
Indeed, he was directly at fault for two of the four goals United conceded in their shock 4-0 drubbing at Brentford in August, somehow letting a trickling Josh Dasilva shot slip under him before playing a hospital pass into Eriksen that led to Mathias Jensen’s second goal.
De Gea has bounced back since then, most notably in the win over West Ham as he produced a superb late double save to preserve the three points for United. Ten Hag highlighted his improved distribution after that game, but it has been reported that he is not entirely convinced by the 31-year-old.
United reportedly pay De Gea £375,000 ($425,000) in weekly wages, a hefty outlay that is set to be wiped off when his contract expires next summer. The club would be wise to let him go earlier.
Despite Ten Hag’s praise, De Gea is never going to be completely comfortable with the ball at his feet. He has never been one to command his box from crosses and take pressure of his defence either, but there are plenty of keepers that do boast those qualities across Europe.
Porto’s Diogo Costa and Athletic Bilbao’s Unai Simon are on that list, and have both been linked with United in recent months. It’s time for them to move on from De Gea and bring in a new No.1 that can rival the physically imposing, ball-playing keepers on the books of their rivals.
Ten Hag clearly has a ruthless streak. It’s time for him to show it again in the coming weeks and months… Source: goal.com