Erik ten Hag has become Manchester United’s fifth permanent manager since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013.
Over the next few years, there were fleeting moments when it felt like the club was moving forward.
But, here and now, they are farther from vying for great honors than they have been since Ferguson joined the club in the mid-1980s.
In some ways, Ten Hag is in a good position. After what has gone before, under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, there is a sense that structural issues are the real problem at Old Trafford and until they are resolved any manager will find the job difficult.
But this is also the 52-year-old’s chance to prove he’s capable of transitioning from a top-notch coach at a famous club in a less competitive league to one at the highest level of the game.
Clearly, though, there are a number of challenges for Ten Hag to overcome.
convince the skeptics
In what boiled down to a direct choice with Mauricio Pochettino, United felt that Ten Hag’s progressive style and willingness to work with a director of football were more in tune with what is now at Old Trafford.
However, Ten Hag is entering an alien world.
Unlike Pochettino, he has never experienced the unique demands of English football, where energy-intensive play follows energy-intensive play, where success only adds to the brutality of the schedule, and where space to rest is virtually non-existent.
So far, Ajax have played five domestic games midweek. Even in a campaign that has seen early exits in both the FA Cup and Carabao Cup, United will have at least seven this season.
In the three-week period that Ajax were enjoying the winter break, United played five games – and more games canceled because of Covid.
Evidently, the club’s pre-season trip to Thailand – and a game against Liverpool – and Australia will be vital for Ten Hag to get his ideas across.
He needs players to believe his philosophy right away, as the chance of making up for lost time – at least until the World Cup, when most of his players will be on international duty anyway – will be limited.
How to solve a problem like Ronaldo?
Cristiano Ronaldo’s huge salary and stardom are a magnet for attention.
The Portuguese has scored 21 goals for United this season, but unless Ten Hag finds a consistently productive way to use the 37-year-old, five times the best in the world, or get rid of him entirely, progress will be difficult.
Whether it’s the clear physical limitations that prevent United from operating a strong and repeated press or the frosty relationship that has developed with Harry Maguire over the club’s captaincy, Ronaldo’s presence is a problem for Ten Hag.
The Dutchman never got anyone with Ronaldo’s history or ego. It is essential that he gets this right.
Contracts and futures
It’s not that difficult to come up with a list of 10 United players who could leave this summer.
Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Edinson Cavani and Juan Mata are all out of contract. Phil Jones goes all the way to 2023, but he’s only played twice in over two years.
Then there’s goalkeeper Dean Henderson, defender Eric Bailly and England striker Marcus Rashford, who have been the subject of intense speculation about their future at Old Trafford.
Anthony Martial, Donny van de Beek and Brandon Williams were all out of favor when they were loaned out to Sevilla, Everton and Norwich respectively.
Amad Diallo has done nothing in his loan spell at Rangers to suggest he is a United first-team player, while Mason Greenwood remains unavailable for the national team.
Even if not all named players end up leaving, there will be considerable holes to fill, although Patrick Vieira used a similar lack of resources to dramatically improve Crystal Palace last summer.
Finding the right quality at United might not be so easy.
Given that, finishing in the top four and winning a domestic cup would represent an excellent comeback for United in Ten Hag’s first season.
United haven’t won anything since their Europa League success in 2017 under Mourinho – their longest spell without a title since the barren period between 1977 and 1983.
If, as expected, they don’t finish in the top four this season, next season will be the fourth time in nine that they won’t be involved in the Champions League.
Fixing these stats is one of the reasons why some argue that Ten Hag needs time to implement his ideas and bring about tangible improvements in a club for whom winning used to be second nature.
But this is Manchester United. The noise around Old Trafford is immense. Ten Hag needs early results to prove he’s the right man for the job.
Four games without a win tend to lead to talk of a crisis and that is not going to change. Time will only be granted externally with positive performances.
Recruitment is key
It’s clear that United’s recruitment – significantly reinforced in the last few years of Ed Woodward’s time as executive vice president – is an important issue.
Aside from the arrival of Ronaldo, which came after Solskjaer spent months convincing Cavani to stay at the club for another year to be the main attacking focus – there are contracts for the likes of Bailly and Jones.
These were handed over, apparently, for no logical reason other than trying to earn a transfer fee for players who evidently had no long-term future at Old Trafford.
Few recent purchases have impressed and those that did initially, like Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, have regressed to the point of losing their place on the side in the latter’s case, and face widespread calls to be dropped in the former.
Caretaker manager Ralf Rangnick highlighted the continuity that helped shape Manchester City and Liverpool.
It was accepted even before this sad season unfolded that United needed a defensive midfielder and that remains the case.
Somehow, despite committing over £180m to Maguire, Raphael Varane, Victor Lindelof and Bailly since 2016, United are still weak in central defence.
They also need a world-class striker – and much more from the players they already have.