Uncertainty over Ronaldo and De Jong plagues Ten Hag
A fortnight watching United’s new manager, Erik ten Hag, leading training has revealed an intelligent man whose priority is to coach. The Dutchman’s emerging side play in free-flowing style and he has a sharp manner with the media. These are the absolute base materials for any manager to succeed at a club that remain the country’s record title holders but became a laughing stock last season. United’s 2-2 draw with Aston Villa in Perth on Saturday night was the first failure to win in four tour matches in Thailand and Australia, fixtures in which United scored 13 goals while conceding three times with a still-suspect defence. As Ten Hag knows, this is the phoney war. The real stuff starts when Brighton come to Old Trafford on 7 August before a trip to Brentford and the visit of Liverpool: two wins and a draw from those three games would be a fine start. Yet Ten Hag is still to work with Cristiano Ronaldo because of a family issue and his No 1 transfer target, Frenkie de Jong, wishes to remain at Barcelona. But Ten Hag’s job is to manage these headaches.
Is Martial flattering to deceive again?
Anthony Martial has been a success on the pitch, scoring three times, and a lively presence who has surprised club insiders with a zest for life he does not always show. After the lost campaign of last season – half of which was spent on loan at Sevilla – Martial was a favourite to be sold this summer but Ronaldo’s desire to depart means Ten Hag needs the Frenchman and has closed the door on him leaving. If the manager has scant choice, a question can still be posed of his faith in the erratic Martial: will Ten Hag’s confidence be vindicated or will the belief he can succeed where others have failed come back to haunt him? Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Ralf Rangnick all came to mistrust Martial. Ten Hag is making a big call.
De Gea remains unreliable in the United goal
“I have to watch it back,” was Ten Hag’s reply when asked if David de Gea was culpable for Villa’s added-time equaliser after he flapped at a corner. He was. If the manager was protecting his player, consider this: Ten Hag talks of the requirement for “internal” competition for players but as he allowed Dean Henderson to join Nottingham Forest on loan, De Gea has only one rival for the goalkeeper jersey: Tom Heaton, who is 36 and has played 22 minutes for United. De Gea is a superb shot‑stopper but goes missing when high balls are delivered into the area. After Solskjær left him out in favour of Henderson, De Gea’s response was a return to his sparkling best. There is also a question over the 31-year-old’s ability to play with his feet, as Ten Hag demands. De Gea argues this is no problem yet his three touches outside the area in the 4-0 win against Liverpool were more than his Premier League average last season of 2.4. Can he prosper under Ten Hag?
Building confidence is vital
Despite the results and sparkling attacking play there remains a close‑your‑eyes‑and‑hope feel around a group of players who, in the past, have tended to collapse under pressure. Witness Ten Hag’s description of his defence as a “pack of cards” when conceding a hapless opener against Melbourne Victory, with the manager admitting the disaster of last season continues to weigh on his players. De Gea says he senses a “new energy” among the squad and the side have shown themselves capable of implementing Ten Hag’s high-press, relentless playing style. The million-dollar question, though, is whether they can continue to do so through a long season that includes a month’s break for the World Cup. Ten Hag was asked in Perth if he would take seven points from the opening three matches – the implication being a draw against Liverpool would be a good result. He gave a stock answer about wishing to win each game but the concern is a hiding at home from their great rivals could seriously damage the bid to reconstruct his players’ fragile psyches.
Maguire’s trials and tribulations may not be over
Would Harry Maguire have lasted as an indifferent performer for three seasons at Manchester City or Liverpool? No way. Ten Hag is doing all he can to support the defender, retaining him as captain and saying he “thinks” Maguire is a first-choice. But he also made the reasonable point that Maguire has to prove himself. The truth is that if Ten Hag is to reinvigorate, he will either have to coax Maguire to a higher level or deem him a liability. The centre-back’s issue is not only his questionable positioning and lack of pace but also a lack of presence, which makes Ten Hag’s decision to keep him as captain intriguing. Does he feel there is a hidden fire in Maguire that can be lit?