Once Manchester United’s first wave of returning players had trotted out onto the pitches at Carrington on Monday afternoon, the first thing new manager Erik ten Hag did was to gather them into a group.
Flanked by assistants Steve McLaren and Mitchell van der Gaag, the Dutchman explained what he expected to see during the first session of the summer before ending his address with a wider point — that success next season depends on them.
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Ten Hag has not hidden the fact he would like new signings during the transfer window, but in face-to-face meetings and Zoom calls with players conducted over the course of the last six weeks, he has stressed that the biggest change has to come from the squad he has inherited.
He’s told individuals that a miserable season last year does not make them bad players and that aside from those who have already made it clear they want out, they will all be given a clean slate during preseason and the tour of Thailand and Australia, which gets underway on July 8.
United’s budget to freshen up the squad this summer has been described as “sizeable” but those who know the finer details say there has been an insistence, even as far back as April, that supporters shouldn’t expect wholesale changes.
The club immediately distanced themselves from claims made by interim boss Ralf Rangnick following the humiliating defeat to Liverpool at Anfield that as many as 10 new players could arrive at the end of the season.
And since the announcement of Ten Hag’s appointment, the message from football director John Murtough and CEO Richard Arnold has been the same — that the former Ajax coach’s first task is to get more out of the players already at Old Trafford.
“Erik will aim to maximise the potential of existing players while building towards long-term success,” Murtough told a fans’ forum in May.
“The squad will be strengthened and renewed this summer and Erik will be a key voice in this process, together with the recruitment department to identify and secure targets. There remains huge potential in the existing squad and strong academy talent coming through.”
At his official unveiling, Ten Hag issued a similar challenge to four players in particular. Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, Bruno Fernandes, and Marcus Rashford were all part of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad which finished second in the Premier League in 2021 but all suffered disastrous dips in form to collectively contribute to a sixth-place finish last season.
“We accept the current situation but also know one year ago, this club, this team was second in the Premier League,” said Ten Hag.
“There’s potential and now it’s up to us to get that out. It’s a process, it will take time but I’m convinced we will come to that point where we get success. We have to work hard and it has to be based on the right philosophy and strategy.”
The point is that new signings like Frenkie de Jong, Tyrell Malacia, Lisandro Martinez, and Antony — all on United’s radar — will help give the club the feeling of a fresh start but they cannot be expected to turn things around on their own and the easiest way to start making up ground on Manchester City and Liverpool is by finding a way to recreate the standards set in 2020-21.
Only champions City scored more league goals than United two years ago thanks, in part, to Fernandes netting 18 times and scoring 28 in all competitions. In the two seasons between 2019 and 2021, Rashford scored 43 times, despite spending most of his time on the wing. At the back, Shaw was named in the Premier League’s team of the year in 2021 while Maguire was picked in UEFA’s team of the tournament for Euro 2020 as England reached the final.
In contrast, last season Maguire and Shaw were part of a defence which conceded more goals than Burnley, who were relegated to the Championship while Fernandes and Rashford scored 15 goals between them. There is plenty of room for improvement, even just set against what they have done before.
United fans are waiting with bated breath for the first new arrival of the Ten Hag era but success in the Dutchman’s first season at Old Trafford won’t be determined by the new names which come through the door. Instead, it will be the familiar faces asked to shoulder the responsibility of improving standards and getting the club moving forward again in their bid to return to the top of domestic and European football.
Ten Hag has been brought in, partly, to remind an under-fire, under-pressure squad that not so long ago they were considered genuine title contenders. Their challenge now is to prove him right.