Sports FOOTBALL Ronaldo, Maguire, structure Ten Hag's key issues at United

Ronaldo, Maguire, structure Ten Hag’s key issues at United

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The big and loaded question: can the manager actually wield enough influence over the beast that is Manchester United to do it his way? This is a chicken-egg conundrum because winning games and trophies convinces players and the executive but conviction is required from players and the executive for the manager to have his decisions backed and to be a winning No 1. Then there is the club’s particular byzantine brew of politics and peccadilloes. At United Richard Arnold is the chief executive but the real finger on the button is across the Atlantic. And there are six: one for each of the Glazer siblings who own United and reside in Florida. Joel Glazer may be the day-to-day, hands-on chief of the owners but any major decision has to be okayed, too, by Avram, Darcie, Kevin, Bryan and Edward, who are also directors. This vote-by-committee via a five-hour, stateside time lag is hardly slick and streamlined, particularly when the depth of the owners’ collective football knowledge is unclear. Then there is Erik ten Hag’s main point of contact: John Murtough, the football director, who is a year into his role. Can Murtough be the Txiki Begiristain (Manchester City’s seriously astute sporting director) to the Dutchman’s (hopeful) Pep Guardiola?

Cristiano Ronaldo

At 37 years old there is no way the Portuguese can remain an automatic choice if Ten Hag is going to build an actual team. The question is whether Ronaldo can be let go – not whether he should. A £490,000-a-week salary means there may be zero takers but if a loan can be struck – Paris Saint-Germain, if Kylian Mbappé goes to Real Madrid, maybe? – the Ronaldo problem may be solved. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s major error was to agree to the forward’s signing: the money siphoned off for a two-year contract – about £50m – could have been invested elsewhere and a squad that was supposed to be young, progressive and fleet-footed would not have been hampered by a footballer who is no longer any of these and is not conducive to long-term success.

Quick Guide

Erik’s story so far

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rise and rise
Erik ten Hag, 52, spent much of his playing career as a central defender at FC Twente – it is said a lack of speed made him work harder, position himself smarter and be more aware of the importance of teamwork, seeing the game through a coach’s eyes while still playing. He moved seamlessly into youth coach roles at the club before becoming first-team assistant, which included a spell working under Steve McClaren before Fred Rutten took him to PSV Eindhoven in 2009 for three seasons.

The first-team coach

Marc Overmars appointed him manager of Go Ahead Eagles in 2012 and he duly took the side into the Dutch top flight before leaving to coach Bayern Munich’s second team for two years. Then it was back to the Netherlands with Utrecht, drastically reforming the club that finished 11th in the Eredivisie the season before his arrival and recorded fifth- and fourth-place finishes before Ajax came for him in 2017. In the 2018-19 Champions League Real Madrid and Juventus were beaten and only Tottenham blocked Ajax’s path to the final in the last second. In the Eredivisie he is seeking a third league title in four seasons.

The style

“That head is always full of football,” says his childhood friend Leon ten Voorde. Reputation as a control freak who is loyal to his players. Analyzes opponents even if he already played against them twice in the season. Sends players video clips of opponents and gives pointers about which newspapers they should read or what time they should be in bed.

Photographer: Peter de Jong/AP
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Team structure

If Bruno Fernandes feels the need to blaze around Goodison Park to try to jump-start the side – as he did in the dire 1-0 loss to Everton – the team are no team. As alarming, too, is how Fernandes was waved on to do this: Ralf Rangnick made no move to stop the Portuguese and it was not the first time under the interim manager. This shows up United’s lack of structure, shape, plan, ethos and identity. Rangnick arrived on a “godfather of pressing” ticket and close to none of the strategy has been seen. City and Liverpool are so successful because Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp know precisely how they want their side to operate and have had time to execute this. Solskjær was given close to three years but never truly moved beyond a one-dimensional, counterattacking mode – a contributing factor to his sacking. Ten Hag’s Ajax had a defined way of playing – pass and move plus pressing. So, surely, the Dutchman will apply this. Put another way: the 52-year-old has to.

Ralf Rangnick shouts instructions during Manchester United's defeat at Manchester City.  He has been unable to get his preferred strategy through to his players.
Ralf Rangnick shouts instructions during Manchester United’s defeat at Manchester City. He has been unable to get his preferred strategy through to his players. Photographer: Javier Garcia/Shutterstock

Harry Maguire and Raphaël Varane

Two centre-backs, two problems. Harry Maguire is not as poor as some portrayals but is not good enough to warrant his undroppable status. Raphaël Varane maybe deserves more time to prove he belongs in a different file to the captain. The Frenchman arrived last summer and a thought was that the World Cup winner might help improve Maguire, who most impresses in a back three for England. Ten Hag operates a 4-3-3: bad news for Maguire, who is slow and whose touch and decision-making under fire are suspect. Varane has also been sluggish, lacks desire and can be barged aside. Time for a reboot for the 28-year-old this summer then: work hard on physicality and game-reading and try to increase sprint speed. But whether Varane can become the defender of (former) reputation is unclear. Real Madrid did, after all, allow his sale. The reason for this may have already been seen.

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Midfield and centre-forward

As perennial as United’s lack of titles and farcical manager recruitment (the post-Sir Alex Ferguson score: permanent appointments 5, interims 4) is a dysfunctional transfer policy with top billing going to how no one at the club can seem to identify and sign a star schemer. This means a footballer who runs a match à la Kevin De Bruyne or Declan Rice. Or stop the opposition and ignite attacks – think Fernandinho or N’Golo Kanté. Can the new man pull off a trick that really should not be that hard? Two midfielders on this plane would be great, one a certifiable boon. City have De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Rodri, Fernandinho, Ilkay Gündogan and Phil Foden: a raft of A-listers. United have two B-acts in Scott McTominay and Fred, the veteran Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba, who will surely leave and has not been value for a £93.2m British record transfer fee. Also, Ten Hag needs a No 9. Ronaldo is shot, Edinson Cavani will leave, Mason Greenwood is currently suspended and Marcus Rashford is enduring a lost season. Acquiring a prolific centre-forward is of the same order as Ten Hag’s midfielder search: one of the copious rabbits he has to pull from the hat to make United a contender again.

Welcome, Erik, to your new job.

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