Ten Hag has few dark clouds hanging over Man United after Ronaldo exit

CHRIS WHEELER: Ronaldo’s gone, Rashford and Maguire are in form, Martinez and Varane are World Cup finalists and morale is high… Man United’s trip to Spain was bleak but the future looks bright as Erik ten Hag looks to build on his promising start

  • Man United are the most settled they have been for years under Erik ten Hag
  • Ten Hag put his players through their paces in miserable conditions out in Spain
  • With Cristiano Ronaldo gone, Ten Hag now has far fewer problems on his plate
  • Marcus Rashford and Harry Maguire are returning from the World Cup in form
  • However, Jadon Sancho’s struggles are one major issue for Ten Hag to overcome

As warm-weather training camps go, a wet week in Cadiz probably wasn’t what Erik ten Hag had in mind for his Manchester United players during the World Cup break.

Staff at the Montecastillo hotel and golf resort, where United were based in Jerez de la Frontera for most of their stay, told us they couldn’t remember a worse spell of weather that must have felt more like Carrington than Cadiz for the squad.

Ten Hag and his coaching staff had to abandon the main pitch because it had absorbed too much rainwater, and then narrow a secondary pitch because of the puddles.

Man United’s warm-weather trip to Cadiz was marred by miserable wet conditions in Spain

But the future looks rosier than ever for Erik ten Hag heading into the second half of the season

An outdoor gym set up for the players in a marquis was practically unusable, and security staff in golf buggies had to drive around the complex with extra care in the precarious conditions. 

Lightning may have been forecast, but that didn’t stop Ten Hag and his coaches putting the players through their paces in surprisingly intense training sessions.

In the leaden skies above, a drone hovered as it captured pictures and data for United’s team of analysts. The club had been forced to call in a local operator because the drones normally used at Carrington were too big, according to aviation law in Andalusia.

Despite the challenging conditions, this felt like a settled group. Certainly more so than the divided bunch who fell apart under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick last season. Happier too, you suspect, now Cristiano Ronaldo has left the building.

Some players weren’t the biggest fans of the Portugal star. Those who counted themselves as friends had long since accepted that it would be better if Ronaldo went.

Now Cristiano Ronaldo has left the building, few dark clouds hang over Ten Hag at Old Trafford

When Piers Morgan began leaking snippets of their bombshell interview within minutes of Alejandro Garnacho’s late winner at Fulham in the last game before the break, the mood among the squad ranged from anger to incredulity.

If there was any question that United are better off without Ronaldo, it was answered on that bus journey away from Craven Cottage.

Ten Hag can now kick on and get United back to where the club needs to be

Ronaldo’s acrimonious exit leaves a sizeable gap in Ten Hag’s squad, but it is one that he is determined to fill in the January transfer window if the right deal is available. Either way, a load has been lifted from the manager’s shoulders.

Ripping up Ronaldo’s contract has removed one of the few remaining clouds hanging over United since Ten Hag took over in the summer. There is no doubt he has got United moving in the right direction. The question now is how quickly he can get them where they need to be.

Of course, there have been some teething problems. The Dutchman couldn’t have got off to a worse start than back-to-back defeats against Brighton and Brentford. 

Losing 6-3 to Manchester City and 3-1 to Aston Villa were wake-up calls as well, but Ten Hag never said it was going to be plain sailing. Quite the opposite, in fact.

But his summer signings – Casemiro, Christian Eriksen, Lisandro Martinez, Antony and Tyrell Malacia – have all had a positive impact, contributing to a promising first half of the season.

The goal from Garnacho – who has done more than anyone to spread optimism around Old Trafford – at Fulham sent United into the break on a high despite Ronaldo’s best efforts to spoil the party.

The World Cup has presented some unique problems for all Premier League clubs, of course. Some players didn’t even go to Qatar and needed to maintain their fitness at Carrington or on the training camp in Cadiz. Others came back earlier than they would have liked.

Raphael Varane and Martinez have reached Sunday’s World Cup final, the biggest game of their lives, and must then head back from the desert to resume the domestic season in mid-winter after a week’s rest.

Players will have lived different experiences in Qatar and had varying amounts of playing time. Ten Hag says United are prepared for every scenario, but the back-room staff will have their work cut out getting everyone back up to speed for the remainder of the season.

As Pep Guardiola pointed out last month, the full impact of this World Cup won’t be known for some time yet.

Martinez and Varane aren’t the only ones to make progress in Qatar. 

Harry Maguire, the man they have kept out of central defence, showed once again what he can do in the white shirt of England. Maguire now needs to show the same form and confidence for United amid uncertainty over his future at Old Trafford.

Raphael Varane (L) and Lisandro Martinez will return as World Cup finalists later this month

Harry Maguire (L) and Marcus Rashford (R) will also head back to United in impressive form

Marcus Rashford’s rehabilitation for club and country continued with three goals on England’s run to the quarter-finals. 

Brazil and Portugal suffered equally disappointing exits, but Casemiro and Bruno Fernandes shone in Qatar. The significance of seeing Christian Eriksen playing in a major championships for Denmark wasn’t lost on anyone.

In Spain, Anthony Martial notched up two more appearances in the games against Cadiz and Real Betis as he recovers from injury. United lost both but were able to give many of the FA Youth Cup winning squad some valuable first-team experience.

Ten Hag’s admission that Jadon Sancho wasn’t physically or mentally in the right shape to join his teammates in Cadiz is concerning, but one hopes that the decision to send the 22-year-old to Holland to work away from the spotlight will be in his best interests.

Sancho is fortunate to have a young, progressive coach in Ten Hag and he is not the only one. The first six months under the Dutchman have been very encouraging. 

Now United must build on that over the next six months as they bid for a top-four finish and the possibility of a first trophy since 2017.

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