Does Ronaldo DESERVE to return, what happens if De Jong STILL says ‘no’ and will it be Maguire or Varane making way for Martinez? Erik ten Hag’s Man United headaches to solve – despite super start
- Manchester United have stormed their way through their pre-season so far
- Erik ten Hag’s side have looked sharp in their three wins, scoring 11 goals
- But the new manager knows he still has plenty of problems to solve at United
- Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t on the tour and Anthony Martial could take his place
- Attempts to prise Frenkie de Jong from Barcelona are turning into a saga
- Tough decisions will have to be made over who plays in defence and midfield
Three wins from three. 11 goals scored. Just two conceded. Liverpool, Melbourne Victory and Crystal Palace all put to the sword.
Everything would appear to be hunky dory under Erik ten Hag at Manchester United on the basis of their pre-season form so far.
An attack that completely misfired last season now looks slick and ruthless, with forgotten man Anthony Martial enjoying a fresh lease of life in United red.
Manchester United have won all three of their pre-season games so far, scoring 11 goals
Erik ten Hag will be broadly satisfied but knows he still has plenty of dilemmas to solve
Everybody seems to be buying into the Ten Hag philosophy of intense pressing when out of possession and committing as many bodies forward as possible when on the ball.
One of United’s three summer signings, Tyrell Malacia, already looks the part at left-back and they still have Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martinez to come into contention.
But Ten Hag is a perfectionist and even after a 4-0 thrashing of Liverpool, 4-1 win over Melbourne Victory and comfortable 3-1 success over Crystal Palace, he will know there’s much scope for improvement.
With the new season just 16 days away for United, we take a look at some of the issues Ten Hag still has to resolve.
How is Ronaldo going to slot back into the team?
Ronaldo was excused from the slog of United’s pre-season tour to the Far East and Australia for family reasons and Ten Hag admitted he hasn’t spoken to the Portuguese star since he asked to leave the club.
The 37-year-old has already seen flickers of interest in him from Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain before they all ultimately decided not to pursue a deal.
He has also rejected the chance to make a sentimental return to his first club Sporting Lisbon, as well as a highly-lucrative offer from a club in Saudi Arabia.
Cristiano Ronaldo has been absent from the tour for family reasons but will expect to start
Anthony Martial has led the line well during the pre-season tour, scoring three in three
So it looks increasingly likely that Ronaldo will have a second season at Old Trafford whether he really wants it or not.
How to reintegrate Ronaldo into the attack poses a headache for Ten Hag given how effectively Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho have played together during pre-season so far.
The Dutchman appeared to suggest on Friday that he is solely focused on getting those who are with him ready for that first game against Brighton.
‘It is the same as last week,’ said Ten Hag when asked about the situation with Ronaldo and whether he is concerned that the Portugal star is running out of time to be fit.
‘Of course. But concerning is maybe not the right word. I focus on the players who are there, they are doing really well, they are in good shape.
‘I prefer to focus on that and develop that. I cannot wait for him to come in, then we will integrate him.’
Marcus Rashford, who scored against Crystal Palace, looks to have his confidence restored
Jadon Sancho looked thrilled to be on the scoresheet against Palace at the MCG
Martial, whose United career looked to be dead after he was loaned out to Sevilla in January, looks a striker reborn and has scored three goals in three matches on tour.
Rashford, whose form fell off a cliff last season after his Euro 2020 penalty heartbreak and shoulder surgery, is reaping the benefits of a full pre-season and looking as sharp as ever.
Sancho, who seldom looked like a £73million footballer during a turbulent first season at United, is starting to look as though he will thrive under the new manager, who does like a speedy winger unafraid to take on defenders.
With Anthony Elanga hoping for more opportunities in the season ahead, United have the makings of a forward line who will not only trouble any opponent with their pace and directness, but also press and be the first line of defence.
Ten Hag may be a figure of authority but it’s far from guaranteed that Ronaldo will put in the hard yards to close down defenders. He certainly wasn’t interested in pressing under Ralf Rangnick last season.
Ronaldo scored some crucial goals last season, especially in Europe, but will he hang around?
But Ronaldo was United’s leading goalscorer by a distance last season and without his goals, United’s poor season could well have been a catastrophic one.
Speculation over whether Ronaldo will leave is likely to overshadow the start of the season until deadline day but Ten Hag will have little choice but to make use of him.
It would be a brave call to leave him benched and start with Martial at centre forward but Ten Hag may well conclude that’s best for the style of play he wants.
What happens if De Jong doesn’t arrive?
Frenkie de Jong is and always has been Ten Hag’s No 1 transfer target for this summer and United are reportedly willing to wait until the very last day of the window to sign him.
The new manager isn’t stupid. He knows the lack of a top quality holding midfielder has been a festering sore at United for about three years now and he wants to address it as a priority.
Man United’s No 1 transfer target for this summer, Frenkie de Jong, remains at Barcelona
He believes that De Jong, who he worked so well with at Ajax, is fundamental to his footballing philosophy.
Yet despite United and Barcelona agreeing a £71m fee for him, De Jong isn’t with United in Australia but thousands of miles away in the United States with Barcelona. Worse still, he seems determined to stay at the Catalan club.
Reports in Spain on Wednesday say he has no interest in coming to Manchester and doesn’t like the way the club is run.
It’s all well and good saying they’ll play the long game with him, but United can’t begin the season with a choice of just Scott McTominay, Fred and Donny van de Beek in defensive and central midfield.
Ten Hag worked with De Jong at Ajax and considers him integral to his style of football
The departures of Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic over the summer have left the cupboard pretty bare and surely it would be better to start chasing other options sooner rather than later?
Otherwise, United will have to make do with the ‘McFred’ partnership that wasn’t really very effective last season.
Both players could never be faulted for their commitment to United’s cause but there’s no question De Jong is an upgrade if Ten Hag wants an assured ball-playing midfielder.
Fred and Scott McTominay will have to be the midfield choice if United fail to sign De Jong
As the days and weeks tick by, Ten Hag is going to feel more and more frustrated that he hasn’t got the player he wanted over all others.
It also isn’t the best reflection on United’s new hierarchy although they can hardly be blamed for De Jong digging in his heels over £17m in deferred wages he says Barca owe him.
With all due respect to McTominay and Fred, it’s going to be seriously underwhelming if United get to September without a fresh midfielder coming in and an inauspicious start to Ten Hag’s tenure.
It’s a long-standing issue in the team and for it still to not be addressed would be unforgivable.
How to keep both Fernandes and Eriksen happy?
One man United have managed to get through the door is Eriksen, signed for nothing after he decided not to stay on at Brentford.
The Dane may be 30 and probably won’t recapture his best form but he does offer another option in the advanced midfield position.
Eriksen is unlikely to displace Fernandes as the first choice at No 10 so Ten Hag will have to keep him happy and valued if he is starting most games on the bench.
United have signed Christian Eriksen on a free this summer after he left Brentford
There has been talk of Ten Hag playing a 4-1-2-3 formation which would allow Eriksen and Fernandes to form a ‘double 10’ in support of the forward line.
However, as much as this burst of creativity could potentially be amazing in attack, the prospect of just one man shielding the back line in a United team for a Premier League fixture is not a great proposition.
It may be suitable in certain games against more modest opposition but United would lose the midfield battle setting up this way in most league fixtures.
Bruno Fernandes will expect to be the first choice No 10 so Eriksen may struggle for game time
With United in the Europa League in the campaign ahead, there should be ample opportunities for Eriksen, Fernandes and Donny van de Beek to get some action.
But it looks like the team will be set up in a 4-2-3-1, on the evidence of pre-season to date, and so someone is going to have to be content warming the bench.
Who makes way for Martinez in defence?
United sealed their third signing earlier this week – Lisandro Martinez has arrived from Ajax in a £55.3m deal to bolster their options in central defence.
Although the Argentine is versatile enough to play at left-back and defensive midfield, he has been bought to play at the heart of the defence, offering composure when playing the ball out and good aerial ability.
But if Ten Hag is going to play 4-2-3-1, there are only two slots available and so one of Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane, not to mention Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly, are going to be left unhappy.
Lisandro Martinez has arrived from Ajax in a £55m deal to bolster central defensive options
The new manager has already placed a vote of confidence in Maguire as his captain but included the caveat that nobody’s place is guaranteed.
If the England defender suffers a repeat of last season’s struggles, he could well be dropped and United aren’t exactly short of alternatives.
Maguire may have been jeered by some of United’s Australian fans on Tuesday but he played with assurance and is recovering his shattered confidence step-by-step.
One of Raphael Varane (left) and Harry Maguire (right) will have to make way for Martinez
Varane hasn’t featured in two of the three tour matches so far, leaving him lagging behind, and a subtle switch of position for Maguire from the left-sided centre-back to the right suggests the left-footed Martinez will play.
A combination of Maguire and Martinez should offer United dominance in the air and two players who can carry the ball out of defence, while covering for one another.
Yet they’re all expensive defenders and will want to be top of the pecking order. The fact the Maguire-Varane partnership showed some encouraging signs last season will also have to be factored in.
Who will be the favoured left-back?
Of all the positions you didn’t expect United to strengthen this summer, left-back was pretty high on the list.
And yet they have spent £13m on Tyrell Malacia, whose early performances on tour have been pretty encouraging.
He will provide competition to both Luke Shaw and Alex Telles, although the Brazilian appears to be in the process of being converted to a centre-back.
Tyrell Malacia has looked strong in pre-season so far having arrived from Feyenoord
So Ten Hag must decide who out of the three will get the nod at left-back.
Shaw responded very well to the challenge of Telles in the 2020-21 season and was first choice last season until he needed an ankle operation.
By rights, Shaw should return to the team as first choice but Malacia may be better suited to what Ten Hag wants to do and it’ll be interesting to see who wins out.
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