EPL TALK: Don’t expect a ten Hag miracle, Man United

Manager Erik ten Hag of Manchester United poses at Old Trafford.
Manager Erik ten Hag of Manchester United poses at Old Trafford. (PHOTO: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

FRENKIE does not want to go to Hollywood. Manchester United no longer resemble a Hollywood club, but an entertaining soap opera posing as an elite football enterprise.

It’s fun to watch, just not necessarily fun to sign for, which may explain Frenkie de Jong’s initial reluctance to swap Camp Nou for Old Trafford, despite the Red Devils’ long-term interest.

Intriguingly, United’s attraction to potential signings has turned upside down. Previously, transfer targets were drawn to the established pedigree of the club, in spite of the manager. Now, they are teased by the established pedigree of the manager, in spite of the club.

De Jong had expressed his eagerness to remain at Barcelona, like a young investor following the old real estate rule about the worst house in the best street being a wiser move than opting for the best house in the worst street.

Life isn’t ideal at Camp Nou and economic considerations are applying substantial pressure on a sale, but a bad day in Barcelona remains a more appealing prospect for a rising 25-year-old international than an average one at United.

Luckily, the club have Erik ten Hag, both a blessing and a curse in terms of managing expectations for the upcoming season. After Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Red Devils have not so much swapped Pete Best for Ringo Starr, but a one-armed, blindfolded busker for Dave Grohl, a sentimental choice giving way to clear and obvious quality.

De Jong is excited at the prospect of reuniting with ten Hag, a manager who helped to shape the youngster’s game at Ajax. But de Jong could end up being that best house in the worst street, a gleaming asset amongst the crumbling edifices around him - without even the facade of Champions League football to prop the place up a bit.

Barcelona's Frenkie de Jong.
Barcelona's Frenkie de Jong. (PHOTO: Reuters/Albert Gea)

Indeed, de Jong’s hesitation underlines the ten Hag conundrum. The midfielder wants to be loyal to a former mentor despite the dubious quality of their next project, like a Hollywood A-lister accepting a turkey of a script because the director gave him a career break years ago and he wants to return the favour. But he’ll be starring with castmates more wooden than an off-shore kelong.

Ten Hag doesn’t fix United. At best, he’s a Band-Aid to stop the bleeding while he ponders surgery on a reduced budget. Funds are available, but they are no longer limitless (if they ever really were). Football director John Murtough and CEO Richard Arnold are singing from the same, penny-pinching hymn sheet. Like a hackneyed movie premise, their top coach must motivate the "uncoachables".

The club's logic is not entirely unreasonable. Even allowing for the bewildering and entirely baffling changes in the dugout, United went from a second-placed league finish under an inexperienced manager to their worst EPL season, dropping down to sixth with a record-low 58 points. The Red Devils didn’t just plateau. They plummeted.

And yet, the spine mostly remained intact, with the addition of a Champions League winner in defence (Raphael Varane) and a bronzed demigod in attack (Cristiano Ronaldo).

Ten Hag has reportedly focused on four players in particular - Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford – as their nucleus came to epitomise the brief rise and rapid fall of the Red Devils in just two seasons.

Up front, Fernandes and Rashford are threatening to turn into a cautionary tale. Fernandes inexplicably morphed into a traumatised, Portuguese little brother: confident, dominant and unafraid of anything until big brother Ronaldo showed up to resurrect repressed memories of being the inferior, neglected one.

Ronaldo casts a long shadow, but it swallowed Fernandes whole.

Rashford fed a nation of underprivileged children with his remarkable school dinners initiative, defeating the British government along the way, before disappearing on the pitch, a cruel fate that his empathy and kindness never deserved.

Two years ago, Fernandes scored 28 in all competitions. Between 2019 and 2021, Rashford found the net 43 times, often cutting inside from the wing. Last season, they scored 15 goals between them.

At the other end, Shaw and Maguire were involved in a defence that conceded more goals than Burnley. Maguire retains the look of a man who thinks an ex-girlfriend might have a sex tape ready to release online. He’s haunted, weary and struggling to function.

Ten Hag has conducted Zoom sessions with the quartet, among others, to remind them of former glories (in the grand scheme of things, a second-placed finish during a pandemic represented glory for United). The Dutchman has no choice but to make do.

Even if de Jong signs for United – and Malacia decides to join him – ten Hag cannot be expected to perform instant miracles with too many other middling men.

Potential signings like Feyenoord left-back Tyrell Malacia will not fill all the holes any more than de Jong, who may not even plug the biggest gap in central midfield.

Nemanja Matic’s inevitable departure only amplified United’s need for a younger, quick Matic, the one who shielded his defence so successfully at Chelsea, displaying the protective attributes that Paul Pogba appeared to wilfully ignore. De Jong, by most accounts, is more Pogba than Matic, a midfielder that prefers to make the most of the ball than win it back.

Pogba spent his second stint at Old Trafford searching in vain for a fixed position. De Jong has yet to settle on his own. For Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands, he’s mostly a deep-lying midfielder (which United need.) For Barcelona, he’s rarely succeeded in that role, pushing further forward instead to make amends (which United do not need. They just released a player for doing something similar.)

Even if de Jong signs for United – and Malacia decides to join him – ten Hag cannot be expected to perform instant miracles with too many other middling men. Two years ago, the Red Devils were a work in progress. Last season, they were a work in regression.

It’s a long road back.

Ten Hag’s reputation may be enough to convince a former pupil to resume their productive relationship. But his name alone won’t be enough to repair the one above the stadium.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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