Thursday 21 April 2022

New boss ten Hag has a mountain of work to do

 You've got to feel for Erik ten Hag: what on earth has the poor man done to deserve this?

The highly-rated Dutchman has worked wonders with Ajax so going to a club of similar size and stature is unlikely to phase him but, with his Old Trafford in-tray full to the brim, where does he even start when it comes to fixing this mess?

Let's get this clear from the outset: it's going to take time and we're going to need to be patient. There's so much that needs doing it will be four, five, six years before we can even think about winning anything again. We need to lower those expectations, stop with the delusions of grandeur, and get behind him. 

Short term expectations should be virtually non existent, and he needs all the time in the world to re-organise, re-structure, re-build and re-invent a club which has lost not only its way, but its idea and its soul. 

We're at ground zero and have to start again from scratch. 

Of course, ten Hag is a risk - he's never experienced the unique demands of the English game, where energy-sapping game follows energy-sapping game and room for rest is virtually non existent. The level of media scrutiny on him will be unlike anything he's ever known and English isn't his first language. Not the pre-requisite for doing well, of course, but it helps you to build a rapport with the fanbase and the press. Will the players buy into his vision and philosophy, and will the blueprint which has brought him success at Ajax work in the Premier League?  But any manager is a risk and United have clearly seen something in him which makes this one worth taking. 

United's recruitment has been a major issue for almost 12 years now and it is this which ten Hag must come to first and foremost.

Quite aside from Cristiano Ronaldo's (re) signing - which came after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had spent months trying to tie down Edinson Cavani to a new deal - that's only the start of the problems.

There are the contracts for Eric Bailly and Phil Jones to name but two: how and why the club ever decided they were worthy of new deals is the epitome of everything we've done wrong. You can only presume it was to ensure there was some semblance of a resale value or a transfer fee on players with no future at United.
Only the signing of Bruno Fernandes and arguably Jadon Sancho look to have reaped any recent dividends. Aaron Wan - Bissaka and Harry Maguire started well but have regressed to such an extent the former lost his place and the latter has faced widespread calls to follow suit. Interim boss Ralf Rangnick has highlighted the continuity and meticulous recruitment that has helped make Manchester City and Liverpool into the country's pre-eminent sides. 

We needed one, if not two, defensive midfielders in the summer but yet, 12 months on, that is still the case. How can a defence worth almost 200m look so weak and febrile? Wan - Bissaka has looked shambolic and Maguire chaotic. Victor Lindelof has been one of our better performers this season but would we really miss him if he left?  We need another couple of strikers, a couple of full-backs and so, so much more from what we already have.

It is not hard to come up with a list of who should leave United in the summer - Wan - Bissaka, Diogo Dalot, Alex Telles, Anthony Martial and Harry Maguire to name but five. I wouldn't even mind if the likes of Fred, David de Gea and Bruno Fernandes left either. 

Edinson Cavani, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic are all out of contract and then there is goalkeeper Dean Henderson, Marcus Rashford and Eric Bailly whom face uncertain futures. Amad Diallo has shown nothing to suggest he will be a part of the United first team with Mason Greenwood still unavailable for selection. Martial is on loan at Sevilla, so too Brandon Williams at Norwich and Donny van de Beek at Everton although the arrival of his former boss may spark the latter into life at United.

Even if not all of these wasters end up leaving, there will still be sizeable gaps to plug but it has worked as Patrick Vieira at Crystal Palace has shown when he inherited Roy Hodgson's ageing side. But finding a similar solution for United won't be so easy. 

Just how do you solve a problem like Cristiano Ronaldo? Whilst you cannot say his arrival is the root cause of United's problems - his 21 goals this season attest to that - his salary, status and superstardom is a subplot which will not go away. 

But how does ten Hag fit the 37-year-old into his raison d'etre of fast, fluid, high tempo play? Either through the clear physical limitations or his apparently strained relationships with Maguire et al, his mere presence instantly creates an issue for ten Hag.  

On the face of it, expectations should be low upon ten Hag's arrival. A top six finish and a prolonged run in one or both of the domestic cups would be a good start. Next season is a time to rebuild and refurnish - toss out old furniture, bring in new pieces, build a couple from within and freshen the whole place up with a lick of pain after years of neglect. Success next season isn't winning a trophy: we need to remove that mindset for now and look towards laying the foundations for the ultimate goal of mounting a challenge in the next five seasons. It's time for realistic expectations so we can continue to follow the long term plan and build every season. 

The worry is, you will always have an element of fans and press hacks who will be calling for his head if ten Hag's United don't win the first ten games 4-0. That comes with the territory, ten Hag musn't let it get to him and shut out the noise to get on with the job. Barring a mathematical miracle in the five remaining games, United will miss out on the Champions League for the fourth time in nine seasons in 2022-23. Correcting these statistics is one of the many reasons why ten Hag needs to be given time to implement his ideas, reboot the mentality and bring about at least tangible improvement. 

He needs to build an identity and get back to basics of hard work and determination; they can't take anything for granted under a man who will demand perfection and commitment. He's got to rip up the current sense of entitlement these wasters have, be firm, don't stand for any nonsense and stick to his principles. The club have to give him the keys and let him have full control if this is going to work. 

Given time, ten Hag has the reputation and record to turn his Dutch revolution into an Old Trafford one. He's shown he has the ability to do so but without three, four, five years or maybe more (and remember it took Jurgen Klopp three and half before he won anything with Liverpool) he will find it impossible to bring back the glory days. 

Welcome to Manchester United, Erik ten Hag

So it's confirmed and here we go: Erik ten Hag is the new Manchester United manager.

The worst kept secret in football became official as the man we all wanted was officially announced on Thursday afternoon. With Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sacked in November, the 'race' to become United's 24th permanent manager had long appeared to be a two-horse one with PSG's ex-Spurs boss Patricio Mochettino the other man in the frame. 

A few others, including Spain boss Luis Enrique and Sevilla chief Julen Lopetegui were spoken to but ten Hag, currently plying his trade with Ajax in his native homeland, has been the strong front-runner in the fanbase.

ten Hag's assistant, Mitchell van der Gaag, is expected to join his boss at Old Trafford with a former United coach or player to also become part of his backroom team. 

The 52-year-old Dutchman will replace interim Ralf Rangnick in the summer on a three year deal with the option of a fourth with the German set to move into a consultancy role. 

ten Hag proved the unanimous choice having impressed the club's powers-that-be with his vision and blueprint closely aligned to United's identity and strategy as a proven winner with a penchant for attacking, eye-catching football and a commitment to youth. 

We've had "big name" managers in Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and even Rangnick to an extent but this feels different. This feels like it's progressive and forward-thinking rather than a quick fix. It won't change in one season and he will need time and patience. Look at Jurgen Klopp and to a lesser degree Mikel Arteta - they've built gradually and bought in players to fit the vision. 

After what has gone before under David Moyes, van Gaal, Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, there is a sense structural issues are the real problem at Old Trafford and any manager would find it hard until these issues are sorted. But this is also ten Hag's opportunity to show the ability to transition from highly rated coach at a famous club - albeit one in a less competitive league - to the highest level of the game, 

During his time at the Dutch giants of Amsterdam, ten Hag has earned a reputation as one of the best managers in the game.
Winner of two Eredivisie titles, two Dutch Cups and the equivalent of the Charity Shield, he also took his unfancied young Ajax side - average age 21 -  to within a minute of the Champions League final in 2019, where they fell to a remarkable comeback from Pochettino's Tottenham at the (semi) final hurdle. 

Ajax are currently on course for a second successive league title, four points ahead of PSV with five matches left although they were beaten by their Eindhoven rivals (with ex-Red Ruud van Nistelrooy to take over next season) in the Dutch cup final. 

He has previously managed the wonderfully named Go Ahead Eagles and also Utrecht, having worked with Bayern Munich's second team under the guidance of his now cross-town rival Pep Guardiola. 

ten Hag certainly doesn't shy away from giving youth its chance with some of Europe's finest emerging talents having risen to prominence at Ajax on his watch - Ryan Gravenberch (19), Jurrien Timber (20) and Brazilian Anthony (21) to name but three. 

ten Hag said: "It is a great honour to be appointed manager of Manchester United and I am hugely excited by the challenge ahead.
"I know the history of this great club and the passion of the fans, and I am absolutely determined to develop a team capable of delivering the success they deserve."

His first job is getting shot of these wasters and improving the toxicity and mentality in the squad. 

Welcome to Manchester United, Erik ten Hag and good luck - you're going to need it! 

Wednesday 20 April 2022

The Reds of Manchester and Merseyside worlds apart in every department

Four minutes and thirty-nine seconds. How long it took for this finest Red vintage to cut a swathe through Manchester United's desperate and disparate defence. How long it took for the already obvious gulf in class to be so emphatically emphasised. 

How fitting it should be Luis Diaz - the epitome of Liverpool's magnificent recruitment -  to get it all started. The Colombian has slotted in like a glove at Anfield and in only his 17th game appearance for the club it looked like he's been there for years. The same can be said for Diogo Jota, and, indeed, almost every player to step through the door of Melwood for the last few years. It is testament to Jurgen Klopp's remarkable work as manager but also of having the right people in the right places doing the right jobs. 

A chastening example of what happens when a club with structure that has recruited brilliantly comes up against one compiled via a lack of planning with a strategy seemingly based on plucking random names out of a hat. Liverpool's recruitment has been a triumph; United's simply a shambles. Just as in the reverse meeting at Old Trafford in October, Liverpool were as sublime as United were supine. 

Liverpool have become everything we used to be. They are meticulous - both on the field and off it. A big element of their success is an uncanny ability to assess potential signings with data and estimate how well they will fit into the dynamic of the team. Signing superstars doesn't necessarily make you a top side  - isn't that where we've gone wrong after all - but it's vital the blend of talents works well as a unit. It is this which Liverpool do so well and where United have got it so badly, terribly wrong. 

When United's starting line up dropped an hour before kick off, it was almost impressive how a squad which has had so much spent on it looked like one you would see in the Championship. 

Two full-backs who can't defend and have no positional sense, a man who's been here ten years too long and Harry Maguire who's just, well, Harry Maguire. In fairness to Phil Jones, you felt sorry for him in only his third start for nearly three years. He was sent out there like a prisoner walking to the gallows in the face of a ruthless and rampant Liverpool. He was far from blameless but cannot truly be held accountable as he was on a hiding to nothing. How is he still here never mind lining up at Anfield against the finest exponent of their craft on the planet? Inevitably and mercilessly, it was a bloodbath. Jones was put out of his misery when he was hooked at half-time. 

Aaron Wan - Bissaka and Diogo Dalot are the two worst full-backs in the league, Alex Telles not much better - so much so he wasn't trusted here. All that and three centre-backs with not a yard of pace between them in an alien formation, and you have probably the worst defensive unit the Premier League has ever seen. Where was Eric Bailly? How can a back five with a combined value of over 200m look so completely inept, so utterly anodyne? So completely clueless and chaotic? None of them would get in any other Premier League club's XI let alone any strong second tier side. A jumbled collection of haphazard, mismatched and discombobulated pieces look like a side already on the beach, merely drifting through until the end of the season in a month's time. 

Then we come to the midfield or - perhaps more pertinently - the lack of one. Two players who won't be there in a few short weeks, one of whom has probably played his last game for us in Paul Pogba. To quite literally add insult to injury, Pogba lasted ten minutes and his replacement Jesse Lingard is another headed for the Old Trafford exit door. Nemanja Matic, also leaving on a free, battled gamely but he was done at this level years ago yet there he was, the solitary shield in the holding role in front of the defence. Three players, one entire area of the team, which won't be here when 2022/23 rolls around. I suppose you could say it was a "free for all." Not signing someone in midfield either in the summer or in January was criminal and we've paid the price. And you wonder why they don't care. Why should Pogba care whether Manchester United will be in the Champions League next season when he'll already be in it with PSG. Matic will be sunning himself on a beach somewhere. 

Let's get one thing straight: everyone knew what was going to happen. You simply couldn't make a case, even the semblance of an argument, over how United had enough not only to hurt them, but to stop them. Even the most optimistic of Reds predicted a Liverpool landslide. My pre-match prediction rang true. I didn't see anyone whom gave us even a prayer in enemy territory and Liverpool were simply magnificent. In mitigation, any side in world football would struggle to cope with their energy, intensity, power, pace and precision. You can see exactly why Jurgen Klopp's side have a genuine chance of sealing an unprecedented quadruple. On this evidence, I wouldn't bet against it. They were quicker, slicker and on a different planet to their battered and beaten rivals. United were ragged and rudderless in the face of a Liverpool performance for the ages, the gulf in quality and attitude a chasm. 

We know Liverpool are better. The whole word knows it. I expected a hammering - everyone did. But where this side falls down is its lack of fight, guts and even the basics like tackling, running and closing down. Worse United sides than this - in terms of pound-for-pound quality, have won here against Liverpool sides at the peak of their powers simply because of this fixture's fiefdom.  Even when United were England's pre-eminent force, this fixture was always a standalone anomaly, a ferocious proposition no matter the situation, setting or state of the combatants. 

Instead, it merely served to show the size and the scale of the task facing United's incoming manager Erik ten Hag. What on earth must he be thinking? 

Saturday 16 April 2022

United starlet in line for senior Reds debut

Manchester United have named teenage Argentine striker Alejandro Garnacho in the squad to face Norwich City on Saturday. 

United have nothing to play for with seven games left so it seems an ideal opportunity to give some of the club's emerging young starlets an opportunity to stake a claim in the final few weeks of the season. With the Reds depleted for the visit of the Canaries and missing five senior first-teamers, 17-year-old Garnacho is in line for a senior Reds debut in what amounts to a dead rubber tie. 

Garnacho was called up to the senior Argentina squad for the last round of international matches and has scored 12 times for the Reds at age group level in 2021-22. Five of those have come in the Reds run to the FA Youth Cup final including a brace in the quarter-final win over the Fox cubs of Leicester. 

A year ago, Garnacho was a relative unknown to all but academy aficionados, but a series of sparkling performances have illuminated a desperately poor season for the club. He rose to prominence after a stunning solo goal against Everton when he collected the ball deep in his own half, slalomed beyond four Toffees players and slotted beyond the advancing keeper. To further endear him to his rapidly growing legion of fans, Garnacho's coup de grace came in the aforementioned win over Leicester when Cristiano Ronaldo's iconic "Siuuuuu" celebration met the young Argentine's match winning brace. 

 Garnacho grew up in the Spanish capital and joined the giants of Atletico aged 11 in 2015. United scouts kept tabs on the young star and, despite the height of the pandemic, he signed for the club in 2020 for £419,000. Considered one of Atletico's most precocious talents, Garnacho's pace and technical ability caught the eye and the teenager hit the ground running at United as he registered seven goals and three assists in his first season in M16 - despite the Covid-19 enforced curtailment. 

A regular for Neil Wood's Under-23s even though still only 17, there is a desire to protect Garnacho from the spotlight and keep his feet on the ground. 

Despite never having played a minute for United's senior team, Garnacho found himself training with Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria, Paulo Dybala and co after Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni called him into the La Albiceleste squad for World Cup qualifiers against Venezuela and Ecuador. It is surely only a matter of time before Garnacho gets the nod in the blue and white of his adopted nation - for whom he qualifies to represent thanks to his mother. 

Garnacho will look to follow in the footsteps of fellow youth team startlet Anthony Elanga in making a senior Reds debut in 2021-22 - the only sliver of light in a forgettable season. The very fact he's in the squad hints at involvement against the relegation-threatened Canaries but it seems unlikely interim manager Ralf Rangnick will pick him from the start. 

It would be great to see Garnacho get a chance to show what he can do at first team level. I've a feeling this certainly won't be the last time we see him a United senior squad. 

We can only imagine how Garnacho - not 18 until July - will be feeling only hours before United kick off against the Premier League's bottom club.