The start of pre-season under Erik ten Hag only started on Monday and already the dark clouds are gathering over Manchester United.
Ten Hag’s official first day was supposed to herald the start of a new, exciting era at Old Trafford after a dismal campaign where United threatened to reach their nadir with every passing week. And often succeeded.
There has been extensive talk about rebuilds, squad overhauls and even of revolution. Instead, that familiar feeling of inertia has enveloped United and its fanbase as the new manager gets to work.
The Dutchman arrived at the club’s Carrington training ground in the back of an SUV at 8am on Monday morning and was later greeted by the squad – minus the players involved in the Nations League until earlier this month and a few high-profile departures – which failed to hit the minimum standard of Champions League qualification and ended with United’s lowest ever Premier League points tally.
It is for this reason the excitement which greeted the unveiling of Ten Hag, who started in the job before his contract began, has been replaced by growing frustration and discontent – not directed at the new boss, but at those above him.
Yet, as priority transfer target Frenkie de Jong edges ever closer to penning a move to Manchester, a thin wisp of light has managed to seep through the dark clouds at Old Trafford and provided hope.
Although he will cost the club upwards of £70million, the Dutchman offers the Glazers a chance to placate the ill-feeling at the club. The Red Devils are also in advanced talks with Feyenoord left back Tyrell Malacia.
However, while the United chiefs wrestle to finalise the deal with Barcelona, the once-promising pursuits of Jurrien Timber, Christian Eriksen and Antony have fallen by the wayside.
Erik ten Hag arrived at Carrington for the start of pre-season training on Monday morning
David de Gea was one of the star Manchester United players who arrived on Monday
Fringe players such as Phil Jones were also pictured arriving back at the training ground
Zero transfers made
Despite the advanced negotiations for De Jong and Malacia, United have not made a single signing in the transfer window so far.
News broke on Tuesday night that United have agreed a £13million deal for Feyenoord left back Malacia, while De Jong’s impending arrival from Barcelona will solve the club’s long-term midfield crisis.
But Ten Hag needs more and he will have wanted the majority of business done before his new side embark on an energy-sapping, commercially-motivated pre-season tour to Australia – sound familiar? – and the Far East in a fortnight.
Barring a sudden shift in gear, one which even the sports cars driven by United’s highly-paid flops will be unable to achieve, that will not be the case.
As always, United will be scrambling around at the last minute while their top-four rivals and the runaway pair of Manchester City and Liverpool strengthen by getting business done early – via the likes of Erling Haaland, Kalvin Phillips and Darwin Nunez.
Ten Hag will, more than likely, be forced to bed in new recruits on the gruelling Premier League stage, which begins earlier than usual on August 7 against Brighton, instead of in pre-season friendlies.
United, remember, host Liverpool in their third game of the new Premier League campaign.
The club have undergone sweeping changes behind the scenes ahead of the start of the season but the same issues are seemingly holding them back in the transfer market.
The start of pre-season is here but already the dark clouds are gathering over Old Trafford
Liverpool have completed their transfer business early, signing Benfica striker Darwin Nunez
Rivals Manchester City, meanwhile, have already wrapped up the signing of Erling Haaland
All-in on De Jong pursuit
Pursuing De Jong from Barcelona should have been an entirely avoidable saga: the Spanish giants want to sell and United want the Dutch star – but weeks of protracted talks have slowed progress.
This is a tactic that has yielded mixed results for Old Trafford chiefs in the past, and the supposed new regime will not want to make the same mistakes as those who have spectacularly failed before them.
That’s a fact even chief executive Richard Arnold cannot deny.
The initial £55m deal – which could rise to £70m – edged towards a finish on Tuesday, but the length it’s taken to settle does not bode well for future pursuits.
United’s highly publicised pursuit of Barcelona star Frenkie de Jong is still yet to be finalised
Familiar woes in midfield
De Jong would doubtless improve the side but some fans might argue there are other areas of the team that need more urgent attention, namely up front and in defensive midfield.
Judging by the transfer rumour mill, United are not even in the market for those players. The possibility of the much-maligned central midfield ‘McFred’ partnership – Scott McTominay and Fred – starting the opening game of the season at home to Brighton is growing ever more likely.
Christian Eriksen could yet arrive but only landing a free agent who spent the last six months at a side which finished 13th in the Premier League, while their main rivals beat them to signing after signing, would be hugely underwhelming.
They could also lure highly-rated Brazilian winger Antony from Ajax but the reality is United are just days away from a first June without a signing in 12 years.
Yes, players have arrived late in the past – Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo joined in July and August last year – but the need for investment in the side is perhaps greater than it has ever been.
The much-maligned duo of Fred (left) and Scott McTominay (right) could start in midfield again
Cristiano Ronaldo unrest
It is not just prospective players that are providing Ten Hag with an early headache.
Reports surfaced in the Portuguese press last week that Ronaldo, the club’s top scorer last season with 24 goals in 38 appearances, has grown frustrated with the lack of progress in the transfer market.
The Record outlet reported Ronaldo has told United officials to ‘up your game or I’ll leave’. That threat will need to be dealt with – and fast – by the new man in the United manager’s hot seat.
The Portuguese forward is under contract at Old Trafford until June 2023 and is likely to remain at the club, but Ten Hag will need to address any potential issues with his star player sooner rather than later.
Cristiano Ronaldo is reportedly frustrated with the lack of progress in the transfer market
Reviled Glazer ownership
All of this is happening amid a backdrop of significant discontent at the Glazer ownership, exacerbated by the unpopular Americans taking an £11m dividend from the club last Friday.
‘£11m being taken out at this point is a lose/lose,’ Gary Neville said.
‘The 1st loss is the £11m is needed in many areas of the club. The other loss is they will now overpay to pacify critics/fans/media for players not as good as our rivals are buying for much cheaper which depletes us even further!’
The Glazers have been reviled ever since their controversial takeover in 2005 and protests towards them gathered pace towards the end of the season.
The group behind the demonstrations, The 1958, have carried on in the off-season, targeting sponsors and Premier League executives in their bid to rid the club of the ‘parasites’.
All this is happening against a backdrop of significant discontent at the Glazer ownership
Fans fractured and divided
Supporters will not be veered off course by shiny new signings – if they ever arrive – and protests are expected before during Ten Hag’s first game in charge at Old Trafford, the pre-season friendly against Rayo Vallecano on July 31.
The mood among Reds could be described as mixed at best as Ten Hag gets his feet on the ground at Carrington. More accurately, it is fractured and divided.
There are plenty angry at the lack of transfer activity, others who feel United will – eventually – get their targets and those who are excited to see how Ten Hag gets on irrespective of the players in his possession. Some fit in to all three categories.
Not all United fans will be feeling complete doom and gloom as pre-season begins. Ten Hag has a reputation for improving players – which De Jong himself has spoken publicly about – and for developing young talent.
United fans are fractured and divided – can Ten Hag unite them as his new era begins up north?
Cause for optimism
United’s FA Youth Cup win was the only bright spark in the chasm of disappointment that was last season, so it will be intriguing to see what Ten Hag does with the likes of Alejandro Garnacho and Alvaro Fernandez.
Ten Hag will have the chance to start getting his ideas across during the lavish pre-season tour of Australia and southeast Asia.
The 15 players who arrived on Monday were goalkeepers David de Gea, Dean Henderson and Tom Heaton, defenders Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones, Axel Tuanzebe, Brandon Williams and Luke Shaw, midfielder Donny van de Beek and forwards Amad Diallo, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.
Pre-season gives the 52-year-old Dutchman his first opportunity to stamp his authority on his new side, although those who played in the recent tranche of international matches will return at a later date after enjoying some time off.
The United squad needs bolstering but it is not as poor as last season’s showing suggests it might be. Ten Hag himself will know that. It will be up to Ten Hag to work with what he’s got for the time being – and that work starts now.
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