Manchester United’s trophyless season will end on Sunday at Selhurst Park, with the club at sixes and sevens set to finish in sixth or seventh.
Sixth will mean Europa League football next term – which is better suited to United’s current level than Champions League, seventh will be the Europa Conference League. There was a time when United fans used to mock sides like Liverpool for playing Europa League football.
Sunday is a big game against a Crystal Palace side who still have the potential to jump from 13th to ninth in the league, a difference of £18 million in prize money. Palace have a superior goal difference to the teams above them, they’ve taken four points off Manchester City and Arsenal this season and lost only four of their last 16 games.
The last time United picked up so few points in England’s top division was 59 in 1990-91 when the team finished sixth. The final game of that season was away to Palace, who finished third and beat United 3-0. United’s minds were on a European Cup Winners’ Cup final in Rotterdam four days later. There have been no such cup distractions this season with exits from all three cups by March – and all at Old Trafford, too.
Erik ten Hag has been keen to start his new job early after leading Ajax to a third Eredivisie league title in four years, but the first time he’ll work with his new team is scheduled to be at the end of June for an August 6 start to the season.
United will fly to Bangkok on July 8 ahead of their first pre-season friendly against Liverpool on July 12. United’s pre-season training is due to start one week earlier than usual in Manchester – the only reason for that is because the competitive season commences early because of November’s World Cup finals in Qatar. International players will come back a week later after they’ve had the minimum three weeks off.
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United are at rock bottom and changes are happening aplenty both on the football side and away from it. Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata, Phil Jones, Jesse Lingard and Edinson Cavani are all set to leave, vastly reducing United’s wage bill and freeing up budgets for incoming players. Most of those players were on huge contracts, which were incentivised if the team reached the Champions League. One had a contract that was unchanged whether United played Champions League football or not.
On the coaching side, Rangnick and some of the coaches he brought in will depart. Coach Neil Ryan, a stalwart and son of former assistant manager Jim Ryan, will also leave.
Poor results have meant that negativity has seeped into the dressing room and there are divisions and suspicions. An investigation into leaks from the dressing room was carried out and concluded, with the club satisfied that it will be less of an issue next season.
Ralf Rangnick has failed as interim manager and the idea that he has overseen other decisions at the club in relation to staff or player departures is inaccurate. He had almost no say in the appointment of Ten Hag, he was told to concentrate on coaching the first team at an early stage in his tenure. He’ll become manager of Austria, the 34th ranked team in Europe. Whether his United consultancy becomes a meaningful one, as he hopes, is doubtful.
The players are also culpable. They let Ole Gunnar Solskjaer down in his final two months, but they’re also very frustrated by how they can’t speak out about Rangnick to answer some of the public criticisms he’s putting their way.
Ten Hag needs help and support, but changes continue apace and with that comes shifting plates of power. Since Solskjaer lost his job in November, the following people have left or are about to leave the club: Ed Woodward, the most senior executive, senior coaches Michael Carrick, Martyn Pert and Kieran McKenna; communications chief Charlie Brooks, chief scouts Jim Lawlor and Marcel Bout; director of football negotiations Matt Judge. Some of these exits were the club’s choice, others were not. Days before Judge left, player agents were still being directed to speak to him.
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John Murtough is in a powerful decision-making role, Richard Arnold is his boss and will want to make his improvements on the job done by his friend and former colleague, Ed Woodward, who now has no say in how the club is run, but there will be more people leaving, including some long-standing staffers.
While there is much scope for improvement in several areas at United, new does not necessarily mean better. Hemen Tseayo, for example, very highly regarded as the chief strategist, chose to go last week. Some fans cheer every departure out of the door since they associate them with a failing football team and might ask whether United’s chief strategist had any worthwhile strategy, but it’s not quite so simple. Fans didn’t care that three coaches followed Solskjaer out of the door. The players and Rangnick did.
There had to be changes in some areas and not only on the pitch where United have a goal difference of +1 after 37 games. United’s recruitment has been so poor and not streamlined. Top players like Ngolo Kante or Joao Cancelo are identified, then vetoed rather than signed.
This is a club that baulked at paying £36 million for Jude Bellingham but could pay up to £37m for Amad Diallo, another teenager who has mostly been a substitute for Glasgow Rangers. The Ivorian is 19 and has time to come good at a higher level, but United have wasted hundreds of millions on underperforming players and their salaries.
There were mitigating factors – there always are in football – and Bellingham thought he had a better chance of first-team football at Dortmund. Given he became a mainstay in the team that finished second in the Bundesliga this season, he’s entitled to feel vindicated, but United have missed out on too many talents.
Ten Hag may decide to take on board what Rangnick tells him about the failing collection of footballers he’s managed for half of this season but the Dutchman can pick who he wants to speak to and he’ll choose his own way with his own men. He’s worked with sporting directors in the past, he’s told United that he’s comfortable with the structure that he’s entering at the club. He will have a veto over any signing, just as Solskjaer and previous United managers had.
United have a budget to buy new players but there will be no splurge of money of the kind that West Ham United are asking for Declan Rice. Most football clubs are recovering from Covid-19 and United don’t intend to pay a premium on signings – and that includes Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong. The Dutch midfielder, who played under Ten Hag at Ajax, is of interest to United, but it won’t be an easy deal to do given how much the Catalans paid for him and that his manager Xavi Hernandez wants to keep him. Yet Barcelona still need to raise funds.
Ajax’s defender Jurrien Timber is admired, but midfield and attack are United’s top priorities this summer. There’s a hope that Raphael Varane can have a much better second season in England after arriving from Real Madrid and that captain Harry Maguire can get back to the level he was at a year ago before his injury. Victor Lindelof is also rated at Carrington, but the new manager will have his view on all the players.
United’s transfer budget is also dependent on how much is raised from sales. Goalkeeper Dean Henderson has long had suitors from big Premier League sides. Anthony Martial failed to have an impact on loan at Seville, but he’s worth something. Phil Jones still has a year on his contract and as he showed in his brief performances this season, he’s capable enough to perform in the Premier League.
There’s uncertainty about and the mood has been low at the Carrington training ground, though it was boosted by the news that Ten Hag wants to get started early and the FA Youth Cup success of the under 18s in front of a crowd that was almost twice the size of the previous record for the competition.
The domestic season will end on Sunday, but United will remain in the headlines. There’s a constant demand for news given United’s global support with the prospect of potential new players, owners or technical staff going viral and hotly debated – even if the stories can be based on conjecture or wishful thinking rather than fact. United’s main rivals, meanwhile, make their headlines where it matters most – on the pitch.
Most agents will happily see their players linked to United, many are ringing the club with one of the biggest budgets in world football to offer their players – including some very big names, but United have been down this road so many times and big names haven’t equalled big trophies in the past five years – though there have been second and third places in the Premier League.
Ten Hag will need time, support and patience, but he has to find another way of winning.