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Erik ten Hag: What must new Manchester United manager solve at Old Trafford?

Sky Sports Football writers assess the key areas Erik ten Hag must address as he prepares to start in his new role as Manchester United manage, ranging from the futures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford to the leadership void derailing the club

What challenges await Erik Ten Hag at Old Trafford?
Image: What challenges await Erik Ten Hag at Old Trafford?

Erik ten Hag is Manchester United's chosen candidate to lead the club into the new era and he must waste no time in tackling the pressing issues at Old Trafford.

Ten Hag has forgone his plans to be part of Ajax's post-season trip as he looks to tackle the mountainous task that awaits him at Old Trafford.

Interim manager Ralf Rangnick has warned wholesale changes are necessary at United and, as Ten Hag prepares to start his new role, Sky Sports takes a look at some of the key areas the Dutchman must rectify...

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Manchester United have appointed Erik ten Hag as manager from the end of this season until June 2025

1. How does Ronaldo fit in under Ten Hag?

Much has been made of Cristiano Ronaldo's future at Manchester United beyond this season, but all the recent noises suggest the four-time Ballon d'Or winner will at least remain for the final year of his contract.

Ten Hag is quoted by Dutch publication De Telegraaf as saying Ronaldo is a "giant" and someone he wants in his squad, while the Portugal captain has expressed excitement about working with the incoming United manager.

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Roy Keane and Jamie Carragher discuss whether Cristiano Ronaldo has a role to play at Manchester Utd next season.

But how does Ronaldo fit into Ten Hag's system? The Dutchman is expected to recreate a brand of the high-intensity style he employed at Ajax, which raises questions about how Ronaldo will cope with the Dutchman's demands.

Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville admits pressing isn't Ronaldo's strong point, but feels Ten Hag "will want someone who can put the ball in the back of the net 20 or 25 times".

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Ronaldo's 24 goals in all competitions this season dwarfs the return of his team-mates. Bruno Fernandes is the club's next highest scorer on 14 goals, followed by Mason Greenwood on six.

One thing is clear, the goalscoring burden needs to be shared. In a season in which Ronaldo will turn 38, United need more options to make the difference in the final third, as he won't be able to play three games a week consistently.

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Roy Keane and Jamie Redknapp discuss how Erik Ten Hag will go about turning this Manchester United team around and bringing success to Old Trafford.

As Rangnick put it after last month's draw with Chelsea: "Right now we very much rely on Cristiano."

A young striker to deputise for - and learn from - Ronaldo seems like a sensible option. It's a problem area Rangnick has identified. "There has to be a focus on bringing in a couple of new strikers", he said last month.

Karim Adeyemi's agent claimed there was an offer from Old Trafford, but his client's heart was set on a move to Borussia Dortmund. It's vital United are successful in convincing another of their striking targets to join this summer, with Edinson Cavani out of contract and Anthony Martial's future up in the air after an underwhelming loan spell with Sevilla.
Zinny Boswell

2. How does Ten Hag solve Man Utd's midfield problems?

There may have been a split in the hierarchy over the merits of appointing Ten Hag instead of Mauricio Pochettino but one area of recruitment that has been unanimously agreed upon is upgrading the midfield.

It was an area of the squad which required reinforcements last summer, but the decision was taken to spend money elsewhere. Now Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata are leaving for free at the end of the season, that need has become much greater.

United are expected to sign at least one midfielder this summer, but realistically they need at least two. A natural No 6 to protect the back four, and another to dictate the tempo from deep.

For too long, there has been an overreliance on the energy of Scott McTominay and Fred in United's midfield. And while McFred are expected to play a role under Ten Hag, the pair are both more comfortable when playing in box-to-box roles rather than as the deepest lying midfielders as they have often been tasked with doing over the past three seasons.

Barcelona's Frenkie de Jong, a player Ten Hag worked with at Ajax, is of interest to United and would certainly be an ideal signing for the Dutchman as he looks to bring a Cruyffian style of football to Old Trafford.

Frenkie De Jong
Image: Barcelona's Frenkie de Jong is a target for Man Utd

There is also reportedly interest in England midfield duo Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, who would certainly help to stabilise a fragile United defence, but the exorbitant figures being quoted for both players make any potential deal that much more complicated.

West Ham are adamant they will not sell Rice, who effectively has three years left on his deal, and is reportedly being valued at £150m. Meanwhile, Phillips could cost in the region of £75m unless Leeds are relegated.

With so many other areas of the squad needing reinforcements, United may need to be creative this summer when adding to their midfield options and bide their time when it comes to their long-term, more expensive targets.

It appears unlikely that Ten Hag will be able to overhaul his midfield options in one summer, but improving the technical ability of his deep-lying players will be vital to installing his style of play at Old Trafford.
Zinny Boswell

Erik ten Hag will be Manchester United's next manager
Image: Ten Hag has signed a three-year deal with the option of a further 12 months

3. Build a team around Sancho? What about Rashford?

When Manchester United finally signed Jadon Sancho last summer, the sight of him and Marcus Rashford dazzling on both wings was a mouth-watering prospect. Millions of United fans around the world believed the club had found two wide forwards fit to grace the Old Trafford pitch for the next decade.

Seven months later, though, neither player was even selected by Gareth Southgate for his latest 25-man England squad.

Rashford's omission was understandable, but Sancho's came as a surprise to many. Having started just four Premier League matches before the sacking of former United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the 22-year-old has enjoyed a noticeable return to form under interim boss Rangnick.

Jadon Sancho celebrates after scoring Man Utd's equaliser (AP)
Image: Jadon Sancho has improved under Manchester United interim manager Ralf Rangnick

Before the last international break, Sancho had started six league games in five weeks, scoring twice and contributing three assists in that time. After an underwhelming start to his Old Trafford career, he has turned into a rare bright spark for United in what has been a disastrous season.

Fifty goals in 137 games in four years at Borussia Dortmund, as well as twice being named in the Bundesliga team of the year, prompted United to spend £73m to secure his signature.

With Ten Hag's record of developing young players and the fact he is one of Europe's most progressive coaches, there is no doubt Sancho remains a huge part of the club's long-term future. It would not be a shock to see him as the main man the Dutchman builds his team around.

As for Rashford, Ten Hag must decide whether to cash in or rejuvenate the career of a player who unquestionably still has world-class talent.

His season hit a new low when he was named on the bench against Leicester on April 2 despite the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani. It was described by Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville as a "real killer and tells us Rangnick doesn't fancy him".

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Earlier this month, Jamie Redknapp believes Marcus Rashford needs to leave Manchester United to rediscover his love for the game

A shoulder injury delayed the forward's start to this season but he has struggled to perform in recent months, scoring just twice since the end of October. With his current contract - which includes a one-year extension clause - expiring in 2023, reports he would consider his future at the club continue to circulate.

At 24 years old, Rashford is already an experienced player for both club and country. Having amassed 303 appearances for United and 46 caps for England, scoring a total of 105 goals in the process, his ability is not the problem.

He needs a new manager with fresh ideas, who is there for the long term and can rediscover the player who burst onto the scene as a fearless 18-year-old in 2016. Ten Hag is more than capable of doing that.
Dan Sansom

4. How does Ten Hag control the dressing room?

Before Erik ten Hag was even announced as Manchester United manager, there was talk that this squad of underachievers were split over whether he is the right man to take charge at Old Trafford.

Much has been made of the undeniable step-up in scrutiny the Dutchman will face now he has made the switch to Manchester, but his biggest challenge will be managing the egos in the dressing room.

A lack of accountability on and off the pitch has seen these players let down Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and now Ralf Rangnick. For so long, the players have been given more power than the managers at United. That needs to change with Ten Hag.

Sky Sports pundit Roy Keane, a former United captain, said in 2019 "these are the same players that threw Mourinho under the bus, and they will do exactly the same to Ole". The question for Ten Hag: how does he avoid that same fate?

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Speaking on The Overlap before Ten Hag's appointment, Gary Neville says the Dutchman has a 'good coaching pedigree', but it is a 'massive jump' to move from Ajax to Manchester United

There has been talk of introducing an assistant to Ten Hag's backroom staff that has the United 'DNA'. Steve McClaren, former assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson in the 1999 treble-winning season, is expected to fill that role.

It's an approach that all of those to follow Ferguson have tried to ill-effect. David Moyes had Phil Neville, Louis van Gaal had Ryan Giggs, Mourinho had Michael Carrick, Solskjaer had Mike Phelan, even Ralf Rangnick has Darren Fletcher.

Such an appointment would likely help Ten Hag get to grips with English football and potentially improve relations with the dressing room. But it feels as though the lack of willingness to lead is an issue that runs deeper than positive feeling toward the manager. After all, for large parts of Solskjaer's reign, the suggestion was that he had a happy squad.

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What Ten Hag needs to have control of the dressing room is the full backing of the board and the owners - just as Pep Guardiola has at Manchester City and Jurgen Klopp has at Liverpool. Whether that is possible under the current regime remains to be seen.

First step to proving it? Back Ten Hag fully in the transfer market. Sell the players he doesn't want - even if that means paying off their contracts - and buy the players he does. This squad is in need of real surgery to compete with City and Liverpool - in terms of leadership, mentality and quality.

As Keane said back in 2019, "there are too many bluffers at this club to get United back to the very top".
Zinny Boswell

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