Five things Erik ten Hag must fix

·6 min read
Erik ten Hag - Five things Erik ten Hag must fix - REUTERS
Erik ten Hag - Five things Erik ten Hag must fix - REUTERS

Erik ten Hag's reign at Manchester United began in a familiarly disappointing fashion for fans at Old Trafford. Their opening-weekend defeat to Brighton made it clear that the few changes that have been made during the summer have not been enough.

The task facing the new Dutch manager is significant - here are five of the biggest problems that he must solve and quickly.

Organise the defence

The narrative had suggested that Diogo Dalot was ready to replace the hapless Aaron Wan-Bissaka and solve Ten Hag’s right-back issue as we entered the new season.

It took all of 12 seconds for that myth to be exposed, as Dalot gifted the ball to Leandro Trossard to almost give Brighton the lead.

But Dalot was far from the only problem in a defence that was all too often left exposed by a lack of competent cover in front of it.

Harry Maguire avoided disaster, just, but hardly led by example or looked rock solid, hardly a convincing way to repay Ten Hag for the faith he has shown in him.

Harry Maguire - Five things Erik ten Hag must fix - REUTERS
Harry Maguire - Five things Erik ten Hag must fix - REUTERS

And Lisandro Martinez, while relatively effective alongside him, showed a lot of rash and ill-disciplined moments, joining Maguire and Luke Shaw in picking up a yellow card.

Shaw himself was, arguably, the best of Ten Hag’s defenders - although that was a low bar - yet the consensus during pre-season was that new signing Tyrell Malacia had positioned himself as heir apparent.

Malacia’s short cameo as a late sub yesterday was hardly one to suggest that is poised to happen. Victor Lindelof and Rafael Varane remain on the sidelines but Ten Hag’s issues start here.

Resolve the Cristiano Ronaldo situation

There seems little option - the 37-year-old has to start, at least until United finally land the proven goalscorer they arguably should have moved for last summer.

With Anthony Martial, United’s only recognised forward, injured, Ten Hag opted to start Ronaldo on the bench, citing the Portuguese’s lack of match fitness.

Still, it was no surprise when the manager took just seven minutes of the second half to throw him into the fray to try and retrieve a 2-0 deficit.

Cristiano Ronaldo - Five things Erik ten Hag must fix - EPA
Cristiano Ronaldo - Five things Erik ten Hag must fix - EPA

Briefly, the plan looked like working as the crowd became engaged, Brighton finally looked under pressure and United’s attack had a focal point, rather than the figure of Christian Eriksen as a “false nine” at the top of the field.

The fact that United’s goal was scored by Brighton means that no United player has scored in the Premier League in 288 minutes, a run of over three games dating back to last season.

And it is that chronic shortage of proven finishing in the United team that Ten Hag must address - once he has solved his defensive headaches.

Certainly, whatever the politics and character issues in play within the dressing room and Ten Hag’s relationship with Ronaldo, it is inconceivable that his team can allow him to leave at present.

Work out how to fit in Fred and McTominay

Most United supporters would prefer that answer to be “on the bench.”

As they were for much of last season, the two holding midfielders saw themselves pilloried by supporters for their respective roles in this defeat.

Certainly, they did themselves no favours - McTominay losing the ball ahead of the first goal, the pair out of position for the second on the Brighton counter - although, as with most aspects of the game, the issues surrounding them are slightly more complex.

Adam Lallana (left) and Scott McTominay - Five things Erik ten Hag must fix - EPA
Adam Lallana (left) and Scott McTominay - Five things Erik ten Hag must fix - EPA

Clearly, Ten Hag expected to have long-term transfer target Frenkie de Jong in his squad by now and that would relieve the pressure on a pairing, and arguably a system, which is patently unfit for purpose.

"Fred and McTominay are not good enough. They won't get Manchester United back competing. We see it week in, week out,” said Roy Keane. Few United fans would disagree.

Settle on a system

“Ten Hag ball,” as some optimists were calling a new-look United before kick-off, looked very much like “Ole ball” and “Ralf ball” - certainly, the outcomes were depressingly similar.

Debutant Christian Eriksen started the game as a centre-forward and ended it as a holding midfielder after Ten Hag brought on Ronaldo.

That saw United shift from the 4-2-3-1 system so preferred by most of the division’s elite into a 4-1-4-1 look, with Eriksen the one holding midfielder and Ronaldo on his own up front.

The answer to that question may yet be determined by what, if anything, United are able to do in the remaining days of the window - the arrival of De Jong, for example, could be a game changer.

But United’s performance in the transfer window to date does not hold out much hope of dramatic late signings.

Improve confidence of young players

Sports psychology is clearly an exact science so United need to ensure that several of their squad are visited by such experts, if they have not been already.

Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, in particular, carried on where they left off last season, as pale shadows of two of English football’s most exciting young prospects.

Marcus Rashford - Five things Erik ten Hag must fix - GETTY IMAGES
Marcus Rashford - Five things Erik ten Hag must fix - GETTY IMAGES

Rashford snatched at a couple of half chances that came his way during United’s second half comeback while Sancho looked low on self-belief, both with and without the ball at his feet.

That simply reflects the general malaise and air of pessimism that Ten Hag was supposed to lift and which has continued, without a break, from last season.

A packed Old Trafford booing off United players at half-time and on the final whistle cannot have helped massage some low confidence and fragile egos within the home squad.

“We dropped down in belief during the first half,” said Ten Hag. “That can’t happen. Always believe in yourself and stick together as a team and always bring confidence on the pitch.

“I can understand that after last year but it is not necessary because they are good players. Self-belief is something from yourself; bring it on the pitch because they are still good players, they have proved so many times in the past.”

How else can Erik ten Hag turn around Manchester United? Tell us in the comments section below