Erik ten Hag’s first competitive game as manager on Sunday should herald a fresh start for Manchester Untied, but known behind-the-scenes failings have made the Dutchman’s difficult task almost impossible. Ten Hag’s predecessor Ralf Rangnick signed off his wretched caretaker last season by stating that the United side needed “open heart surgery” and up to 10 new players after struggling to sixth place in the Premier League. Only three new faces have arrived at Old Trafford so far: Lisandro Martinez, Tyrell Malacia and Christian Eriksen.
United’s roster is arguably weaker than last season with Paul Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Jesse Lingard, Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata leaving for free, while goalkeeper Dean Henderson is on loan from Nottingham Forest.
The prospect of a much more significant departure will linger in the first few weeks of the season, with Cristiano Ronaldo trying to work his way out this season to play Champions League football.
Ronaldo made his first appearance of the pre-season preparation on Sunday, playing in the first half of a 1-1 draw against Rayo Vallecano.
But his decision to leave the stadium for full-time afterwards was labeled “unacceptable” by Ten Hag.
The former Ajax boss has shown a disciplinary slant during his first weeks in charge, reportedly reintroducing fines for poor timekeeping and banning the players from having their own personal chefs.
Ten Hag has shown no signs of appeasing Ronaldo’s ego, instructing the five-time Ballon d’Or winner to get fit after missing out on most of United’s preparations for the new season.
“It starts with him getting fit, because he has only just started,” Ten Hag told Sky Sports.
“He is a fantastic footballer and he has proven it so many times, but you are always judged by what you present and how you perform now.
“So the team and Cristiano himself have to prove it.”
Martial, Rashford & Sancho’s Second Chance
Ronaldo’s likely absence from the starting line-up for Sunday’s visit to Brighton presents an opportunity for a front three of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jadon Sancho to get their United careers back on track.
Rashford and Martial formed the attacking focal point for the side that finished second in the Premier League in the 2020/21 season under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, only to be pushed aside by the arrival of Ronaldo, Cavani and Sancho.
Martial was even loaned to Sevilla for the second half of last season, but the Frenchman has been rescued by Ronaldo’s desire to leave.
Rashford’s slump in form led to him being dropped from the England squad. But he feels the benefits of a summer without international obligations.
“This is my first year with the team since the beginning (of the preparation),” said Rashford. “I feel a lot better than usual, when I leave the national championships and come back halfway through the preparation. It’s important to make a fresh start. I feel fresh and ready.”
Sancho also struggled to live up to his £73million price tag in his first season at United, but he has worked well with Rashford and Martial in preparation, including a 4-0 win over Liverpool.
Ronaldo isn’t United’s only transfer saga of the summer, as a protracted and thus far fruitless pursuit of Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong has left Ten Hag light in midfield.
That could mean a role in the middle of the park of the versatile Martinez, who has been reunited with his old boss at Ajax.
The Argentine mainly played as a central defender for the Dutch champions, but his short six-foot height cast doubt on his ability to play that role in the Premier League.
At his unveiling, Ten Hag set his sights on chasing Manchester City and Liverpool at the top of the Premier League.
Considering the cards he’s been dealt, it’s already a huge achievement to finish in the top four.
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