Manchester United have only three players that Erik ten Hag can build a team around – Tyrone Marshall


Rewind to the early weeks of this Premier League season and it felt like Manchester United had a team of players talented enough to challenge for trophies.

When United beat Newcastle 4-1 in September it was a performance with flaws in it but they were rendered almost irrelevant because of the individual quality on show. That had tended to be the formula under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, so when his reign fell apart by the following month it felt like improvement would come about when a sharp tactician stepped in the dugout.

But the problems were deeper than anyone could have imagined back then. After another desperate day in this most despairing season, the idea that this squad is even close to competing for the title has been blown out of the water.

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There might be talent in areas of this team, but collectively they have shown failings of mentality and character and gaps that were obvious last summer have only widened now. As United close in on the appointment of Erik ten Hag as the next manager to try and make sense of this mess, the Dutchman will be assessing the squad he is to inherit and working out who has what it takes and what areas need strengthening.

On recent evidence, the answer is almost every position, but if Ten Hag was to build his ideal starting XI for the next two or three seasons then there are maybe as few as three players who look like they have that kind of longevity in them at Old Trafford. Raphael Varane was an impressive signing last summer and while the 28-year-old’s injury issues this season are a concern, if the World Cup winner can maintain fitness then he should be a mainstay of this defence for years to come.

The new contract awarded to Bruno Fernandes a couple of weeks ago was a fair reward for his performance since joining the club just over two years ago. The deal only added an extra year to Fernandes’ contract but it did include a significant pay rise. The 27-year-old is enduring the toughest spell of his United career at the moment, but when in a functioning team he’s shown what an asset he can be and the statement of a new contract showed he will be a part of the next manager’s plans.

Then there is Jadon Sancho. Signed to play on the right but performing better from the left, the England winger hasn’t solved the issue he was supposed to but there is plenty more to come from the £73m signing and he’s begun to look better under Ralf Rangnick, having settled into life at United now. Those three look surefire long-term starters for United, but after that, the picture is more difficult to ascertain, especially when looking ahead to the second and third seasons under a manager who we assume will be Ten Hag.

The current Ajax manager will inherit David de Gea in goal and the Spaniard is probably in line for a fifth player of the year award. It’s unlikely his position will be challenged next season but there are legitimate questions over his suitability in a Ten Hag system, given his positioning is relatively defensive and his distribution isn’t a strong point.

He was axed from the Spain squad entirely in March and Luis Enrique’s position on De Gea’s ability to fulfil the demands he places on a goalkeeper could well be matched by Ten Hag. Defensively, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw might both get a chance to rediscover their best form next season, but neither has made an unarguable case that they are long-term certainties at United.

It’s clear reinforcements are needed in midfield, especially in the holding role. Scott McTominay might revert to being a useful squad player and Fred’s pressing might earn him a shot at making the grade next season under Ten Hag.

The Brazilian’s performances remain inconsistent, however, and he will have something to prove next season given the importance of a functioning midfield to what Ten Hag wants to achieve. Looking ahead purely to next season, Cristiano Ronaldo will probably remain a key part of this United side, but at 37 his impact is limited to the short-term. United need a younger striker who can come in and be ready to inherit that role when the Portuguese does depart.

The same is true of the right wing. If Sancho’s future is on the left then United have nobody who actually wants to play on the right.

It was evident at Goodison that both Sancho and Marcus Rashford preferred playing on the left and that is creating an issue with the balance of the front three, one that Ten Hag might also have to solve via the transfer market. That approach in the transfer market has to be a long-term one now, given where United currently are. Not many of this current squad can say they’re assured of their own survival under a new manager.

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