Man United’s summer of big decisions over Ten Hag, transfers

What happens next at Manchester United? It is a question that has hovered over Old Trafford since Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s Ineos group purchased a minority stake in the club in February. That 27.7% share secured control of football operations at the Premier League‘s biggest, and most underperforming team.

The only certainty at United is that the club, both on and off the pitch, are facing a summer of upheaval and change.

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Although manager Erik ten Hag has guided United to a second successive FA Cup final (May 25 – 10 a.m. ET; stream LIVE on ESPN+, U.S. only), his side have also endured a humiliating group stage elimination from the Champions League and the team are at risk of matching the club’s lowest-ever Premier League finish of seventh. Ten Hag’s future is in the balance, and several first-team players are already headed for the exit door or earmarked for a departure if United can find new employers willing to take on their expensive Old Trafford wages.

Some changes have already been made off the pitch by Ratcliffe and his team. CEO Richard Arnold and football director John Murtough have left United, with Omar Berrada (CEO) and Dan Ashworth (director of football) set to replace them. Jason Wilcox has also started work as technical director after United negotiated a compensation package with Southampton to hire the former Manchester City academy director. However, any supporter expecting a quick fix this summer should think again. While there are many obvious issues to address, actually being able to do so is the challenge facing United’s new hierarchy.

Here are the key areas under scrutiny, keeping in mind that nothing will be simple.


Transfers

So many other areas are also important, but the most significant element in success or failure is player recruitment, and United have only shown consistency in this field over the past decade in the mistakes they have made.

Due to the financial restrictions imposed by the Premier League’s profit and sustainability regulations (PSR), United will head into this summer needing to offload high earners and generate transfer income to release funds for the recruitment of new signings. Sources have told ESPN that United do have headroom to add to the squad, but a net spend of £100 million is likely to be the limit of expenditure.

Raphaël Varane and Anthony Martial will leave as free agents, and their departures will free up around £450,000-a-week in wages. Christian Eriksen is attracting interest from Turkey and will be allowed to leave for a fee with a year left on his contract, while sources have said that Victor Lindelöf, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Scott McTominay and Harry Maguire — all out of contract in 2025 — could leave for suitable offers unless they’re prepared to sign new contracts on reduced terms.

Casemiro is attracting interest from Saudi Arabia, while United will listen to offers for Jadon Sancho and Donny van de Beek (on loan at Borussia Dortmund and Eintracht Frankfurt respectively). Mason Greenwood, on loan at Getafe, is another who could leave if a club meets United’s valuation of the forward.

Marcus Rashford‘s future is also in doubt, but having signed a £300,000-a-week five-year contract last summer, the England forward is generating little interest. Sources have said that speculation linking Rashford with Paris Saint-Germain is wide of the mark, with the Champions League semifinalists identifying AC Milan forward Rafael Leão as a preferred option to replace the departing Kylian Mbappé.

While United are keen to overhaul their squad, sources have said that finding clubs prepared to sign their high earners is proving to be challenging. One source told ESPN that the only clubs with freedom to spend, aside from Manchester City, are likely to be teams such as Brentford and Brighton & Hove Albion who have made big profits in the transfer market in recent windows. Yet neither are expected to be in the market for United’s unwanted high earners, while the likes of City will be targeting world-class signings rather than Ten Hag’s fringe players.

In Europe, sources have said that United are aware that the major clubs in Spain, Italy and Germany will not be big spenders. The only markets that United believe could offer opportunities to offload players are Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which are regarded as lacking appeal to the northern European players.

In a nutshell, that is United’s challenge. They need to offload players who are simply not up to standard, but because of the salaries sanctioned by the previous regime, they could end up stuck in the squad for another year until their contracts expire.

The manager

If United employ the right manager, some of the issues mentioned above could be minimised in the sense that a top coach should be able to find a way to coax better performances out of underperforming players. Right now, Ten Hag is failing to achieve that basic requirement.

In mitigation, the former Ajax coach has had to deal with a constant backlog of injuries: Luke Shaw, Lisandro Martínez, Casemiro, Mason Mount, Martial, Tyrell Malacia and Wan-Bissaka have all spent more than three months out of action this season. As a consequence, Ten Hag has had to turn to inexperienced youngsters or senior players, including Scott McTominay and Harry Maguire, that he had been prepared to offload last summer.

But results make or break every manager and Ten Hag’s position is under threat because United have had such a miserable season. The 54-year-old has a year left to run on his contract and as reported by ESPN this week, his £9m-a-year salary will be cut by 25% next season if United fail to qualify for the Champions League. Such an outcome would also make it less expensive for Ineos to fire Ten Hag once a top-four finish becomes impossible for the team. United sit sixth heading into this weekend’s fixtures, 13 points behind fourth-placed Aston Villa.

Sources have told ESPN that Ratcliffe and his team are still planning for next season with Ten Hag as manager, but they are also assessing alternative options should they decide to make a change. However, just as the transfer market is set to be a tough one, so is the managerial recruitment business. Liverpool and Bayern Munich have seen leading targets (namely Xabi Alonso) choose to stay in their existing jobs, while Barcelona have persuaded Xavi Hernández to backtrack on his decision to quit, largely because they have seen few obvious options to replace him.

Sources have told ESPN that England manager Gareth Southgate is admired throughout United’s new hierarchy, but the 53-year-old has committed himself to England until the end of Euro 2024. United’s first preseason fixture kicks off just 24 hours after the final, so if England go all the way the timing works against Southgate.

Roberto De Zerbi (Brighton), Thomas Frank (Brentford) and Gary O’Neil (Wolverhampton Wanderers) are also under consideration, while Graham Potter and Thomas Tuchel will be available as unattached managers. But sources have said that the lack of a clear choice might just force Ineos to stick with the man in charge right now, despite his perceived shortcomings.

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The decision-makers

United face a crucial summer without key figures in place to do the job they are being hired to perform, and that could yet derail plans for an overhaul.

Sir Dave Brailsford, the man behind Team GB’s ultra-successful Olympic cycling team who now serves as Ineos’ director of sport, has been charged with overseeing the transition from the Glazer family’s control of football operations. But United have so far been unable to agree a compensation package with Newcastle United for incoming director of football Dan Ashworth and Omar Berrada is still on a period of gardening leave having resigned his role as Manchester City’s chief operating officer to become United’s CEO. Jason Wilcox started work earlier this month after leaving Southampton to become United’s technical director while Darren Fletcher, who had occupied that role, is still at Old Trafford in a yet-to-be-assigned new role.

John Murtough left his post as football director earlier this month, having held the responsibility of negotiations over player contracts and with agents regarding signings and departures. His exit has left Matt Hargreaves, a former marketing director with Adidas, in charge of recruitment plans.

One source has told ESPN that Brailsford has yet to grasp the full extent of the task facing Ineos at Old Trafford, and that his lack of football expertise has created a vacuum that will only be filled once Ashworth and Berrada begin their roles. Ratcliffe, Brailsford and Joel Glazer have formed a three-man leadership group and they will oversee all significant decisions. So while the Glazers have taken a back seat, their influence as majority shareholders should not be overlooked.

So how will this summer play out?

Everything revolves around the fate of Ten Hag, but the Dutchman could yet save himself by ending the season well and winning the FA Cup. Sources have said that with so many issues to address this summer, Ineos would prefer not to have to add to their to-do list by seeking a new manager, but Ten Hag’s future is unquestionably in the balance.

Results will be the determining factor, but his relationship with key players, which has been turbulent at times, is another element that will decide his future. Sources have said that Ten Hag believes that the addition of younger and fitter players, particularly in midfield, could have a transformative effect on his team and that he has pinpointed the resurgence of Liverpool this season, following the signings of Alexis Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai, Wataru Endo and Ryan Gravenberch, as evidence of how strategic recruitment can quickly change a team’s fortunes.

But Ineos are on the horns of a dilemma with Ten Hag. His recruitment record since arriving in 2022 has been mixed at best, so do they back him with the signings he wants, or is it time to rip it up and start again? That has been United’s default move ever since Sir Alex Ferguson retired as manager in 2013. When the team are failing, they fire the manager and hire a new one to make the existing squad better.

With so many moving parts at United and the club still in a state of flux, the big revolution might have to wait for 12 months. Right now, the new regime is not ready to oversee the changes that are so clearly needed.