Man Utd's worst ever Premier League season
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Overhaul. Clear-out. Refresh. Whatever you want to call it, Manchester United are facing a huge challenge in the summer, with Erik ten Hag poised to join and set about the unenviable task of reviving the fortunes of a club that has truly lost its way.
Thankfully, when it comes to the transfer market, the Dutchman can call on the advice of Sir Alex Ferguson, who recently revealed that he looks for three attributes in players above anything else: natural talent, determination and mental toughness.
“I think that it could be divided into maybe a few parts,” he told the club website last year, via Goal, when asked about his approach to signings. “Some players I had were absolute natural footballers, with natural talent. But there were other players who shared my determination, who maybe weren’t the best players but they made themselves the best players, because they had something inside them too.
“I go back to one of my first defeats as a manager, at 32 years of age. I didn’t expect it. I went into the game eyes wide open, that this was going to be easy. We lost 5-2 to Albion Rovers. I was the manager of East Stirling, the players were on £5 a week, or something like that. I came home and I said ‘if I don’t get Alec Ferguson in my team, I’m not going to succeed’. So I made sure that my players had a mental toughness about them, from that moment on.”
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Aside from recruitment, much of Ten Hag’s task will, of course, take place on the training pitches. Ten Hag comes from the Ajax school of coaching and will relish trying to implement his philosophy at Carrington. While he doesn’t officially take over for some time, the Dutchman has already cracked the whip by demanding the squad to report back for pre-season two weeks earlier than initially scheduled.
But with Ten Hag still at Ajax and Ralf Rangnick waiting until after the final game of the season, against Crystal Palace on May 22, to depart, the focus is currently on the summer transfer window. Speculation will inevitably be rife about the players United want to recruit, but while we don’t yet know for certain their identities, we do know for sure that there will be several of them.
That’s because there is set to be an exodus at Old Trafford once the transfer window opens on July 1. Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Edinson Cavani, Juan Mata and Nemanja Matic are all expected to leave the club, while there are doubts hanging over many others, including Phil Jones, Anthony Martial, Alex Telles, Dean Henderson and Marcus Rashford.
Ten Hag is expected to be given a transfer budget of £100million to reshape the squad at his disposal. He is likely to focus on signing a striker, a central midfielder and two full-backs as minimum requirements. The 52-year-old has already passed over his transfer target recommendations to United, whose efforts will be led by football director John Murtough and technical director Darren Fletcher following a shake-up of the recruitment department.
Scouting heads Jim Lawlor and Marcel Bout recently left the club while chief negotiator Matt Judge is serving out his notice period before leaving. Those decisions have been taken by Richard Arnold, who took over as chief executive from Ed Woodward in February, and reflect a long-term failure in the transfer market. A recent study by CIES Football Observatory found that, since the summer of 2012, United have a negative transfer net spend of £908m – the most of any club in Europe’s top five leagues. During that period, United have spent £1.3bn, while bringing in £397m in player sales.
So how do they turn around a decade of poor recruitment and furnish Ten Hag with the best possible squad for the 2022/23 season and beyond? Well, listening to the club’s most successful manager might be a good place to start.
United’s current squad has plenty of natural talent but is arguably lacking in both determination and mental toughness. When scouring the market for new additions this summer, maybe United’s new-look recruitment team should take a leaf out of Fergie’s book and prioritise finding players who possess the less obvious but absolutely vital mental characteristics instead of physical ones.
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