Manchester United’s hopes of securing Champions League football for next season were officially ended last Saturday evening following their 4-0 defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion at the Amex Stadium.
Just as it appeared impossible for United to sink to a new low this season, they found a way, producing their worst performance of the season against a team that had not won at home since Boxing Day. Ralf Rangnick’s side were carved apart in every way imaginable by a team with a style and swagger.
Therefore, it means that United will be fighting for nothing more than a Europa League spot when they visit Crystal Palace on the final day of the season next weekend. The trip to Selhurst Park will mark the final match of this current era, with huge changes set to be implemented across the summer.
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Erik ten Hag will take charge at Old Trafford ahead of the start of next season and he will be tasked with building a new-look squad that can prove to be competitive, meaning a huge challenge awaits him and his staff. However, the forthcoming summer promises to be exciting for the supporters, even if there is an element of the unknown about what lies ahead.
On Friday, MEN Sport’s chief United writer, Samuel Luckhurst, hosted a Q&A session in an attempt to try and answer as many questions as possible that United’s fans had for him, ranging from the prospect of Frenkie de Jong joining the club to Ten Hag’s coaching team.
Q: I keep hearing about the corporate re-structuring that’s taking place off the pitch at Manchester United. Is this being driven by Richard Arnold, or are people organically leaving fully Ed Woodward’s and Matt Judge’s departures?
SL: It’s a combination of both. Arnold, to his credit, is trying to change things but others were comfortable when Woodward was there and they don’t have that safety net anymore. It’s commonplace in most workplaces, I suppose.
Q: In terms of a percentage, how much chance is there for Frenkie De Jong to join Manchester United after Ten Hag calling his agent?
SL: Does anyone really want to know a percentage estimate on a transfer? I don’t. De Jong has some legs because of Ten Hag. When he joined Barcelona, he probably hoped to spend the rest of his career there, or most of it.
Leaving after three unsuccessful years would be chastening but Barcelona are trying to usher many towards the exit door as possible because of their eye-watering debt. That’s some key context here, because I’ve already spoken to one matchgoer who’s mentioned the name ‘ Angel Di Maria’. The difference with Di Maria is United knew they were signing someone who didn’t want to sign for them. Di Maria wanted to join PSG but couldn’t in 2014 because of FFP restrictions. But he had to leave Madrid. So United had a free run at him.
If Ten Hag convinces De Jong to join United, it would be a coup. There is a long way to go, though. Barcelona will be playing in the Champions League next season and United might not be top billing on Thursday nights if they end up in the Conference League. The chances of success in the Premier League over the next five years are also remote. These are De Jong’s peak years and United are a club that yo-yos between Champions League and Europa League.
De Jong was wanted by City in 2019 and, until Ten Hag was appointed United manager, you could not imagine De Jong in a United shirt.
Q: What do you think the impact of not qualifying for the Champions League will have on United’s transfer activity this summer?
SL: Their non-participation in it next season alone would make the possible signing of De Jong remarkable. That United are expending energy on such a brilliant midfielder who is just about attainable is a marked departure from 2019 when there was an emphasis on British players. And look how well that went…
Some targets will be non-starters because United aren’t in the Champions League, so the scouting has to be cannier. De Jong would be a statement signing but it’s early days and nothing like as advanced as some of Barcelona’s mouthpieces have suggested.
Q: It is well known that it would take a lot of convincing to get De Jong to join Manchester United. Barcelona would sell him to us, provided we meet their valuation. How likely is it that we convince him to join, and if there is competition such as Manchester city and Bayern Munich, how likely would it be he chooses us a club with no Champions League over others?
SL: Ten Hag reaching out is key because he is probably the only one who could convince De Jong to make the move. For all this talk of Darren Fletcher selling the club to targets, he would likely fall on deaf ears where De Jong is concerned.
City do want a central midfielder but De Jong is not as aligned with Fernandinho as Rodri was, so perhaps they favour someone more defensive-minded. They have got enough in De Jong’s mould, but if they decided to play Ilkay Gundogan deeper (and Pep Guardiola is a great enough to make that a full-time conversion) then there is a spot further forward.
As I wrote earlier, it would be a coup if United got De Jong because of how many hurdles there are.
Q: It’s been reported widely that Mitchell Van der Gaag and Steve McClaren will be joining Man Utd as Ten Hag’s assistants. Aside from these appointments, will there be any other additions to Ten Hag’s backroom staff?
SL: I was off yesterday [Thursday] but my colleague reported on Van der Gaag a few weeks ago. There was a rumour Rene Meulensteen was at Carrington last month (his daughter does work for MUTV but mainly at Old Trafford) and he’s been quite outspoken about United needing to appoint someone familiar with the club. It turns out that will probably be McClaren.
Q: With rumours of Dean Henderson leaving on loan or on a permanent transfer, could we see a new back-up goalkeeper be signed that is more suited to a possession style of play? We’ve been linked to Sam Johnstone on a free as cover, but with United previously scouting the likes of Ilan Meslier, who looks relegation bound currently, could we see someone like that who could be back-up and a long-term option post David de Gea?
SL: Sam Johnstone was so comfortable signing contract after contract with zero chances of playing time at United his return is believable. I don’t think Ten Hag can afford to be as weak as Solskjaer when it comes to the goalkeeping issue. Solskjaer’s decision-making was made by a woman about to give birth (De Gea’s partner) and Covid (Henderson missed the start of the season because of it).
Q: If the De Jong deal happens, does that eliminate United for Darwin Nunez? Seems like he is their No.1 striker option to bring in this summer, but getting both would eat up almost all their *reported* budget.
SL: I wouldn’t necessarily say Nunez is the No.1 striker target. People at United say if you give the Portuguese media an inch they will take a mile. The Portuguese might say that about the UK media, too, but United are easy prey for Benfica, Sporting etc. if either club has a player who may be of interest.
Bruno Fernandes was more infamous than Nico Gaitan in that he went from a source of irritation to inspiration in five or six months. United were sick and tired of the summer 2019 speculation surrounding Fernandes that most of us were amazed they were actively trying to sign him in January 2020.
Q: Does the club intend to get things done early? And negotiate multiple deals at once? Or as usual, one deal at a time? Also, has Ten Hag given any opinions for the board on the current squad? Like the De Gea/Henderson situation.
SL: They always aim to get things done early but, from what I gather, seem to be more proactive with prospective deals rather than the inhibitive one-at-a-time strategy Woodward and Judge favoured.
He almost certainly has but, up until now, they’ve managed to be discreet about it. Certain players have not had clarity yet.
Q: Which are the centre-backs you think united are looking at? Do United have a good scouting network outside of the UK, or do they choose to ignore them when it comes to signing players from other leagues?
SL: My colleague revealed the interest in Pau Torres. Antonio Rudiger was considered (pointlessly, in my opinion – he was never a goer). United have an excellent scouting network – at academy level. Consider the 2020 deals: Joe Hugill, Charlie McNeill, Alvaro Fernandez, Marc Jurado and Alejandro Garnacho.
Q: I’d like to ask you a question about United’s transfer activity in general. Last year, around this time of the season, there was a clear indication of the names that United were going to be trying ie. [Raphael] Varane and [Jadon] Sancho. Whilst the De Jong interest seems to have picked up over the last couple of days, I am personally quite uncertain as to whether United are prepared with a transfer strategy. From your knowledge, do you think United are ready with their strategy given the fact many seem to suggest it’s a big summer for MUFC if they are to get back on track?
SL: It’s an interesting and salient point. It was clearer last year because it was clear United would be in the Champions League. They won’t be next season, so they are restricted as to the profile of player they can target. De Jong is an exception because of the Ten Hag link, so don’t be surprised if United try and test the waters with Matthijs de Ligt, because they want a centre-back. If United were in the Champions League next season, you’d fancy their chances of getting Declan Rice. The Kalvin Phillips interest confirms Rice is a non-starter.
I’d hesitate to say they are ‘ready’. The club are trying to offer a positive outlook but objective observers have been taken aback by the state United are in, which is unsurprising, given the outgoings on the board and in the scouting department.
Q: Any updates on the club’s progress in appointing a new football director?
SL: They’re restructuring and another football director has been factored into that.
Q: How many players look like they’re leaving this summer? Hopefully Ten Hag has given the green light to his targets now and we start seeing some movement in market.
SL: They need to break double figures for permanent outgoings. I still have my doubts they will. Too many players are on long contracts and big wages, so permanent sales will prove prohibitive.
In the case of Daniel James, United were lucky Leeds just could not quite him. That was a larcenous deal.
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