Five urgent problems for Erik ten Hag to fix at Man United

Harry Maguire (L), Erik ten Hag (C) and Marcus Rashford (R) of Manchester United

It looks like the most pressing question at Old Trafford has been answered at last. Erik ten Hag has agreed a deal to become the next permanent manager of Manchester United.

The Ajax head coach, who will join on a initial three-year deal at the end of the season, beat Paris Saint-Germain's Mauricio Pochettino for the right to take over from interim boss Ralf Rangnick.

Ten Hag has garnered widespread admiration for his work at Ajax in winning back-to-back domestic doubles and reaching the Champions League semi-finals in 2019.

Indeed, he would appear to represent the ideal appointment for United: a manager renowned for playing stylish, attacking football and with recent trophy success to back up his methods.

However, the 52-year-old former Bayern Munich II coach has never experienced a role quite as demanding as that which awaits in the red half of Manchester. Problems abound at the 20-time English champions, five of which must be addressed immediately.

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Fix the defence

For all the turbulence around the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, the use of Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford’s dwindling form, United’s season has been defined by events at the other end of the pitch.

They're a soft touch defensively. In 41 appearances this season, David de Gea has conceded 57 goals — including nine in two games against Liverpool — and been forced to work very had for nine clean sheets. 

De Gea has made 132 saves in that time (as per FB Ref) and his shot-stopping is in fine order. However, alongside the shortcomings of those in front of him, the Spain international's substandard efforts with the ball at his feet must be a concern for a coach like Ten Hag who likes to build play from the back.

Rebuild Rashford, Maguire and Shaw

Much of the defensive scrutiny has fallen upon Harry Maguire, whose every mis-step and error seems to herald a moment of collective national hilarity or rage, depending on the extremities of your football-watching habits.

Like Maguire, Luke Shaw was exceptional in England's run to the final of Euro 2020 and has seen his form fall off a cliff this season.

Plenty of Gareth Southgate's squad displayed post-tournament hangovers in terms of their club performances, but the malaise among United's England contingent speaks of deeper problems.

Rashford was left physically battered by overuse during the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era and now cuts an utterly forlorn figure — one who thinks his future might be better served elsewhere, if reports are to be believed.

There is plenty of under-performance to assess at United but these three are men who are capable of scaling considerable heights. They are a long way from those right now and it would be a big win for Ten Hag if he can turn their fortunes around.

Harry Maguire Manchester United 2021-22

Implement an attractive style — but one that works

De Gea, Maguire, Shaw and the rest of United's defensive unit would undoubtedly benefit from having a functioning team structure around them, leaving them protected rather than exposed. 

This is one of the main appeals of Ten Hag: he is a system coach who achieves his success through those means. However, not all attractive football is created equal.

Steeped in Ajax history, Ten Hag's chosen style will not look like the various ideas of what a classic Manchester United can be. It will probably look a lot more like the football Pep Guardiola has cooked up on the other side of town.

Will that be tolerated, or will the new era be squashed down amid screams of "Attack! Attack! Attack!" from the Stretford End?

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Repair and streamline transfer policy

Ten Hag will not be able to establish a Total Football outpost at Old Trafford with the current personnel. As much as United have talented underachievers in their squad, it's a horribly imbalanced group that is the result of a confused transfer policy. 

Last year, United needed a holding midfielder to set the tempo, give the team structure and protect the defence. They didn't get one, but, hey, they got Ronaldo and everyone had a great time when he scored a few against Newcastle and Tottenham.

That sort of thinking needs to go in the bin. Ten Hag must know exactly what roles football director John Murtough, technical director Darren Fletcher and soon-to-be advisor Rangnick have to play in getting the house in order. Those roles must be clearly defined if the transfer policy is to be precise.

Cristiano Ronaldo failed to score for a sixth-straight Premier League match on Feb. 12 vs. Southampton
(Getty Images)

Cut loose the dead wood

Incomings have only been half of the problem at Old Trafford. There are players still at the club whose future can only be served effectively elsewhere.

Sending Jesse Lingard on loan to West Ham, where he was brilliant, before failing to sell him or play him as his contract ticks down feels like performance art for what a terrible transfer strategy might look like.

Weighty transfer fees not coming good will always garner headlines but not selling at prime times, allowing key contracts to whittle away while dishing out unnecessary extensions to fringe players are all factors that have hindered every rebuild since Alex Ferguson's departure nine years ago. Ten Hag must demand better.

Lingard and Paul Pogba are set to run down their contracts, Nemanja Matic confirmed he is leaving and Edinson Cavani will likely follow suit. There is uncertainty around the futures of Eric Bailly, Juan Mata, Anthony Martial and goalkeeper Dean Henderson, among others.

It also remains to be seen what plans Ten Hag might have for Donny van de Beek, the former Ajax star who is on loan at  struggling Everton.