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With Ajax’s latest Eredivisie title sealed, Erik ten Hag has wasted little time in beginning the forward planning that will allow him to hit the ground running at Manchester United.
The Dutch coach called a meeting in Amsterdam for Thursday to get down to business and, as Sportsmail reported, Steve McClaren was summoned to Holland for the talks.
It is now expected that Sir Alex Ferguson’s former assistant will be a part of Ten Hag’s backroom team at Old Trafford next season.
Erik ten Hag held his first meeting as Man United boss as he discussed strategy in Amsterdam
Steve McClaren, who is set to become his assistant boss, was also summoned to the meeting
Ten Hag signed his Ajax career off with a trophy after delivering his side the Eredivisie title
And no doubt the agenda for the Amsterdam summit included a discussion of potential transfer targets with United so clearly under-powered in several departments.
It’s been a dreadful season at Old Trafford, with United on course for their lowest Premier League points tally and a fifth season without any silverware.
We take a closer look at who Ten Hag and his prospective backroom team may have discussing and what they could offer the team.
This has been a problem position for United for several years now and their lack of physicality and bite in defensive midfield is increasingly exposed in the big games.
With Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic departing in the summer, there will be an urgent need to address this with at least one – and ideally two – midfield signings.
So it’s little surprise to see United linked with a player Ten Hag knows very well from Ajax – Frenkie de Jong of Barcelona.
Barcelona’s financial problems are well documented and it’s believed they may be tempted to sell De Jong – a £75million buy in 2019 – two years before the expiration of his contract.
Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong has emerged as a midfield option for Man United in the summer
It will be difficult for United, however, for a number of reasons. Firstly, Barcelona will want to extract top dollar for a classy player who is still only 25.
Secondly, the Dutchman is reluctant to leave the Nou Camp and if he does, only for a club playing in next season’s Champions League. United certainly can’t offer that.
There’s interest also from Manchester City but United will hope the allure of playing under Ten Hag, a coach who did so much to develop De Jong’s career at Ajax, will prove strong.
De Jong won’t come cheap but offers an immediate upgrade on Fred and Scott McTominay, the two central midfield options United will be left with.
Ten Hag knows all about De Jong from their time working together at Ajax from 2017 to 2019
Ten Hag favoured two deeper midfield players, of which De Jong was one, during a run to the 2019 Champions League semi-finals which included famous wins over Real Madrid and Juventus.
You’d wager he will set United up this way initially until he gets a feel for the Premier League but his Ajax side often played two attacking midfielders ahead of one holding one, especially against weaker opposition in the league.
So that could mean De Jong sitting in behind Donny van de Beek – someone else who know Ten Hag well and who could be brought out of the deep freeze – and Bruno Fernandes.
United also continue to be linked with England and West Ham defensive midfielder Declan Rice, who would cost them even more at somewhere north of £100m.
Rice would be an excellent signing, his drive and energy are pretty much unsurpassed in the Premier League, but is he willing to come to a team that can only offer more Europa League football when better teams may be interested?
West Ham’s Declan Rice has been linked with United for some time but could cost £100m
Ten Hag will know the midfield is the area in most urgent need of attention. He will be backed with a substantial transfer kitty but buying both De Jong and Rice would be a stretch.
One of them plus a cheaper option, such as Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (who seems to be linked with Old Trafford every summer), could adequately restock the United midfield.
Kalvin Phillips has made clear he wouldn’t leave Leeds to cross the Pennines to their bitter rivals in Manchester but relegation may change all that.
United have been scarily reliant on the goals of 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo this season. He has netted 24 times in all competitions, with the next highest scorer at the club Fernandes on 10.
If Ronaldo decides to depart in the summer or if he picks up an injury next season, United will look seriously toothless.
Edinson Cavani is leaving and all of their wide attackers are either not reliable enough with their goal returns or very much being pushed towards the exit door. So Ten Hag will have a centre forward on his shopping list.
Whether United sign a forward this summer is likely to depend on Cristiano Ronaldo’s plans
It might not be the easiest sell – who wants to be told they’ll essentially be second fiddle to Ronaldo for at least a year?
Reports in Italy are linking United to the Napoli striker Victor Osimhen, who has scored 17 goals this season. But he won’t come cheap, with Napoli slapping a colossal £85m price tag on the Nigerian.
An enquiry has reportedly been made about the Reims striker Hugo Ekitike – he is only 19, so is far from the finished article but he may ease in as Ronaldo’s understudy without complaining too much and then become first choice.
Napoli forward Victor Osimhen is an option but won’t come cheap with his £85m price tag
Benfica’s highly-rated Darwin Nunez, Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez, Paulo Dybala of Juventus and Ajax’s Sebastien Haller are also possible options for Ten Hag.
Fellow Uruguayan Diego Forlan, formerly of United, believes Nunez would be ideal for United after a great return of 34 goals in 40 games this season for Benfica.
He proved his class with strikes against Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Ajax and Liverpool during Benfica’s Champions League run but could cost £60m.
In reality, one of the first things Ten Hag will want to do when he arrives is talk to Ronaldo and see what his intentions are. If he wants to stay, nobody is going to be budging him from that centre forward position.
Benfica forward Darwin Nunez has enjoyed a prolific season and is fancied by several clubs
Ten Hag will have shuddered watching United’s 4-0 capitulation at Brighton last weekend. It exposed yet again their many vulnerabilities at the back with Victor Lindelof, Raphael Varane, Alex Telles and Diogo Dalot all awful.
There have also been questions marks over captain Harry Maguire, whose post-Euros hangover has dragged on painfully all season.
Let’s address central defence first. United will need to buy at least one player in this position in the summer, especially if Ten Hag wants to play three-at-the-back as he does at Ajax.
It will allow the new coach to offload at least two of Lindelof, Eric Bailly and Phil Jones, who are all underwhelming options at the back.
Young defender Jurrien Timber celebrates after Ajax clinched the Eredivisie title this week
Rumours persist that Ten Hag will bring 20-year-old Jurrien Timber with him from Ajax. The youngster can cover various positions, is assured with the ball at his feet and is quick in the recovery tackle.
Ten Hag handed him the ‘Talent of the Year’ accolade recently but only he will know whether Timber is yet mature enough to play in the Premier League.
But you can see a back three of Maguire, Varane and Timber next season with the youngster’s speed compensating for Maguire’s chronic sluggishness.
Villarreal’s Pau Torres has also been linked and reportedly has a release clause of £51m, which could simplify matters. United would face stiff competition, however, including from teams with Champions League football on offer.
You’d say signing a new central defender is Ten Hag’s second priority for the summer after the midfield. There have been too many fatal lapses at the back in games this season and given the coach’s often cavalier approach, United will need to have a solid bedrock.
Villarreal defender Pau Torres is another player who has been often linked with Man United
Ten Hag is a coach who places a great emphasis on wing-backs who fully support the attack but who also have the dynamism to get back quickly and defend.
In his stocktake of the current United squad, he could well take a look at Telles, Dalot and Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the basis of this season’s performances and decide change is needed.
Luke Shaw looks more secure in his place than the right-back options, but that hasn’t prevented links between United and left-back Tyrell Malacia of Feyenoord.
United have already sent scouts to watch the 22-year-old, who is someone Ten Hag previously tried to sign for Ajax. He would cost a fairly modest £20m and provide good competition for Shaw and Telles.
Tyrell Malacia, the Feyenoord left-back, has emerged as a potential target this summer
They have already missed out on a good right-back option with Noussair Mazraoui signing for Bayern Munich from Ajax but this position would appear to be the more pressing issue.
But, as stressed, signing a central midfield and a central defender may drain the entire budget for this summer.
Ten Hag may well have to maximise the output of the full-backs he has and look to strengthen in his second or third transfer window of what we all recognise will be a lengthy and far from straightforward rebuilding job.