Although Ten Hag worked well at Ajax, no one really knew what to expect from his Man Utd side — especially as the Dutchman had to implement a full rebuild at Old Trafford. Many Man Utd fans, and those higher up at the club, will no doubt have been targeting a return to the Champions League, but things did not start well.
After two Premier League matches, Man Utd were bottom of the league with no points and six goals conceded having faced Brighton and Brentford. Fans were fearing the worst when Liverpool travelled to Old Trafford for Man Utd’s third league match, but the Red Devils got one over their rivals with a 2-1 win which started a run of four consecutive victories that also included a 3-1 win over Arsenal.
That run came to an end in a big way when Man City beat Man Utd 6-3 at the Etihad and it could have been so much worse for the Red Devils. But they bounced back again to win four of their last seven games before the World Cup break, only dropping points in draws against Newcastle and Chelsea while losing to Aston Villa.
In particular, the draw with Chelsea was a big one as they went a goal down late on through a Jorginho penalty. Facing defeat, Man Utd did not give up and in the fourth minute of injury time Casemiro scored his first Man Utd goal with an excellent header to take a point.
They have since gone on to beat West Ham, Fulham and returned from the World Cup break with an emphatic 3-0 win over Nottingham Forest before registering wins over Wolves, Bournemouth and neighbours Man City. The winning run did come to an end with a 1-1 draw against Crystal Palace, but the Red Devils are now six points clear of fifth-placed Tottenham and looking comfortable in the top four right now.
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Until it is mathematically impossible, some Man Utd fans will never give up hope that the Red Devils can win the Premier League this season. But it will be a tall order.
Man Utd are currently eight points behind Premier League leaders Arsenal who have been formidable this season — but the Red Devils have shown that Mikel Arteta’s men aren’t invincible, being the only side to beat the Gunners in the Premier League.
Come the end of the 2022/23 campaign, it will be 10 years since the Red Devils last lifted the Premier League trophy. The most successful team in the 30-year history of the Premier League and still the most successful team in English top-flight history, it’s Man Utd’s longest title drought since going 26 years between 1966/67 and 1992/93.
The closest Man Utd have come in recent years was the 2020/21 season when they finished runners-up to Man City but they were still 12 points behind their local rivals and last season were 35 off top.
It was revealed only two months ago by Cody Gakpo himself that Man Utd held concrete talks with PSV over his signature in the summer, but a deal ultimately failed to materialise. “I was close to leaving, I spoke to Erik ten Hag a few times… In the end the deal didn’t go through, which was a shame,” Gakpo said in October.
Liverpool have since swooped in and hijacked the deal, completing a £35m transfer for the Dutch international to mitigate Luis Diaz’s unexpectedly protracted injury problems. Man Utd were expected to revive talks with Gakpo in January to offset Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure, but now they must look elsewhere.
It is clear why Ten Hag would have wanted Gakpo. At 6ft 4in, the prolific wide man is not your conventional winger, combining blistering speed and skill with incredible goal-getting ability and set-piece brilliance. His unique profile means it’s not easy to pick a similar model up off the shelf… Man Utd may need to reach to the back for an alternative.
But there are options…
Cody Gakpo ranks first or joint-first in the Eredivisie this season for the following stats:
◉ G/A ◉ Goals ◉ Assists ◉ Shots ◉ Shots on target ◉ Chances created ◉ Successful crosses ◉ Fouls won in the final ⅓ ◉ Fast breaks
To begin with, Ten Hag may feel his side are actually in need of a No. 9, rather than an inside forward, with Marcus Rashford being able to offer the kind of cut-in-field, exploit-the-half-space devastation that Gakpo would have brought to the side: in short, a Ronaldo replacement rather than a Gakpo alternative.
Wout Weghorst is the immediate remedy on loan from Burnley but Ten Hag is a master of tactical versatility and could arguably mould any wide forward into a central one — just look at how he turned Dusan Tadic from volatile Southampton winger to elite false nine at Ajax. A player of Gakpo’s profile could experience a similar transition to challenge Anthony Martial through the middle.
Beginning with a few high-profile names, Rafael Leao — excluding the deadball proficiency — is a pretty close match. The 6ft 2in Milan man has been directly involved in 13 Serie A goals this season in just 15 starts for the current Scudetto-holders (eight goals, five assists) and is a take-on wizard.
His 2.11 takes-on completed per 90 minutes is 0.3 ahead of Gakpo’s average in the Eredivisie this term with PSV, while their non-penalty goals per 90 minutes come in at an identical 0.56. Leao has certain limitations in comparison with Gakpo’s total output (albeit in different leagues), but there can be no questioning his quality.
A few other high profile names that Ten Hag could look to for final-third inspiration are is Portugal’s hat-trick hero Goncalo Ramos, priced at 6/1 — a favourite among bookmakers.
Talles Magno is another name to keep an eye on stateside. The 20-year-old, 6ft 1in winger ranked in MLS’s top 10 in 2022 for assists (eight), take-ons completed (70), touches in the opposition box (151) and fouls won (74). He also hailed from Vasco da Gama’s academy, where a certain Ronaldinho earned his stripes. Make of that what you will.
The ambipedal wide-forward starred as NYCFC lifted the 2021 MLS Cup and 2022 Campeones Cup, while he also helped guide the club to the penultimate round of the 2022 CONCACAF Champions League, where he was named in the ‘Best XI’ and scooped the competition’s ‘Best Young Player’ award.
Viktor Gyokeres has garnered plenty of attention in the Championship and with good reason. It’s unlikely Man Utd will move a rung down the English ladder to do their January shopping, but they haven’t been averse to scouting from the second tier, picking up Dan James from Swansea in 2019 and Wilfried Zaha in 2013.
The Swede stands at 6ft 2in and can play anywhere across the frontline. He has limitations with the creative side of his game, but when it comes to dribbling and scoring, he more than holds his own. Gyokeres — who has previously explained compatriot Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s influence on his career — is the Championship’s current top scorer with 12 goals and a dribble master with 130 take-ons attempted, one of just two players to reach triple digits for that metric.
Millwall playmaker Zian Flemming has also started life in English football like a house on fire. Having hailed from the Ajax academy, the 6ft 1in attacker is both elegant on the ball and cut-throat in opposition territory, with nine Championship goals from midfield. He faced Ten Hag’s Ajax five times during his time in the Dutch top flight, so the Man Utd boss will certainly know what he can offer.
Mads Hansen and Oliver Antman from Nordsjelland are other under-the-radar alternatives, with the latter offering a similar stylistic blueprint to Gakpo in the Danish top flight.The 6ft 1in Finland international ranks in the top 10 per 90 minutes in the Superliga (minimum of 450 minutes played, the equivalent of five full games) for expected assists (0.3), shots (3.58), completed crosses (1.89), fast breaks (0.38) and touches in the opposition box (5.47).
Nordsjelland has proven fecund soil for blossoming talent in recent years, with Mohammed Kudus, Mathias Jensen, Kamaldeen Sulemana, Mikkel Damsgaard, Simon Adingra and Runar Alex Runarsson all having plied their trade in Farum at some point since 2018/19. Could Antman or Hansen be the next precocious tyros plucked by Europe’s covetous heavyweights? Also keep an eye out for emerging sensation Ernest Nuamah.
However, things are still quite tight in the race for the top four, so any poor run of form could see Man Utd slip away from the top four race and dragged into the battle for the top six, which many believe will be enough to secure Europa League football.
Although last season brought Man Utd’s worst season in terms of points, they have finished lower in the Premier League, with the 2013/14 campaign the only one in which they have finished outside the top six (seventh).
Given that history, and the strength of the so-called ‘Big Six’ over the rest of the Premier League, Man Utd are heavily fancied to finish in the top six, now at 1/100 with Paddy Power.
Other Man Utd odds
Should Man Utd fail to qualify for the Champions League through a top four finish, they do still have the second chance saloon of the Europa League. The Red Devils are in the knockout stages of the Europa League, but have to go through the knockout round play-offs having finished second in their group.
Man Utd were tied on points with group winners Real Sociedad, sharing 1-0 wins with the Spanish side, so finished second on overall goal difference – knowing one more goal in their final game against Sociedad would have sealed top spot and an automatic place in the last 16.
Instead, Man Utd have to play an extra round against the Champions League dropouts and they were given an extremely tough tie, taking on Barcelona – who are the second favourites for the Europa League now – ahead of Man Utd.