Erik ten Hag has the unenviable task of restoring Manchester United to its past glory.
For nearly two decades, under Sir Alex Ferguson’s leadership, United were the pre-eminent force in Premier League football, winning 13 titles. Since his departure they’ve regressed — going through four permanent managers — and this past season represented their worst points return in the Premier League era.
After successfully rebuilding Ajax’s reputation in European football, the powers that be at Old Trafford have seemingly instructed the newly appointed Ten Hag to steady the ship before going for major honours.
However, no matter how big the rebuilding job is, football remains, first and foremost, a results business. You’re only as good as your last performance. Ten Hag can easily fall into the same pitfalls as his more experienced predecessors, but as he’s demonstrated as De Godenzonen boss, there’s a method behind how things are done with him in charge.
He will logically be supported in the summer transfer window, especially with a number of players set to depart, but who could join England’s most decorated league champions? We’ve taken a look at some prominent targets.
1. Jurrien Timber
Part of Ten Hag’s brief while coaching Ajax was adhering to tradition, in this case the Amsterdammers’ policy of bringing through academy graduates. He was good in this regard and it comes as no surprise to see that Man Utd are linked with one of Ten Hag’s best students. A manager and player working together from one club to another has been a thing since time immemorial; Louis van Gaal infamously loaded his Barcelona team with many of his Ajax charges, and with central defence being an area of concern, coupled with how Ten Hag likes to set up his defensive line, Jurrien Timber — with his speed and good sense of spatial awareness — is an ideal candidate.
Introducing our Talent of the Year…
— AFC Ajax (@AFCAjax) May 11, 2022
“I think that all top clubs in Europe have Timber in their sights,” Ten Hag recently told De Telegraaf. “But I think that currently applies to a lot of Ajax players.” Every potential transfer comes with its own risks. Timber is still developing, he doesn’t turn 21 until mid-June, and with less than 75 professional club appearances under his belt, the Utrecht-born defender is more of a long-term prospect for a club like Man Utd, rather than someone who can elevate them from the get-go.
The campaign just gone was Timber’s breakthrough, having played all but four Eredivisie games. Even though he trusts Ten Hag, there’s a case for him to continue his education in Amsterdam, especially with 2022 being a World Cup year. The intensity of the Premier League is such that it could take him the better part of a season to acclimatise.
2. Pau Torres (6/4 with Sky Bet)
A more here-and-now option is Pau Torres, an extremely talented left-sided ball-playing centre-back. The 25-year-old has a release clause in his present contract which expires in 2024, roughly £55m, after he signed an extension with Villarreal three years ago, but he’s not fazed about the conversations surrounding his future. “Right now there is nothing at all, there is talk of many things like every year, I have peace of mind of being where they want me, at the club of my life and I have this offer right now that I value as very positive,” he said. “There is nothing right now, the only thing I have is the offer from Villarreal, so I am very calm.”
United being interested in Torres’ services is reasonably sound. He’s cut from the same cloth as previous centre-backs who have excelled in Ten Hag’s system. Torres’ speed and passing ability makes his side more flexible when defending with a high line, as this is exactly what Ten Hag’s philosophy demands, while Harry Maguire is relatively slow by modern centre-back standards, so the Spaniard would provide competition for the England international.
3. Frenkie de Jong (4/6 with Sky Bet)
It was Ajax’s run to an improbable Champions League semi-final in 2019 that catapulted Ten Hag into everyone’s consciousness. He demonstrated brilliant tactical wizardry to navigate Ajax past defending champions Real Madrid and Juventus, before falling at the penultimate hurdle. No one symbolised this newly-formed swashbuckling team more than Frenkie de Jong, who represented the kernel around which the rest of the side’s panache was constructed. Barcelona, foreseeing a potential transfer scramble between Europe’s super clubs for his signature, moved quickly to sign him before the season was complete. And it’s at the Camp Nou where he currently plays.
There’s a strong argument he’s not reached those heights under Ten Hag, who created a specific role for the Dutchman in Ajax’s midfield, and reports have emerged that Man Utd’s new boss wants a reunion at the Premier League giant. Barca’s financial situation is well-documented but De Jong, who cites them as his “dream club”, has shown hesitation of leaving. Truth be told, for all the brilliance De Jong brings, he shouldn’t be a priority signing given where United are lacking and needing to strengthen. If anything the press-resistant midfielder would be a complimentary player that will define their new approach.
4. Declan Rice (3/1 with Sky Bet)
A lack of a top class defensive midfielder — in the guise of Fabinho, Casemiro or Rodri — is a reason behind United’s downward spiral. It’s what’s stopping them from rubbing shoulders with their fellow European elites. The good news is Ten Hag requires such a player to successfully implement his playing system. Edson Alvarez performed this role in exemplary fashion for Ajax during the 2021/22 season. He’s been unsurprisingly name-dropped, but the Red Devils could be looking closer to home, namely Declan Rice whose ascent has been a fascinating watch.
A two-time winner, congratulations, Declan! ? pic.twitter.com/O0LcGCXzuv
— West Ham United (@WestHam) May 9, 2022
United aren’t the only interested party, with Chelsea — where Rice spent much of his formative years — also keeping tabs. However, prising him away from West Ham will not be an easy task. The 23-year-old’s present deal in east London expires in June 2024 meaning the Hammers will need to receive an offer they simply cannot refuse.
5. Darwin Nunez (2/1 with Sky Bet)
The departure of Edinson Cavani has opened up a vacancy in United’s forward department. Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford could hypothetically play as Ten Hag’s ‘number nine’, but given their positional versatility the assumption is they’ll be used elsewhere — where that is for Ronaldo in particular is going to be interesting. Sebastian Haller has done the job for Ten Hag at two previous clubs, including most recently in Amsterdam, though a Premier League comeback doesn’t seem to be on the cards.
Instead the answer could be Benfica centre-forward Darwin Nunez, who is being heavily courted by several powerhouses. The 22-year-old Uruguayan marksman, a one-time Barca target, ended his 2021/22 league campaign having bagged 26 goals across 28 appearances. It’s that kind of productivity United need to have if they are to have any chance of closing the gap and returning Champions League football to the “Theatre of Dreams”.