It was after a 4-0 defeat at Everton in April 2019 that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer suggested it was the end of the road for some of the Manchester United players he had inherited from Jose Mourinho.
Appointed caretaker manager in December and then permanent boss three months later, Solskjaer was looking to build United’s next great team and after watching a shambolic performance at Goodison Park, he warned some of his squad that they wouldn’t be part of it.
“We can’t change the whole squad but it’s one step at a time,” said Solskjaer. “I’m going to be successful here and there are players there that won’t be part of that successful team.”
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In the end Solskjaer’s confidence in his own role in United’s recovery wasn’t matched by results, but you can imagine Erik ten Hag having a similar thought as he watched the unravelling at Anfield on Sunday. The 7-0 defeat to Liverpool, matching United’s worst-ever result, will not be quickly forgotten.
There’s a theory that one of Solskjaer’s problems was that the cull he predicted in the Everton press room never materialised and of the team which were so badly beaten in Merseyside, nine were still at the club when the Norwegian was sacked more than two years later.
Ten Hag, who has axed Cristiano Ronaldo and publicly reprimanded Marcus Rashford since taking overlast summer, has already shown himself to be far more ruthless. The Dutchman’s favourite phrase since taking the job has been “good is not good enough” and, even though this group has won the club’s first trophy in six years and remains on course to qualify for the Champions League, the bar will be raised again ahead of next season.
Ten Hag brought in Casemiro, Lisandro Martinez, Antony and Tyrell Malacia last summer at a cost of more than £220 million and the next stage of the rebuild — if the budget allows — is likely to include a striker, a midfielder, a full-back and a goalkeeper as United look to get closer winning the Premier League and the Champions League.
The ownership situation is up in the air as the Glazer family look at “strategic alternatives” and there are Financial Fair Play concerns to navigate, but work has already started on plans for the summer transfer window and there will be money to spend. To make room in the squad for new additions, there will have to be exits and a number of players who were part of the embarrassment at Liverpool could find that they are already into their last few months at Old Trafford.
Harry Maguire, signed from Leicester City for £80m in 2019, is an obvious one after being restricted to just five league starts this season. Interest from West Ham in January was turned down, but the England defender faces a decision in the summer about whether or not to find regular football elsewhere.
Fred has a contract until 2024 after his one-year extension was triggered in December, but Ten Hag is keen to bring in another midfielder and there is again interest in Barcelona‘s Frenkie de Jong and Borussia Dortmund‘s Jude Bellingham — although both deals are viewed within the recruitment department as “difficult.”
Revamping the midfield would also affect Scott McTominay‘s future. Eddie Howe is a fan of the Scotland international but Newcastle United have so far been put off making any kind of concrete approach because of United’s valuation of more than £40m.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka, as good as he’s been since the World Cup, and Anthony Elanga would also be vulnerable in Ten Hag’s summer shake-up while the club are also trying to renegotiate David de Gea‘s contract — due to expire in the summer — on reduced wages. De Gea has impressed Ten Hag this season, but he believes having a goalkeeper more comfortable on the ball would help his team better control games.
United are also set to hold meetings with Dean Henderson‘s representatives this month before making a decision on his future. Henderson has spent the season on loan at Nottingham Forest and United refused to include an option to make the deal permanent when it was completed in July. Henderson, 25, wants regular football to help win a place in the England squad.
Everything was going so well for Ten Hag in his first season until the nightmare at Liverpool and, although he would never choose to lose so heavily, it serves as a timely reminder about the amount of work still to be done.
Solskjaer’s much-needed overhaul of an underperforming squad didn’t arrive and his team never reached the heights he predicted. Ten Hag is the latest manager attempting to get United back to the top of domestic and European football and although the journey so far has been positive, there are some players who will not be making the rest of the trip.