Man United won three, drew one, lost none and scored 13 goals during a promising pre-season tour, but there are still glaring issues for Erik ten Hag to address.
One of the few guarantees in appointing Erik ten Hag was Manchester United would play, or at least attempt to play, progressive and watchable football. Over their four matches in Thailand and Australia, United favoured a proactive possession-based style, perfected during the attack-versus-defence training drills Ten Hag has introduced where the forwards have to beat the buzzer to score.
United have not been not reliant on the counter-attacking tactic that embellished Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign and their patient play was evident against Melbourne Victory. United trailed 1-0 as half-time loomed, yet they went into the interval 2-1 up through two admittedly fortuitous goals that were made possible by a weighted attacking approach.
The highlight of the tour, performance-wise, was the 3-1 defeat of Crystal Palace in Melbourne when Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho finished virtuoso team goals. David de Gea started the attack for the former and although he had a patchy tour, he has shown signs of adapting to Ten Hag’s approach. De Gea emerged from his area three times in the 4-0 thrashing of Liverpool and that never happened last season.
Martial has a history of crumbling when competition is present and during the tour there was none, so he started regularly and scored three goals in four games. The Frenchman’s performance level has been more encouraging than his goalscoring and staff at United have been particularly impressed by how Martial has adapted to Ten Hag’s pressing demands.
The United dressing room became borderline unmanageable last season but it has been fumigated of brand obsessives. Ten Hag is ordering the players brusquely and after two weeks in his company, it is clearer why United appointed the authoritative Dutchman.
“It is discipline,” Dalot said. “We need to be ready for that, to be ready to hear things that maybe we don’t want to hear, but I think everything is for the greater good of the team and that’s the most important thing.”
Ten Hag must be creative with the midfield
Ten Hag’s two standout Ajax sides operated in 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 and United used both formations during the tour. Scott McTominay’s absence through injury against Villa prompted Ten Hag to start Donny van de Beek, with Fred at the base of a midfield triangle.
Van de Beek was a passenger and the fortnight in Thailand and Australia has not been remotely fulfilling for James Garner, restricted to 22 minutes in the second-half against Villa when United had relinquished control. McTominay was bustling in his three starts but he has a ceiling.
De Jong continues to resist extradition to Manchester and Ten Hag has suggested he would have to develop an incumbent midfielder if United fail to sign De Jong. Zidane Iqbal was the breakout youngster of the tour though it would be impulsive to identify him as a sudden solution even if he does model his game on De Jong.
The midfield is United’s weakest area and it is remarkable none of their three signings is an outright central midfielder. Ten Hag stressed Christian Eriksen had been recruited to reinforce the midfield and the Dane has the capacity to operate from deep. His efficacy is still at its highest in the final third.
Dearth in depth
Whether it was callow academy graduates or internationals, United’s squad depth is alarmingly inadequate. Facundo Pellistri and Amad, teenagers the club invested £46m in less than two years ago, were so peripheral Pellistri did not play again despite scoring in the opening friendly against Liverpool and Amad was usually allocated the graveyard shift up front. Tahith Chong, whose contract was seemingly extended with a view to obtaining a fee this summer, got more minutes than Pellistri.
Chong had more playing time than PellistriAnthony Elanga was overplayed last season and already there are signs he is not going to be as prominent under Ten Hag. The Swede enjoyed some Scandinavian solidarity off Solskjaer during pre-season last year and Ralf Rangnick latched onto him to secure his own academy legacy. Elanga was anonymous on his only start against Melbourne.
The United attack is an injury away from collapsing — unless Cristiano Ronaldo is available for selection. With or without Ronaldo, United want a new forward and it remains a pressing concern.
In defence, Wan-Bissaka is drained of confidence and Alex Telles has been downgraded to a dogsbody, popping up at centre-back and in midfield. Bailly was in crowd-pleasing form against Liverpool and Melbourne before regressing against Villa and Varane, a starter in Maguire’s absence in Bangkok, first succumbed to injury and then lost his place. Malacia has shown some promise, at least.
Other than a routine assist for Rashford, Van de Beek showed why there has been no fanfare about his reunion with Ten Hag and Iqbal and Charlie Savage looked more at ease in a United shirt.