Erik ten Hag already knows his Man United transfer priority

Manchester United are set to step up their search for their next permanent manager over the upcoming international break, with Erik ten Hag currently leading the race to take up the role.

United intend to settle on their next manager before the end of the season in order to accelerate plans for the summer, with the 2022-23 season starting earlier than usual on August 6 because of the winter World Cup.

Time is of the essence ahead of another crucial transfer window, and Ten Hag won’t want to waste any time in identifying targets if he were to get the job offer before the end of the campaign.

United are impressed by how Ten Hag has assembled two successful teams either side of the sales of Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong in 2019. There is also a belief that the 52-year-old could be a genuine long-term success at Old Trafford given the longevity he has enjoyed at Ajax since joining in December 2017.

Another key component working in Ten Hag’s favour is that he fits perfectly into the mould of the manager Ralf Rangnick would like to see at the club, with the Dutchman another coach who puts an emphasis on pressing, aggression while out of possession and a flexible style of play which can change in-game.

Just like Rangnick, Ten Hag has also played down the over-analysis of formations, instead suggesting that the success of any team is all about how they react in a match to changing circumstances.

He’s said previously, “It’s not even about systems. It’s about what you do in possession, when you lose possession, and in those turn around moments. And you need to be able to change that up. The players’ qualities determine how you play.”

While the precise formation might not be overly important to Ten Hag, individual player roles certainly are. A key component of his Ajax sides has been the ability to build-up play from the back, something that he would likely need to address in the transfer market if he were to take the United job.

Of particular importance is having a midfielder who can drop deep when in possession and receive the ball from the two centre-backs before moving play forward and distributing it further up the pitch.

It’s a role that is currently occupied by Mexican international Edson Alvarez at Ajax, who selflessly drops back to get involved in play before recycling the ball as a base for many attacks. Being a good passer of the ball is essential in such a role, as is the ability to intercept passing lanes in order to protect the two central defenders.

Adding such a player to the squad this summer would not only be essential in regards to executing the desired style of play under Ten Hag, but it would also be a key component in helping to bring the best out of the defenders at the club, ensuring their frailties are not so easily exposed.

Nemanja Matic remains the only player capable of playing such a role out of those already in the senior set-up at United, though his lack of mobility and veteran status means he can’t be relied upon to monopolise the role in the manner that is needed.

Scott McTominay certainly has the aggression and fitness to play in the deeper position, but he would need to drastically improve his distribution if he were to make it his own. James Garner is certainly an exciting option for next season, but it would be naïve to expect a 21-year-old to be able to play weekly in the Premier League, despite his great form at Nottingham Forest.

Instead, the best solution would be to add a new specialist defensive midfielder in the summer while keeping Garner at the club as a rotational option to bring off the bench and use in cup competitions. United sources have already admitted that signing a new midfielder is their ‘biggest problem’ ahead of the next transfer window, and the growing interest in Ten Hag will only amplify it further.

Declan Rice is coveted and has expressed interest in joining United, but West Ham could price Rice out of a transfer until next year as his contract is up in 2024. Their hand could be further strengthened if success in the Europa League leads to Champions League qualification next season.

It is quite clear where the priority lies for United this summer, and the speedy appointment of their next manager will be crucial in identifying who that should be.