ERik ten Hag’s summer pursuit of Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong: naive folly or show of intent from a new Manchester United manager brave enough to do it his way? After a week on the club tour of Thailand and Australia observing the Dutchman, an impression forms from the latter, that Ten Hag is a steel-eyed operator who knows precisely what is needed to rebuild a team that has fell 35 points behind Manchester City last season.
An opponent might make an argument about eggs and a solitary basket. That even though repeated rumors from the De Jong camp about his wish to stay at Barca are due to the £17m owed in deferred wages, the 25-year-old is struggling to climb the walls to join United, despite his employers appointing him on the team for their summer tour. By refusing to be deterred, Ten Hag could end up with all those eggs on his face.
The situation echoes Ángel di María’s record £59.7m UK move from Real Madrid in the summer of 2014. After being signed by Louis van Gaal, the Argentine penned an open letter to fans of Real declaring that he had never wanted to leave. Di María started bombing in United colours, was dumped by Van Gaal and 12 months later was sold to Paris Saint-Germain.
There is an important side note in Di María’s story: Van Gaal had “other players on the list” ahead of him, so he was never a first choice. De Jong is decidedly Ten Hag’s No.1 target and while he’s not a panacea for all of United’s ills, he’s the type of smooth, X-factor schemer they’ve been missing since Paul Scholes was at its peak a generation ago. While De Jong isn’t an exact facsimile, he’s certainly in the same vein and has a vision to change contests.
Ten Hag told United’s director of football John Murtough and CEO Richard Arnold that although De Jong did not arrive at the season opener – Brighton’s visit to Old Trafford on August 7 – they should continue the pursuit. It’s not ideal, and a doomsday scenario can be if the window closes at the end of this month and De Jong stays at Barcelona the critics will have a field day, even if a reserve goal has been acquired .
To have any chance of succeeding in the feverish role of United manager, Ten Hag must be brave. And guess what: De Jong can be offloaded and the manager vindicated. If that scenario plays out, De Jong will join dynamic young left-back Tyrell Malacia, classy Christian Eriksen and (the club expects) Ajax’s sharp defender Lisandro Martínez to complete an impressive new quartet.
It would be a victory. The next would be for new blood to work – especially De Jong, around whom Ten Hag would build his XI and as an A-list talent should shine those lesser lights around him. Anthony Elanga is one. The 20-year-old made 27 appearances, scoring three times last season. Now he wants to elevate his performance.
“I can play anywhere in the top three,” says Elanga. “I want to score more goals, make more assists. Affect plays, be a dangerous player, be a starter for Man United which is a dream for any young boy going through the academy. That’s what I’m trying to achieve. I want to build on what I did last season, make it even better.
Seeing Ten Hag lead training showed a coach determined to improve the players, with his assistants Mitchell van der Gaag and Steve McClaren.
Elanga says: “They all try to help us as a team, not just as individuals – going into the details, like how we play from the back and how we play in the final third as well, because it’s all information that we have to soak in. So far, we’re doing very well.
“The new manager has arrived, so we have to accept his details and this new philosophy of play and his style of management, so we’re all really buying into it. We’re taking it session by session and it’s been really good.
On the trip, Liverpool were beaten 4-0 in Bangkok and Melbourne Victory 4-1 in their hometown. What matters, however, is the campaign ahead. Ten Hag’s original plan for United is starting to materialize. Land De Jong and a fair verdict on United’s fifth permanent manager since the last title win nine years ago will be so far, so good.