MANCHESTER, England — “Today we start a new season and a new story,” Erik ten Hag wrote in his program notes ahead of his first official game as Manchester United manager. Except it wasn’t a new story at all. In fact, it was more the same thing. After finishing last season with seven defeats in their last 12 games to fall to sixth in the Premier League table, Man United started the new campaign with another; this time 2-1 at home to Brighton.
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After the positivity of that first summer under the Dutchman, it was a harsh reality check for those who showed up at Old Trafford hoping to witness the start of a new era of success. Ten Hag can still bring home the trophies fans crave but Brighton have warned he is in for a rough ride.
“It’s a hell of a job,” he said after becoming the second manager after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 to lose his first game in charge. He’s not kidding either – after a chaotic first half against Brighton in which Pascal Gross scored twice, Brentford out next weekend suddenly looks very daunting for a manager and rookie side who seem to have the confidence of a fish on a bicycle.
Ten Hag hinted at the idea afterwards, insisting that his players’ self-confidence had evaporated after what he thought was a decent opening against Graham’s Potter side, although this observation ignored how Leandro Trossard had missed a good chance for visitors inside 15 years. seconds.
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“I think it was a good start, then after going down a level we lost confidence,” Ten Hag said. “I can understand that after last year, but it’s not necessary because they are good players. Confidence comes from yourself, bring it to the pitch. I knew it could happen, but I think we should have done better, that’s for sure, but it won’t happen overnight.”
It should perhaps come as no surprise that United have looked as vulnerable as they did last season given that they are largely the same team. New signings Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martinez started against Brighton with a third, Tyrell Malacia, on the bench, but Ten Hag is still running out of options in midfield and up front. United have made Frenkie de Jong their primary midfield target this offseason, but the Dutch international is still at Barcelona, and in his absence Ten Hag have been forced to choose Fred and Scott McTominay as their midfield pair. Both had days to forget – McTominay in particular may have been lucky enough to escape a red card for a first-half challenge – and both were substituted in the second half.
In attack, Eriksen was pushed into action as a false No.9 with Anthony Martial nursing a hamstring injury in the managers box and Cristiano Ronaldo not fit enough to start.
Ten Hag was asked in his post-match press conference if he regretted the system he had chosen, but he pointedly replied: “If a striker was available, I would have played him.”
He’s a good coach – his record at Ajax is proof of that – but he’s not a magician. While Manchester City and Arsenal have all gone from strength to strength over the summer, you can argue United’s squad is now weaker – especially in terms of numbers – following the departures of Paul Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Jesse Lingard , Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata. When United needed a goal against Brighton, Ten Hag had to turn to 18-year-old Alejandro Garnacho.
Sources have told ESPN there have been talks to sign former Stoke and West Ham striker Marko Arnautovic from Bologna after Ten Hag identified the need for a striker who would be content to be used as an option off the bench. Ten Hag has known the Austrian international since his time at FC Twente and is a fan of the 33-year-old’s character and presence in the dressing room. Negotiations are also underway with Red Bull Salzburg over 19-year-old striker Benjamin Sesko, and it is vital that at least one striker arrives before the September 1 transfer deadline.
By then United hope to have completed the signing of De Jong, but the Dutchman remains locked in a battle to recoup deferred wages from Barcelona. Likewise, there are persistent rumors from his side that he would prefer to join Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain or Bayern Munich if he is eventually sent off at Camp Nou.
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“I don’t go into names,” Ten Hag said when asked if he needed new players. “I think in this pre-season maybe 250 players are linked with Man United.”
However, just one or two before the deadline would do.
Ten Hag has taken on the task of writing United’s next success story, but he can’t do it alone. With the same players as last season, he encountered the same issues faced by Ralf Rangnick and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before him and, perhaps predictably, had to answer questions about a familiar result.
Questions, however, need to be asked of the club around him and why, with the transfer window closing weeks away, they are still looking for players. Without them, the new era of United is still waiting to take off.