Manchester United concluded their pre-season over the weekend with two results and performances that underlined just how much work Erik ten Hag still has to do if the club is to rise again.
Following a successful tour of Thailand and Australia that saw United beat Liverpool, Melbourne Victory and Crystal Palace before drawing with Aston Villa, here was a little reality check before the real business begins.
Ten Hag divided his squad for two matches in a little over 24 hours, with his strongest XI losing 1-0 to Atletico Madrid in Oslo on Saturday before a second string drew 1-1 with Rayo Vallecano at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Erik ten Hag tries to get instructions across to Cristiano Ronaldo against Rayo Vallecano
The new manager has good reason to be satisfied with United’s pre-season on the whole
It meant United ended pre-season with three victories, two draws and one defeat from their six games, with 14 goals scored and six conceded.
That amounts to a satisfactory return and Ten Hag will have gained a fuller understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of his players and who should start against Brighton in their Premier League opener this weekend.
Sportsmail takes a look at ten things the Dutch coach will have learned from United’s pre-season.
WANTAWAY RONALDO CAN BE DROPPED
The good news was that Cristiano Ronaldo played his first action of pre-season against Rayo Vallecano on Sunday and received a warm reception from the Old Trafford crowd.
The bad news is that he was only able to play 45 minutes and created another headache for Ten Hag and the club by leaving the stadium long before the final whistle.
During his first-half appearance, Ronaldo showed some sharp touches but didn’t always look too happy taking instructions from his coach.
Ten Hag will hate the fact that the uncertainty over the Portuguese star’s future will prove a distraction for the opening weeks of the season as he desperately tries to hit the ground running.
Ronaldo finally returned to action against Rayo Vallecano but only managed 45 minutes
Ronaldo’s stance that he wishes to leave Old Trafford in pursuit of Champions League football this season remains unchanged even if his options are dwindling.
Ronaldo then created a further headache for United by leaving before the final whistle
United insist he’s going nowhere and so the impasse may well continue until the transfer deadline passes on September 1.
While Ronaldo is professional enough to keep training and give as much as he can for United in the meantime, any of his little sulks and strops, whether on the pitch, on the bench or in the stands, are going to dominate the headlines.
Ten Hag is a man with the courage of his convictions and Ronaldo’s absence from the tour makes it all the easier to drop him for the opening league games of the season.
That isn’t going to go down well and it will be interesting to see if Ronaldo is willing to scale down his ambitions to secure a switch away after the likes of Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Atletico Madrid turned down the chance to sign him.
If he stays and other options like Anthony Martial are fit to start up front, Ten Hag won’t feel obliged to play him in every game.
UNITED ARE A CENTRE FORWARD LIGHT
Which leads into another issue. The Ronaldo uncertainty and Martial pulling up with a hamstring issue during the Atletico game which could make him a doubt for the start of the season exposes that United need another centre forward.
Ronaldo played in the position frequently last season while there was Edinson Cavani as a back-up (although he was more often injured than fit).
Now the Uruguayan has moved on and if Martial hadn’t shown an unexpected sharpness and scoring touch during the tour to resurrect his United career, they surely would have moved more actively for a striker in the market this summer.
Anthony Martial gave United a fitness scare after he went off during the defeat to Atletico
But Ten Hag cannot rely on Martial to single-handedly make up the clear shortfall of goals that cost United last season. If Ronaldo leaves, that reliance only increases.
After all, the Frenchman scored only twice last season – once for United and once for loan club Sevilla – and managed just seven in 36 outings for United the season prior to that.
Three goals and two assists during the tour does not necessarily mean a bright new dawn for a player who was expected to leave this summer.
Martial has made a persuasive case to Ten Hag to start up top for United this season
But what can United do? Any world class strikers who might have been available this summer have already switched clubs or committed to their current ones.
They have been linked to Stuttgart striker Sasa Kalajdzic, who is 6ft 7in tall and available for about £17million, and Benjamin Sesko of Red Bull Salzburg, who is valued at £55m.
The asking price for Antony, who Ten Hag knows well from Ajax, continues to rise and he is more of a wide attacker than a centre forward.
United would be well-advised to buy someone, however, given the weight of matches coming up this season, even if they’re second or third choice.
Manchester United are considering a move for £17m-rated Stuttgart striker Sasa Kalajdzic
Manchester United held talks with the agent of RB Salzburg striker Benjamin Sesko last week
MIDFIELD IS A REAL CONCERN
Ten Hag left United’s hierarchy in no doubt that Frenkie de Jong was the one summer signing he wanted above all others, considering him fundamental to the way he wants United to play.
Reaching agreement with Barcelona on a £71million transfer fee proved the straightforward bit. Persuading De Jong to leave them for United has been considerably more difficult.
The Holland international clearly doesn’t fancy a reunion with his former boss from Ajax and he doesn’t much fancy slumming it in the Europa League. Now Chelsea could swoop and snatch him from beneath United’s noses.
Frenkie de Jong is showing little enthusiasm for leaving Barcelona to reunite with Ten Hag
It’s a problem because Ten Hag played his first choice midfield pair against Atletico – and it’s still Fred and Scott McTominay. Fred lost his head as he sometimes does and got sent off.
The only other real options are Donny van de Beek, a man whose United career remains stuck in first gear, and the untested youngster James Garner.
If there is to be palpable improvement on last season’s disappointments, United will need a top class midfielder.
Fred lost his head and was sent off during Saturday’s defeat to Atletico Madrid in Oslo
They will no doubt return for one final push for De Jong, reportedly offering to make him their highest-paid player on £450,000-a-week.
If that doesn’t work, they may consider Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who could come in as a dynamic box-to-box midfielder. That isn’t precisely what they need but it would be an upgrade.
Trouble is, Lazio will demand top dollar for Milinkovic-Savic, perhaps as much as £60m and he’ll need some time to get up to speed with Ten Hag’s way of doing things.
Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic could be an alternative option to De Jong in United’s midfield
RASHFORD AND SANCHO ARE JUST WHAT TEN HAG NEEDS
Ten Hag does like a winger who isn’t afraid to make full use of their speed and trickery, to take defenders on and get to the byline to deliver a cross.
He’ll have been impressed by the performances of Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho during the tour games. Both found the net and looked to have confidence restored after a tricky 2021-22 campaign.
It’s looks as though Ten Hag will work closely with both of them and bring their game on, empowering them to do what comes naturally and get on the front foot at every opportunity.
Both should see improved returns in the season ahead and hopefully they can stay fit. Sancho missed the Atletico game because of sickness but should be available for the Brighton game.
United forwards Jadon Sancho (left), Anthony Martial (middle) and Marcus Rashford all found some promising form during the pre-season matches
Ten Hag will also have realised that Anthony Elanga is a good alternative to Sancho on the right side and the 20-year-old will be eager to kick on following his breakthrough last season.
It’s the one department where United are genuinely well stocked. Release the handbrake that seemed to be holding them back under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick last season and they should perform.
That’s just as well because, as already discussed, United need a drastic uptick in goals scored.
Rashford – like many others – struggled last season but looks set to hit the ground running
They managed only 57 in 38 Premier League games in 2021-22, significantly less than all their rivals. Take away Ronaldo’s 18 league strikes and they would have been in serious trouble.
Rashford only score four league goals all season, Sancho three and Elanga two. All need to step up their game.
MALACIA SHOULD GET THE NOD AHEAD OF SHAW
It’s hard to read too much into Ten Hag’s left-back selections over the weekend because Luke Shaw was ruled out through illness.
However, on the evidence of pre-season as a whole, it’s highly likely new signing Tyrell Malacia will start ahead of the England man against Brighton.
Malacia, a £13m signing from Feyenoord, did well during his tour appearances with his crossing especially on point.
New signing Tyrell Malacia got the nod at left-back on tour and will challenge Luke Shaw
It’s an area in need of some improvement at United, who scored infrequently from set-pieces last season and often because the delivery wasn’t up to scratch.
Plenty of eyebrows were raised when United went out and signed another left-back – they also have Alex Telles – but it’s all in the interests of healthy competition.
Malacia’s arrival will hopefully have the desired effect of spurring on Shaw, especially with an England World Cup spot to work towards in the first three months of the season.
Shaw was the first choice on the left side of defence but will have to impress the new manager
IT’S ONLY RIGHT TO PUT FAITH IN MAGUIRE
One of Ten Hag’s first acts was to put full faith in Harry Maguire, confirming the much-maligned defender will remain as United’s captain.
That was rewarded with a series of composed performances during the tour despite a section of United’s Australian support seizing their opportunity to jeer him.
It vindicated Ten Hag’s show of faith and Maguire’s spot in the back line looks secure enough for now despite his troubles last season and the signing of Lisandro Martinez.
Ten Hag wasted little time in placing his faith in captain Harry Maguire ahead of the season
In fact, Ten Hag shifted Maguire from the left to the right-sided centre-back position in order to better accommodate the left-footed Martinez.
Yet against Atletico, he went with Victor Lindelof alongside Maguire in a reprisal of last season’s first choice duo, with Martinez partnering Raphael Varane on Sunday.
Ten Hag will have realised quickly that Maguire needed his shattered confidence repairing and that can only be achieved by giving him a run of games, not by stripping him of the armband and dropping him to the bench.
Lisandro Martinez was signed for £55m from Ajax and will be looking to nail down a place
ERIKSEN CAN OFFER REAL COMPETITION TO FERNANDES
The general consensus was that Christian Eriksen had been signed as a back-up to Bruno Fernandes in the No 10 position, someone nice to bring off the bench when United are chasing the game.
But the Dane’s performance in the game against Atletico was good enough to suggest he deserves to be something more important than a mere squad player.
That 21 minutes as a replacement for Martial followed an appearance in a behind closed doors friendly against Wrexham in which he found the net. He then played an hour on Sunday.
Christian Eriksen looks like he can offer real competition to Bruno Fernandes in the No 10 role
Fernandes was a favourite under Solskjaer and had a transformative effect after they signed him in January 2020 – but Ten Hag may have different ideas.
There may be a way of fitting both into United’s midfield but that’s likely to leave them exposed defensively.
Fernandes is most likely to begin the season there but Eriksen offers a point of difference creatively and will push the Portuguese hard for his place.
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
Ten Hag also has a strong record of bringing on academy graduates from his time at Bayern Munich and Ajax.
So he will be encouraged to see a promising crop of young players to develop at Old Trafford in the months and years ahead.
A good few of them were given a fair audition in Thailand and Australia, with a few giving the manager some food for thought.
Youngster Zidane Iqbal put in some impressive cameo performances during pre-season
Zidane Iqbal looked lively in a couple of the games, while Charlie Savage held his own even if that clip of Ten Hag yelling at him for not offering David de Gea an outlet went viral.
Garner is back at Old Trafford following a promotion-winning season at Nottingham Forest in which he played a big part in their promotion to the Premier League.
Alejandro Garnacho is also one to watch, while Amad Diallo will have been chuffed to get on the scoresheet against Rayo Vallecano.
Some will go out on loan out of necessity but Ten Hag will need to deepen the reserves in certain parts of the field and we can expect to see plenty more of some of these kids with his encouragement.
Amad Diallo pounces to score United’s goal in the draw with Rayo Vallecano on Sunday
THE SQUAD NEEDS TO BE WHIPPED INTO SHAPE… BUT THEY ARE RECEPTIVE
Ten Hag must have feared inheriting a group of players unwilling to take on board his ideas and put in the hard yards.
That hasn’t been the case. Everyone in the squad has been receptive to his way of doing things and anyone giving an interview seems to be extolling the virtues of extra fitness work and how much they’re enjoying life under the new boss.
It could just be a toeing of the party line but United’s performances in their first three pre-season games suggested they’re all enjoying a new lease of life.
The last few friendlies have been harder going but Ten hag probably learned more from those performances than the one-sided ones.
Most of the United players seem to be receptive to Ten Hag’s ideas on the training ground
It didn’t take a great deal to knock United’s confidence last season and nobody responded well to Rangnick, writing him off almost immediately as a mere interim.
Ten Hag has restored authority to the dressing room, even dropping one player for twice turning up late and vetoing a photo opportunity on the set of Aussie soap Neighbours because it was a needless distraction.
The viral clips of him giving players dressings down on the touchline or in training only play up to the image of someone who will whip United into shape.
The players, in return, need to trust in his process, even when things go a little wrong as they inevitably will during the season.
UNITED’S GLOBAL REACH IS ENORMOUS
A man as meticulous as Ten Hag would have anticipated the whirlwind that is a United tour to the Far East and Australia. Their fanbase is enormous all over the world and if Ajax are famous, this is several levels higher.
Ten Hag and the players were swamped by fans everywhere they went in Bangkok and played in front of two big crowds at the 100,000-capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Ten Hag got an idea of the enormity of Manchester United during their pre-season travels
United’s huge fanbase in Norway turned out for the Atletico match and Sunday’s attendance for Ten Hag’s first home fixture in charge was certainly healthy.
The sheer massiveness of United globally took some of Ten Hag’s predecessors – notably David Moyes – aback but he seems to have taken it all in his stride.
He has performed what media duties were expected of him but also ensured there was sufficient time to get his ideas across on the training ground.
Now he just needs to restore smiles to those faces once again.