Harness Ronaldo, liberate Sancho and win something! Erik ten Hag's key objectives at Man Utd

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Erik ten Hag's gigantic task of getting the Manchester United juggernaut back on the road is as big as it gets in a footballing sense, and one that proved too big for David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

With Manchester City and Liverpool setting a new standard and pulling further away from the chasing pack, a Premier League title challenge is beyond them, so what will success look like in Ten Hag’s first year in charge?

GOAL has had a look at seven areas that will define the Dutchman's first season at the helm.

  • Cristiano-Ronaldo(C)Getty Images

    Handling Ronaldo

    Ronaldo is absolutely pivotal to United’s hopes.

    He has been labelled the problem and the cure – but the benefits of a fully firing Ronaldo outweigh the negatives.

    He proved once again last season that he remains a devastating centre forward with 24 goals in all competitions. And after United had to watch on as targets Erling Haaland and Darwin Nunez joined City and Liverpool, they will have to rely on their veteran striker to provide the bulk of their firepower.

    But it will be about Ten Hag finding a way to fit the Portuguese into his system while accepting that he will not press in the manner of modern forwards.

    United will have to rely on other players picking up the slack in the knowledge that Ronaldo will deliver in front of goal.

    It is a delicate balancing act – and one that could be absolutely critical to Ten Hag’s first season.

  • Jadon Sancho Manchester United City 2021-22Getty

    Revitalise Rashford and Sancho

    Jadon Sancho endured an underwhelming start to life at United – going from a key member of Gareth Southgate’s England squad to a major doubt for the World Cup.

    He has it all to do to make Qatar – even after FIFA extended the squad lists to 26 players. But his priority is to kick start his United career.

    Sancho was supposed to be the iconic winger United fans have been crying out for since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure in 2009. He could still be that – and it was hardly ideal for him to see the manager who signed him get the sack a few months later.

    He had some of his brighter moments under Ralf Rangnick and Ten Hag will need to build on that.

    Marcus Rashford is another who needs some love from the new manager.

    He is also fighting for his World Cup place and wants Ten Hag to let him establish himself on the left of attack.

    He is hopeful he will finally get the sort of man-management and coaching he has lacked since bursting onto the scene six years ago.

    If Ten Hag can get the best out of Rashford and Sancho, it would breathe new life into United’s attack.

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    Champions League qualification

    The absolute minimum requirement in his first season is to get United back to the top table of European football.

    They have gone from being a club that would qualify for the Champions League on muscle memory alone, to one that has become all too used to missing out.

    The problem for Ten Hag is that the battle for the top four maybe at its most fierce this season, with a rejuvenated Tottenham under Antonio Conte, Arsenal making strides and Chelsea a regular fixture.

    Throw in West Ham – and maybe even a newly-monied Newcastle and United have a fight on their hands.

    It would be hard to make any claim that the season was a success if United miss out on the Champions League for a second year in succession.

  • Cristiano Ronaldo, Scott McTominay Manchester UnitedGetty

    A trophy… any trophy

    It is five years since United last picked up some silverware. Five long years of false dawns and empty promises, reboots and reshuffles.

    When Mourinho led them to the double of the Carabao Cup and Europa League in 2017, it felt like the good times were set to return.

    He guided them to second place the following season and the FA Cup final.

    In the meantime United have had to watch on as City and Liverpool have dominated and set new standards.

    It has been painful viewing – and while Solskjaer came within a penalty shoot-out of delivering the Europa League, United have been nowhere near close enough to lifting major honours on a regular basis.

    Ten Hag is used to picking up silverware – winning three Eredivisie titles and two Dutch Cups in his time at Ajax.

    He would join a select group of United managers if he can deliver any trophy at Old Trafford.

  • Jurgen Klopp, Pep GuardiolaGetty

    Stick it to Pep and Klopp

    It’s safe to say the majority of United fans accept a title challenge isn’t coming this season. What they want to see is progression – and, ideally, the chance for some bragging rights – no matter how fleeting.

    The comeback 3-2 win to delay City’s title celebrations in 2018 might have been Paul Pogba’s finest moment in a red shirt. The sight of the Etihad Stadium in tears truly gave United fans something to celebrate – even if they knew it was just a case of delaying the inevitable.

    Likewise, the roar when Scott McTominay sealed a 2-0 derby win in 2020 felt like it was going to take the roof off Old Trafford.

    PSG was the closest they have come to Camp Nou in 1999 since Ferguson retired.

    Football is about those moments and Ten Hag will do well to provide some early on.

    With United facing Liverpool in the third game of the season and City at the start of October, he will get the chance to do precisely that.

  • Manchester United fans 2021-22Getty Images

    Rapport with fans

    Quite apart from being a managerial genius, Klopp’s success is rooted in the fact that he just gets Liverpool.

    It is another reason why United’s hierarchy so lament their failure to convince him to take over at Old Trafford.

    His connection with supporters is something even Guardiola has not been able to replicate at City, where he has repeatedly commented on the atmosphere at the Etihad.

    Klopp has delivered a team in the finest traditions of Liverpool – one to enthuse the red half of the city.

    He has spoken out against the owners of the club when necessary – not least his opposition to the European Super League.

    He is one of them – and that buys a lot of favour.

    Solskjaer got United fans, which accounted for the loyalty shown towards him even when it was clear his reign was heading nowhere.

    Ten Hag needs to take the supporters along with him on this ride.

    Ultimately results will do for any manager – but if he listens to them and provides a voice for them on the touchline, in the boardroom and on the training ground, it could make the world of difference.

    Van Gaal and Mourinho spent too much time trying to re-educate United fans on what they should expect in the post-Ferguson era.

    But United supporters expect a winning team, attractive football and trophies – not excuses.

  • Erik ten HagGetty Images

    A defined/attractive style of football

    A major part of United’s problems over the past nine years has been a lack of consistency over their managerial appointments.

    From Moyes to Van Gaal, Mourinho and Solskjaer there have been shifts in footballing philosophy. As a result United have been left with a bloated, mishmash of a squad assembled by five different managers, dating back to Sir Alex Ferguson.

    The various brands of football have all failed to light the fuse for fans, with Van Gaal’s overly-possession-based system desperately lacking in thrills and Mourinho’s pragmatic, safety first approach looking archaic in comparison to Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp.

    Solskjaer provided more highlights in terms of rousing performances – not least against Paris Saint-Germain – but his counter-attacking system was found out against lesser sides.

    Ten Hag needs to implement his own philosophy quickly – even if it doesn’t deliver immediate results.

    Fans will be patient if they can see what he is trying to do – and believe it is actually the way forward.

    Solskjaer understood this is a club that has been brought up on edge-of-the-seat, white-knuckle football and at his best, that is what he delivered. He just wasn’t a good enough coach to turn that into a winning formula on a consistent basis.

    Van Gaal and Mourinho were just too dogmatic to divert from the philosophies that had produced success for them in the past.

    Ten Hag was appointed in large part because of his football ideology and he will need to get that over quickly.