Erik ten Hag faces a major rebuild at Manchester United and the FA Cup final between Chelsea and Liverpool will provide the outgoing Ajax boss with plenty of food for thought
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Erik ten Hag is facing a monumental rebuild to lift Manchester United back into contention for silverware.
The Red Devils have endured a nightmare end to the season, and Ralf Rangnick’s side have seen hopes of a top-four finish disappear. United now face a fight to hold on to sixth spot, with a final-day clash at Crystal Palace to come.
United’s struggles in recent seasons has been aggravated by the sustained success of rivals Liverpool and Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s side are on course for a fourth Premier League title in five years, while the Reds remain on course for an unlikely quadruple.
Incoming Red Devils boss ten Hag could be in the stands at Selhurst Park next weekend, offering an under-fire squad a last chance to impress ahead of a summer rebuild. The outgoing Ajax boss will depart Amsterdam with another Eredivise medal already secured ahead of Sunday’s clash at Vitesse Arnhem.
Preparations for the final farewell from Ajax will likely have dominated ten Hag’s thinking in recent days, but events at Wembley will not have escaped his attention. In a repeat of this season’s Carabao Cup final, the match went to penalties after another goalless stalemate, and Kostas Tsimikas proved the hero after Alisson Becker saved Mason Mount’s sudden-death effort.
Fans and pundits have debated how much time ten Hag will be afforded before United are expected to compete with the likes of Chelsea, City and Liverpool for silverware once more. Here’s what the new Red Devils boss will have learned from Wembley as the the Reds lifted their second trophy of the season.
Liverpool dominated the early exchanges in the capital, with Luis Diaz proving a constant menace down the left flank. The Blues steadied the ship, but still finished the first-half with just 39% possession. It is far less than Tuchel’s side usually operate with, but the Blues still found a way to consistently threaten.
No-one is realistically expecting ten Hag to elevate United to the sustained elite level of either City or Liverpool within a year. However, the Red Devils will need to find a way of competing in one-off matches to avoid another humbling nine-goal aggregate defeat to Klopp’s side.
Chelsea were unable to keep pace with Liverpool and City in the Premier League title race, but held the Reds’ to two league draws while only suffering narrow defeats to the defending champions on both occasions. The incoming United boss will need to manufacture a way of staying true to his philosophy while remaining competitive against their rivals.
Luis Diaz continued his fine start to life at Liverpool and was arguably the best player on the pitch at Wembley. The January signing has made a mockery of the usual saying that players from abroad need time to settle.
Diaz’s form has led to Sadio Mane’s reinvention as a centre-forward, and seen the previously free-scoring Diogo Jota drop back to a regular bench role. Gary Neville expressed his surprise that United were never linked to the Colombian winger, with the 25-year-old having an immediate impact in English football.
The Red Devils’ own signings this season have endured mixed fortunes with Jadon Sancho struggling, injuries hampering Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo’s role constantly questioned despite his goals. United have plenty of work to do this summer, and Diaz’s latest dazzling display is the template for signings who need to hit the ground running.
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Experience is key
There was a host of superstar talent on show in the capital, with the goalscorers on both sides usually dominating the headlines. However, both Klopp and Tuchel were able to call upon the valuable experience of senior pros used to the occasion.
Antonio Rudiger and Thiago Silva provide a constant calming presence in the Blues’ defence, with the midfield trio all boasting experience of lifting some of the sport’s biggest trophies. With the deadlock yet to be broken, Klopp had no qualms in turning to 36-year-old James Milner in the centre of the park.
There will be a host of departures from Old Trafford this summer, with experienced players such as Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata, and Paul Pogba all leaving. The incoming Red Devils boss will have already drawn up a transfer shortlist, and will need to strike a fine balance between injecting ambitious young players with potential, and seasoned veterans to provide leadership both on and off the pitch.
There was no surprise in how either Chelsea or Liverpool lined up at Wembley. Klopp has remained steadfast in his 4-3-3 formation in recent seasons, with Jordan Henderson filling in for Fabinho’s anchor role and Diogo Jota instantly knowing his role after being called upon to replace Mo Salah in the first half.
Tuchel rejuvenated Chelsea within months by adopting a back three, relying upon the likes of Reece James and Marcos Alonso to provide the width for an interchangeable front three. Both managers have tasted success with their respective approaches, and both stick to these systems regardless of opposition.
United have an expensively-assembled squad but no coherent approach, with Rangnick chopping and changing in the vain hope of finding a successful formula. Regardless of whether ten Hag imports his Ajax blueprint at Old Trafford, the new Red Devils boss will have to settle upon a system quickly and recruit and train accordingly.
In years gone by, an injury to one of Liverpool’s key players on the eve of a cup final could have been a debilitating setback. The Reds are a different animal now, and the injury to Fabinho did not derail their momentum with Jordan Henderson able to step in with ease.
United legend Roy Keane told ITV Sport prior to kick-off that the Brazil international’s absence would be a ‘huge blow’, citing the need for ‘football intelligence’ in the role. It is a position which United have repeatedly been found wanting in recent seasons, with the ‘McFred’ partnership regularly coming in for criticism.
Tuchel boasts an embarrassment of riches in the role, with Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic starting and N’Golo Kante coming on from the bench. United need to recruit in several areas this summer, and ten Hag will be aware of the urgent need to address a position that has been overlooked for several seasons now.