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Why Manchester United need a big clear-out to become genuine title contenders

Harry Maguire on the Manchester United substitutes' bench. Maguire is one of the big names who may have to leave to Old Trafford to help Erik ten Hag's rebuilding job. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire© PA


The worry for Manchester United was not what happened on the pitch against Premier League leaders Arsenal on Sunday. They may have lost but this was an epic contest – finally – of two grand old clubs on their way back. It could have gone either way. United are competitive again. Defeat did not change the view that Erik ten Hag is doing an impressive job.

No, the concern must be the substitutes’ bench. The strength, undeniably, lay with Arsenal, who have themselves been fretting whether their squad is strong enough to sustain an unlikely title challenge. Yet they had more depth, variation and experience than United, who, arguably, have one of the weakest squads among the “Big Six”.

Ten Hag had Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof and Fred – three players for whom United paid an eye-watering £170 million (€193m) in total, but who will not affect the game or are central to the manager’s plans.

​After that? Alejandro Garnacho (18), Facundo Pellistri (21), Anthony Elanga (20), reserve left-back Tyrell Malacia and 17-year-old midfielder Kobbie Mainoo. That is just not enough.

When the pressure was on in the final 20 minutes United had little to turn to. Expensive players Casemiro, Anthony Martial, Diogo Dalot, Jadon Sancho and Donny van de Beek were out for a variety of reasons, but only the first of those is crucial to Ten Hag (arguably followed by the next two).

This is a situation which is the result of years of complacency, terrible planning, poor team-building and blind panic under a succession of underachieving managers. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been wasted and it will take time for Ten Hag and football director John Murtough to unpick this mess.

United have undoubtedly backed Ten Hag. So dire was the state of affairs he inherited that he persuaded them to vastly overspend their budget last summer – the consequence of which is being felt during this transfer window and, potentially, the next one also.

Despite suggestions that United had long tracked Casemiro it was a move Ten Hag effectively forced through once the cheaper deal for Adrien Rabiot collapsed – and they only moved for him because they could not persuade Frenkie de Jong to leave Barcelona.

Still, it has been £60 million (€68m) well spent. Casemiro has been a resounding success. Another huge plus has been Lisandro Martinez, who cost €60 million.

Far less successful – so far – is another deal Ten Hag demanded and which is having a significant ripple effect: the £86 million (€98m) signing of Antony from Ajax. That transfer is looking incredibly expensive and, damagingly, also affected the budget available to Ten Hag.

Some of those close to Ten Hag urged him to walk away from Antony and instead go for Cody Gakpo, who would have cost around €45 million – less than half as much – but he insisted on Antony. Once Cristiano Ronaldo was gone, Ten Hag then wanted Gakpo in the January window, but United did not have the money and Liverpool swooped.

United were not able to do the deal this month and instead have had to go for a cheaper, short-term option with the incongruous loan signing of Wout Weghorst.

The ownership of United is likely to change this spring but it will probably have little impact on the money available to Ten Hag. Qualifying for the Champions League and improving the club’s income will have a greater effect because United are paying for their previous overspending - they still owe £300 million (€342m) in transfer instalments. There are also UEFA’s new financial sustainability rules to comply with.

As with Chelsea, who were the only top-flight club to outspend United last summer and have carried that on at an astonishing rate this window, there needs to be a major clear-out.

If United can do what they have failed to do previously – sell well – they could give Ten Hag a chance to accelerate the changes he needs to make. Maguire is expected to go in the summer, Van de Beek has to surely also leave, Aaron Wan-Bissaka has improved but not enough, as has Fred, while it would be no surprise to see Martial go. But can buyers be found?

​United are acutely aware they need to offer Ten Hag as much support as they can and are trying to do that. The problem is they are paying a heavy price for previous mistakes and that is clearly affecting what he can do. The bench he named against Arsenal only served to highlight that even more. It showed there is much work still to be done and, maybe, is a reality check.

United fans were daring to dream there might be a title challenge. Instead it showed the necessity of qualifying for the Champions League, improving the finances and giving Ten Hag a chance to bolster his squad.

The good news for United is he is not only capable but understands the situation.

But they need to back him in what will be a huge summer ahead and one in which they must capitalise on the momentum Ten Hag has given them.

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