Erik ten Hag exclusive: Manchester United manager on striker signing and overcoming past traumas
Put the calamitous start to the season and the frequent, sobering reality checks to one side and Manchester United’s first campaign under Erik ten Hag can already be filed in the ‘success’ category.
Huge strides have been taken under the Dutchman. Carabao Cup final glory ended United’s six-year craving for a trophy. The club remain on course to return to the Champions League via a top-four Premier League finish. And their continued participation in the FA Cup and Europa League could provide yet more silverware before the season is up.
United’s progress under Ten Hag is ahead of schedule and can be measured by the sense of what might have been this season, and what may still come come, that permeates throughout the club.
Those fans who hailed the return of United’s glory days had their fingers burnt by the conclusion of one of the briefest Premier League title challenges in history, but to utter Manchester United in the same sentence as the title was a sign that times are changing.
Beyond this season Ten Hag is tasked with sculpting a future where Manchester United not only compete consistently for the Premier League but consistently win it. For those ambitions to be realized, a prolific striker, a missing piece of the jigsaw, must be acquired.
“Everyone is different, obviously, but for a striker the main thing is to score goals by any method, that is so far ahead of anything else,” Ten Hag explained to Sky Sports.
“We need a striker who scores goals because we have ability in the team to put balls in the box, so we need a striker to finish.
“We have to build a new future and we need a striker who not only scores goals but contributes by linking up play very well and pressing, which is very important.”
Who that striker should be remains up for debate, but securing a prolific marksman would insure against a repeat of Thursday’s Europa League quarter-final collapse, where Sevilla were handed an unlikely route back into a tie which should have been all-but settled in United’s favor.
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A cursory glance across the city at Erling Haaland’s exploits show just how valuable signing the right striker can be to a club’s fortunes. The Norwegian’s relentless strike rate has maintained Manchester City’s title defense when form may have suggested otherwise, ensuring their end-of-season surge has been in pursuit of the title, not merely Champions League qualification.
With Manchester United creating, and squandering, enough chances to satisfy the appetite of a striker of Haaland’s caliber, you can’t help but wonder how transformative such a signing would be on a squad plagued by their inability to consistently kill off games.
Reflecting on United’s 2-2 draw with Sevilla, Ten Hag added: “It says something about the position where we are. It still shows we need progress, especially on the psychological side of the game.
“We have to manage games better; we have to stay in games or not allow opponents to come back into games. We have to step up with certain mental strengths and certain mental standards.
“I think we have come a long way. I also think there were some traumatic experiences this group had in previous years.
“Seville was a good learning moment for us. We need to think about that and learn from those moments who has to take the lead and which standards we have to control in certain moments to avoid letting the opponent back into the game.
“The biggest teams always show composure in those moments and stick to the plan, stay in the game and find a way to bounce back. What we are capable of is bouncing back between games, now the next step is to bounce back in the game .
“If you want to get back to winning trophies, that has to be the standard you always deliver. That you manage games and get wins over the line. In many games already we have shown it, so we know we can do it because we have the evidence for it. But we have to do it, always.”
While the acquisition of a striker may be the long-term solution, with the remainder of the season to navigate answers must come from within if United’s aspirations are to be realized.
“First it has to come out of the development of the team, so we are aware that when we are dominant in a game, we have to kill the game,” Ten Hag said ahead of United’s trip to Nottingham Forest, live on great sunday. “We didn’t do that [against Sevilla] and we let the opponent back in the tie. That was not good, it’s a bad habit we have to hammer out.”
As for how that ruthless consistency is achieved, Ten Hag added: “By demanding it. We demand from the players and the players demand from each other. You do your job always to 100 percent, there are no ifs, buts or maybes, you have to deliver the performance in every circumstance.”