‘The best thing that has happened today is the season has finished… it has been horrible, a very bad season in all ways.’
But for Erik ten Hag, sat in the stands at Selhurst Park to watch his new team in person for the first time, the hard work is only just getting started. And, boy, is there a lot of hard work ahead.
The new Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag looks unimpressed as he watches the team lose 1-0 at Crystal Palace on the final day of the Premier League season on Sunday
United slumped to their sixth consecutive away defeat in the league but still secured sixth
The Dutch coach, who has accepted the challenge of rebuilding United into trophy contenders from their lowest ebb in decades, sat impassively as he watched the action and refused to comment to the press pack immediately afterwards.
But his mind would have been whirring with observations – probably more negative than positive – and fizzing with ideas on how to drag United out of their present malaise as he gets down to work this week.
Here’s a few things Ten Hag will have learned from Sunday’s match as he watched United in the flesh for the first time.
First impressions of Lindelof are not good at all
We already know that the likes of Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Edinson Cavani are on their way out of Old Trafford and they’ll have already said their farewells.
A number of other players are likely to be on the transfer list once the window opens. But for everyone else, Sunday was an audition in front of the new manager and a good opportunity to impress.
Unfortunately for Victor Lindelof, he succeeded only in strengthening the case for a new centre-half to be signed at the earliest opportunity.
Victor Lindelof’s performance again underlined the urgent need for a new centre-back signing
In the first-half, he was on the halfway line trying and failing to mark Odsonne Edouard when a long ball sailed over him and allowed Jeffrey Schlupp to run into a huge gap between Harry Maguire and Diogo Dalot.
Lindelof tries to get to grips with Wilfried Zaha during the match on Sunday
United got away with it on that occasion, with David de Gea saving from Wilfried Zaha, and again a few minutes later when the keeper denied Schlupp after Lindelof was caught out again.
But when the Swede and Dalot were both caught off balance, Zaha was afforded space to pick out the bottom corner and score what proved to be the winning goal.
Overall, it was another 4/10 performance from a player who will be extremely fortunate to be in the top three United defenders next season.
Lindelof looks bereft of confidence and, like in the Brighton defeat, makes needless errors.
If not for Raphael Varane’s injury problems, he would have played less this season and when the Frenchman is fit, you can see him alongside Maguire and a new signing, possibly Ajax’s Jurrien Timber, in Ten Hag’s back three next term.
You imagine Lindelof’s performance on Sunday will have confirmed the worst fears of the incoming boss and that a new defensive signing should be a priority.
United have lost their assertiveness on the road
Sunday made it six consecutive away league defeats for United, the first time this has happened since March 1981.
They haven’t won on their travels since a 4-2 success at Leeds United on February 20, with losses to Manchester City, Everton, Liverpool, Arsenal, Brighton and Palace following.
United have conceded 17 times in these six matches and scored only twice, which is yet another damning indictment.
They’ve won just six times from 19 away league games this season and have a goal difference on the road of minus 10.
United have lost all assertiveness when playing away from home under Ralf Rangnick
There was a time when United teams would strut into away grounds and dominate proceedings from the first whistle. Now they just look callow and frightened, viewing the first goal put past them as an inevitability.
Once they have conceded, they’re liable to lose all concentration and just collapse, as happened when they conceded three goals in 11 second-half minutes at Brighton this month.
While it will take some time for United to be in a position to exactly replicate Ten Hag’s approach from Ajax, one thing they must quickly find is the same kind of intensity from the outset.
Wilfried Zaha, a former Manchester United player, scored the winning goal for Crystal Palace
They must try to blow teams away in the opening 20 minutes, something they just haven’t done this season. Just 11 of their 57 league goals have come in the opening half-hour.
Ten Hag must get them to be proactive rather than reactive.
Midfield overhaul must be the top priority
Ralf Rangnick went with Fred and Scott McTominay in midfield in south London. Not that he had much choice.
Injury has curtailed Paul Pogba’s final few weeks with the club, probably a blessing, and Matic wasn’t even in the matchday squad as he prepares to find a new club too.
Unfortunately neither Fred nor McTominay did enough to suggest to Ten Hag that there’s no need to go into the market and buy someone like Declan Rice or Frenkie de Jong in the summer.
The returning Fred brought energy to the United midfield but he didn’t win the battles
In fairness to Fred, this was his first start in six weeks and he did try to be aggressive and snap at heels as he often does. But this approach didn’t really do enough to help United win the midfield battle.
McTominay was just unable to get on top of Palace’s Schlupp and Will Hughes, meaning United lacked bite, and he capped a low key performance by not putting away a free header to equalise.
For Ten Hag, watching them only confirmed what he already knew. A central midfielder should be at the top of his summer shopping list.
Scott McTominay is tackled by Conor Gallagher during Sunday’s match at Selhurst Park
It’s an issue United have allowed to fester for a long time and with Pogba and Matic going, they need not one but probably two in that position.
The new manager will have his targets and no doubt the wheels are already in motion behind the scenes. United simply cannot start next season without a new midfield acquisition.
United desperately lack cohesion
The words of Rangnick as he signed off as United’s interim manager on Sunday night. A very accurate observation… if only he’d been in a position to do something about it.
‘I think this team could do with more cohesion. There could be more togetherness on the pitch,’ the German said.
‘This is also important when we think of new players – when the board together with the manager are thinking about new players – that we make sure they are not only players that have the quality to strengthen the squad but they are players who will invest in the team spirit.’
Ten Hag doubtless already knew about United’s lack of cohesion but Sunday confirmed it
Rangnick signs off with a record of 11 wins, 10 draws and eight defeats from his 29 games in charge. With United only finishing sixth when top four and possibly a trophy was the original aim, it’s been pretty disastrous.
When it quickly became apparent that United’s stars would not fully buy into Rangnick’s high intensity pressing game, refusing to see him as anything more than a place-filler, the drift set in.
Rangnick brought in uninspiring coaches who were looked down on by the players and became increasingly resigned to his brief reign being a disappointment.
Ten Hag will need a significant amount of time – and patience from both the fans and the board – to instil all of his ideas and turn this listing ship around.
Ten Hag delivered success to Ajax after a slow start and patience is also needed at United
At least he will have the benefit of a full summer on the training ground – his happy place – to shape the team in his image, albeit with a mammoth trip to the Far East and Australia in the middle of it.
But his most important task is to get the players that survive the summer cull to buy into his brand of football. This took some time even at Ajax and will do at United, but he mustn’t compromise.
Ten Hag will demand maximum effort from his players – and that includes the defensive effort out of possession starting with Cristiano Ronaldo in attack – and they need to embrace this in a way they didn’t with Rangnick.
On day one, Ten Hag will need to sit them down and clearly explain his vision to get United back to the top. He needs to show them he has a plan and that they should invest in it.
Fernandes is a real concern
It was another poor afternoon in what has superficially been a poor season for Bruno Fernandes. He was guilty of playing the senseless pass without properly looking that led to Zaha’s winner.
This wasn’t the first time Fernandes has gifted the opposition a goal – he did the same at Watford earlier in the season.
It may seem strange to suggest someone who has scored 10 times and contributed 14 assists has endured a bad time of it but the abiding memory will be of Fernandes flapping his arms about in frustration and ranting at officials and team-mates.
United’s talisman Bruno Fernandes has cut a frustrated and often sulky figure this season
That partly reflects the winning nature of the Portuguese playmaker – he does care – but it’s clear that Ten Hag needs to chat with him and work with him to restore his best form.
Ten Hag is going to need Fernandes to be on top of his game if United are to return to the top. Whether he plays him as a lone creator or in his favoured ‘double eight’ set-up with Donny van de Beek or a new buy, Ten Hag will look to him to inspire his forward line.
Another factor is that we are judging Fernandes on his sensational first year-and-a-half with United and so any drop-off in returns is seized upon. He also lost penalty-taking duty to Ronaldo.
That’s the benchmark Ten Hag will strive to get Fernandes back to.
The Portuguese playmaker argues with the assistant referee after a decision goes against him
Mejbri and Elanga offer hope for the future
As so often when United are low, emerging talent offers hope for the future.
Hannibal Mejbri started his first game of the season and his intense pressing put many more senior team-mates to shame. A similar thing happened when he came off the bench in the 4-0 defeat to Liverpool.
Sometimes this enthusiasm can get the better of him and he was booked for a tangle with Zaha but at least there was some fight on display from the 19-year-old.
Hannibal Mejbri started Sunday’s game and offered United plenty of aggression and intent
Elanga also started the game and raced through in the first half but was unable to finish. He did concede possession a little too easily at times but Ten Hag may see something in him that can be worked with.
He has a good record of bringing through and developing young talents, which plugs in to the way of doing things at Old Trafford.
With Shola Shoretire and Alejandro Garnacho coming on during the final 15 minutes, there was certainly a decent glimpse of the future.
Ten Hag will be able to form a more rounded impression of these youngsters when everyone reports back to Carrington for the first day of pre-season.