Manchester United

Manchester United

Premier League • England

Dan Ashworth’s Man Utd inbox: Ten Hag sack plans, replacing Casemiro, easing the financial burden…

Ryan Baldi
Dan Ashworth will have some big decisions to make at Man Utd

Dan Ashworth will have some big decisions to make at Man Utd

Manchester United are reportedly edging closer to appointing Dan Ashworth to spearhead their rejuvenation project under co-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe, with Newcastle’s pursuit of a replacement for the sporting director seen as a sign that the protracted negotiations over the sought-after administrator could soon be concluded.

And Ashworth’s Old Trafford arrival can’t come soon enough. Ironically, Newcastle’s top choice to replace Ashworth is Dougie Freedman, the Crystal Palace director of football whose transfer-market savvy helped mastermind United’s latest humiliation, as they were thumped 4-0 at Selhurst Park on Monday evening.

That result left the Red Devils eighth in the table, putting them on course for their lowest-ever Premier League finish, and with a minus-three goal difference. It was the 16th time United have lost in all competitions this season, the club’s highest number of defeats since in a single campaign since 1978.

Here are four matters Ashworth must address in order to drag United out of their malaise.

Tackle the Ten Hag issue

The most obvious question mark hanging over Old Trafford at present is the future of Erik ten Hag.

The Dutchman still has one year remaining on his contract, but poor results and performances this season have brought him to the brink.

Ten Hag arrived from Ajax in the summer of 2022 with a reputation for being an astute tactical thinker capable of delivering eye-catching possession-based football and a fine developer of young talent.

In his first season at the helm, a third-place Premier League finish and an EFL Cup triumph represented a more-than-respectable return and suggested Ten Hag was the man to at last drag United out of their post-Sir Alex Ferguson doldrums.

But this season has seen a stark regression. Awful luck with injuries is a mitigating factor, yet there can be no excuse for how poorly prepared United appear to be tactically on a near-weekly basis, with the same deficiencies – a lack of organisation at set pieces, huge spaces left in midfield and a catastrophic susceptibility to cut-backs – costing them time and again.

Ten Hag’s signings have been sub-standard, too. With over £400 million spent on players hand-picked by the manager, the only unqualified success story is that of Lisandro Martinez, but the Argentinian defender’s injury struggles mean he can’t be relied on. Meanwhile Antony, the Brazilian winger United paid £85 million to sign from Ten Hag’s former club Ajax, is a strong contender to be considered the worst signing in the club’s history.

If Ten Hag is sacked at the end of the season – or even before it – he can have no complaints. It could be argued, likewise, that Dutchman deserves a full season under INEOS’ operation of the club. The decision of whether to stick with the manager or move on – and, in the case of the latter, who should replace Ten Hag – is the most pressing task waiting in Ashworth’s inbox.

READ MORETen Hag sack: Man Utd star’s brother rips apart ‘boring’ tactics as Sir Alex Ferguson ally offers excuse

Replace Casemiro

Casemiro’s performance in the 4-0 defeat to Palace was so bad that it not only brought into question his United career but his future at the top level.

“I think Casemiro, I am being deadly serious, should know himself tonight as an experienced player, that he should only have another three games at the top level, the next two league games and the [FA Cup] final, and thinking I need to go to the MLS or Saudi,” said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher in his post-match analysis.

The Brazilian midfielder – who was filling in at centre-back at Selhurst Park – was to varying degrees culpable for all four palace goals. And it was not a one-off stinker. The four-time Champions League winner has aged in dog years since arriving at Old Trafford from Real Madrid in a £70 million deal two years ago. A strong showing in his first six months with the club has been followed be a steep decline, as his mobility has faded and his decision-making has eluded him.

United have several orders of business in the transfer market this summer, but none is more pressing than the need to find a replacement for Casemiro in central midfield. The 32-year-old four-time Champions League winner can no longer be considered a viable long-term partner for 19-year-old Kobbie Mainoo. Ashworth must consult his famous database of potential targets and select a suitable heir for the once-great midfielder.

Structured recruitment

If Ten Hag is dispensed with before the start of next season, his successor with face a similar issue the Dutchman and those who came before him have had to contend with – the new manager will be handed a squad full of players signed by the previous boss.

Perhaps a hangover from the days when the club had an all-powerful figurehead In Ferguson, or more likely a result of poor organisational leadership under the Glazers, United have continued to subscribe to an antiquated approach to transfers that sees the manager taking a lead role in identifying and selecting targets.

Nowadays, most elite clubs operate under a structure in which a club vision is adhered to when it comes to transfer business, with a director of football overseeing the process of scouting potential targets and negotiating transfers, with the manager – or head coach – only one part of a bigger machine. This ensures that any turnover in the dugout does not require a costly upheaval of the playing staff.

The fact United want to hire Ashworth – and have already appointed Jason Wilcox as technical director – suggests the club’s new decision makers are moving swiftly to a similarly modern set-up. It will be Ashworth’s job to oversee its implementation.

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Common sense with contracts

Another factor complicating United’s recent transfer dealings is the size of the contracts they have handed to new arrivals. Casemiro – the club’s highest earner on a reported £400,000 a week – is a prime example, but he is just the latest in a long line of players United have bought, given an enormous salary and then been unable to sell.

So desperate have United been to attract star names to resuscitate the post-Ferguson era that they threw money at the likes of Alex Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Angel di Maria, Jadon Sancho and Harry Maguire.

Then when these players inevitably underperformed amid the chaotic lack of structure and continuity at the club, they became extremely difficult to sell, as no other club was willing to match their exorbitant salaries. United have been faced with the choice to either subsidise the wages of an unwanted former star – effectively paying them to play for someone else – or hold on to them as any remaining market value plummets.

Unless a sizeable offer comes in from the Saudi Pro League, this scenario will play out again with Casemiro.

It’s vital to United’s future financial health and ability to refresh their squad unincumbered in years to come that Ashworth resists the temptation to overpay for big-name signings, even if it means missing out on a target or two.