With each passing day, Erik ten Hag’s work becomes more and more difficult.
On Thursday night, Manchester United battled their way to an uninspiring 1-1 draw with Chelsea at Old Trafford, snuffing out virtually any lingering hopes of a top four finish.
After defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal, it was another indication that Ralf Rangnick’s caretaker appointment did little to close the gap to traditional rivals United.
Few would argue that this dysfunctional team needs a major overhaul this summer, with ten Hags built almost from the ground up.
There have been talks of United having to get rid of more than 10 players, either permanently or on loan, but that surely won’t happen in a single transfer window.
Ten Hag has signed a three-year contract, with an option on a fourth, and as things stand it may take most of that time to restore the shine to the Old Trafford club, who will end a fifth consecutive season without a trophy.
The new coach outlined his plans for the future, with nearly $250 million pledged for new signings, a budget on potential sales.
At his current club Ajax, ten Hag is not known for spending millions on players, preferring instead to hone young talent from the club’s academy or bring in untapped signings.
It’s not something that will be offered at Old Trafford. The Dutchman takes over a broken squad that needs to be fixed immediately. Manchester United currently have the highest average age among traditional Premier League Big Six clubs (27.6), slightly above Manchester City’s 27.5 and Liverpool’s 27.1.
This is perhaps the only comparison in which United are close to Europe’s top two teams. Elsewhere, there are none at all.
In order to implement his plans, the 52-year-old has to give up around 12 players, according to incumbent Rangnick.
On the front line are those whose contracts are about to expire, including Paul Pogba, while Edinson Cavani, Jesse Lingard, Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata are also heading for the exit door.
The club are ready to listen to offers from others, such as Eric Bailly, Phil Jones, Andreas Pereira, Lee Grant and Anthony Martial, currently on loan at Sevilla.
Other cases are not so clear.
For starters, there’s the question of how to deal with Harry Maguire, who struggles for form and confidence, and faces pressure from critics and fans alike. It remains to be seen if ten Hag stays with the England centre-half.
Marcus Rashford has long been seen as central to any bright future for United, but in recent months he has turned into a vortex of poor form and apathy.
Then there’s the curious case of Cristiano Ronaldo, who is something of a few pundits’ reason for United’s troubles, while still arguably remaining the club’s player of the season.
It has been reported that ten Hag does not see him as part of United’s future, and the Portuguese superstar will likely jump before being pushed.
One of the few beneficiaries of Ten Hag’s appointment could be Donny van de Beek, with the Everton loanee reuniting with the coach who oversaw his best form at Ajax.
A complication for ten Hag is that he would not only have to turn the team’s situation around in the short term, but also do so by playing the thrilling attacking football that the club’s fans demand.
Bringing in the right players will be key, and he has already been linked with Wolves midfielder Ruben Neves, Benfica striker Darwin Nunez and Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips.
Other reported targets, such as West Ham’s Declan Rice and Tottenham’s Harry Kane, may prove financially out of reach.
Ten Hag will likely look for players he has worked with before and trusts. Ajax winger Antony Matheus dos Santos and defender Lisandro Martinez are expected to be targets, while Juventus centre-half Matthijs de Ligt, who played under ten Hag at the Dutch club, could also be open to a meeting.
The Dutchman will have a select group of young players at the club that he will love to develop as he has with so many others at Ajax.
Jadon Sancho is already an established talent at Old Trafford and will certainly be central to the new manager’s planning. Meanwhile, Tunisia’s Hannibal Mejbri, Argentina’s Alejandro Garnacho and England U21 international Tim Garner, on loan at Nottingham Forest, could all have a bright future under ten Hag.
For now, it looks like a hard core, mainly Bruno Fernandes, Raphael Varane, David de Gea and Sancho, are the cornerstone of the club’s new project, with Scott McTominay, Luke Shaw, Fred and Anthony Elanga also expected to escape the slaughter.
There doesn’t appear to be many solid foundations as Manchester United embark on the biggest rebuilding job in their recent history.
For ten Hag, time is already running out. The hard work begins in the summer.