Manchester United Premier League 2022-23 season preview, predictions: Sancho stars, Ronaldo eventually leaves

    A year ago we had been looking ahead to a Manchester United season that was supposed to be about title chases and high drama. The latter was delivered in spades but the former never materialised. 2021-22 was the year United went backwards, by some measures further than they ever had in the Premier League era.

    Now they start the long march back to the top of the English game with a new manager and a squad that is likely to change significantly over the coming years. Here’s what we’re expecting in the short term.

    A slow but steady start for Ten Hag

    For the first time since Louis van Gaal — perhaps even longer — Manchester United have a figure in the dugout who could feasibly make a profound impact on his players as both a coach and manager. Jose Mourinho got results on occasion at the cost of the dressing room, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer united the dressing room but his tactical plans often felt like little more than buzzwords and counters, Ralf Rangnick tried to implement something resembling modern football before realising it was too big a job for an interim manager. 

    In Erik ten Hag, United now have a man at the helm who has shown an aptitude for both people management and tactical principles that will, theoretically at least, allow those above him to build a squad to a predetermined plan. One can already see the outline of that in their summer business. It might be easy to decry their recruitment as getting the Eredivise gang back together (Lisandro Martinez came direct from Ajax, Christian Eriksen and midfield target Frenkie de Jong were both schooled there whilst Tyrell Malacia was at Feyenoord) but they all appear to be of a type, technically proficient and fleet of foot, able to swiftly slot into a more possession oriented tactical approach.

    This does not quite have the feeling of last summer, where United were clearly acquiring talent but the fit looked to be awkward. Whether in a more classic 4-3-3 or the 4-2-3-1 that Ten Hag often favored at Ajax, it is relatively easy to see where these players all slot in. Eriksen could serve as a wide playmaker in the same fashion that Dusan Tadic did on occasion or indeed his presence could allow Bruno Fernandes to pick up that same gauntlet. Malacia’s early preseason outings have shown a player who offers an overlapping presence on the left that can bring plenty out of United’s cast of inside forwards. Martinez might be a bit on the short side for a Premier League center back but his aggression would appear to mitigate that issue; any player that won more than 60 per cent of his aerial duels against the likes of Erling Haaland in the Champions League last season might just be ok.

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    Strong new signings coupled with signs of growth from the likes of David de Gea and Jadon Sancho — more on whom shortly — augurs well for the Ten Hag project in the round. But it will take a lot of time, not least because there remain almighty gaps to plug. The stylistic fit of Cristiano Ronaldo with a more modern system is, to put it mildly, debatable whilst United’s £50m right back Aaron Wan Bissaka is not one to overlap. Most significant of all is a midfield with more holes in it than Maasdam cheese, particularly when it comes to the players that can set the tempo in build up. As the manager himself acknowledged this summer, finding the right addition will not be easy.

    “We are looking for a player who can play in the holding midfield position,” he said in July, “but it has to be the right one. There are not many in that position capable of the level we demand.” Ten Hag went on to to state that if the right player could not be found he would look to train up one of his current players. At the time of writing there is no sign of a breakthrough in United’s pursuit of De Jong, who would rather stay at Barcelona but may find himself pushed out. If that move is unsuccessful the most intriguing storyline of United’s season might just be who could be honed into that deep lying playmaker. A wild proposal might just be that Eriksen, flanked by a ball winner in Fred or Scott McTominay, might be the best alternative.

    That rather paints the picture of where United are. While Manchester City and Liverpool have multiple top tier options in key positions and the north London clubs are deepening their squads there are still foundational pieces to be laid at Old Trafford. Unlike some of those who have proceeded him, Ten Hag is a manager who it can be assumed will have an end point in mind. It will take a lot longer than one season to get there. One question we cannot answer for now is whether those who appointed the new head coach will have the stomach to wait things out.

    Ronaldo returns… but not for long

    As the new season looms large it seems unlikely that Ronaldo will get the move he craves to a Champions League club. Atletico Madrid would now appear to be the last avenue available to him after a cruel summer for one of the game’s greatest ever goalscorers, though even they seem largely uninterested in doing the work of unloading the wages that would allow them to afford him. Chelsea thought about it long and hard before concluding he was not for them. Bayern Munich didn’t need anywhere near as much time. Indeed it has been such a challenge to find Ronaldo a new home in Europe that Piers Morgan seems to have enlisted himself as an aide to agent Jorge Mendes.

    Indeed the only concrete interest in the 37 year old so far has come from Saudi Arabia. Sources have told CBS Sports that there are two clubs in the Pro League who are prepared to offer enticing packages to bring him to the Middle East. Crucially neither side has conceded defeat in that particular chase even after reports earlier in the window that he had definitively turned down those proposals. 

    It is easy to see the logic for Ronaldo, who missed the club tour of Australia and Thailand for personal reasons, to stay in Europe for now. The last missing trophy in his collection glistens on the horizon and he will want to head to the World Cup having been tested at the highest level. But beyond that tournament this relationship with United cannot really work. The rebuild is coming and the Premier League’s most infrequently pressing striker cannot be an easy fit into it. Meanwhile at least one of the current avenues out of Old Trafford would still be open to him in January; sources close to one of the Saudi clubs who are trying to sign him have indicated that their offer would still be on the table after the World Cup if his future remains unresolved.

    For now his club insist publicly that they want him to stay and to see out the last year of his contract. After all they only have their No.7, last season’s top scorer, and Anthony Martial to lead the line. In part United’s stance can simply be read as an acknowledgement that they have other fish to fry before they try to recruit their center forward for the long term.

    But will United really feel so strongly about keeping him when he and the tactical plan chafe against each other? Instead, it seems more plausible that the World Cup, so often viewed as a natural end point for the greats, brings with it a moment where United and Ronaldo can make a relatively clean break.

    Sancho shines as he was supposed to

    If any of the predictions from last season aged poorly — and several did — it might just have been Jadon Sancho’s candidacy for Player of the Season, a take that was freezing cold whilst the summer sun was still beating down on the U.K. Some level of downturn in production had been expected after leaving Borussia Dortmund for Manchester but a player who had averaged a 0.61, 0.71 and 0.64 expected goals (xG) and expected assists (xA) per 90 Bundesliga minutes in the three years prior was not one you would have seen returning 0.33 xG + xA. A season that began with talk he could be a key cog in a title challenging United ended with him out of the England squad, the bout of tonsillitis that brought his campaign to an early end adding to the sense that 2021-22 had been his annus horribilis.

    Perhaps though, Sancho’s struggles — which did ease as the months wore on — should not have been as surprising as they were. After all at Dortmund his best form as a right winger had been with a front-footed wing back such as Achraf Hakimi on his outside shoulder. They stretched the defense out wide, opening up space for Sancho to drive at the penalty area. On one occasion he could go to to the byline and cut back for Erling Haaland, the next drive at goal and strike a shot. United’s approach, meanwhile, was to leave him on an island wide on the right, Wan-Bissaka offering precious little support to attacks. Sancho had shone no less brightly in broken play, with his new side attacks were being built at a ploddingly slow pace, handing him the ball against a set defense and challenging him to break them down. In a new, arguably more competitive league he was asked to do more than he had been beforehand. Needless to say, it was not an environment conducive to success.

    With options either side of him, Sancho attacks the Crystal Palace byline, from where he will deliver a dangerous low cross

    In preseason that appears to have changed. Three goals from four games made him the stand out performer, but it is not end product that counts in these games so much as what United are trying to do to get Sancho and others in positions to make those goal contributions. Ten Hag will be pleased that moments like that in the image above came along so frequently for the 22 year old. With a full back outside of him and teammates infield he can do what he wants. Generally he tends to make the right decision, on this occasion darting away from Luka Milivojevic and Kilian Philips. (admittedly not the sternest of opposition).

    He crashes a low cross to the near post, where if Victor Lindelof had been able to wrap his boot more effectively around the ball he might have scored. On the occasion above it is Malacia alongside Sancho, but there have been plenty of opportunities afforded to Diogo Dalot, the sort of player who would look to go beyond his winger. A bit of pace injected into the play and a teammate who suits his qualities, might that be all it takes to draw the best out of Sancho? If so, Solskjaer will surely be kicking himself.

    Bold predictions

    • Premier League finish: 6th
    • Top scorer: Bruno Fernandes
    • Player of the season: Christian Eriksen
    • Something unexpected: United begin to build a cohesive and credible football executive group in support of Ten Hag

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