LONDON (AP) — Deep in the bowels of Wembley Stadium, Manchester United co-owner Avram Glazer strode past a group of reporters seeking an update — in fact, just any news — about the potential sale of the storied English club.
“Why are you not speaking to the fans?” came one shout.
United’s disgruntled supporters want answers.
So, surely, does Erik ten Hag.
Speaking after his team’s 2-1 loss to Manchester City in the FA Cup final, the United manager was relatively calm about his plans for this summer while the Glazer family weighs up whether to sell the club or remain in place by selling a minority stake or take up other funding options.
Qatari banker Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani and British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe have made declared bids for what could end up being the biggest ever sale of a sports team, with the price possibly reaching up to $6 billion.
So, Ten Hag was asked, does he have two plans for the offseason: one if a sale goes through and one if it doesn’t?
“I have only one plan, that is to improve this club and improve this team,” Ten Hag said. “I will fight for this, I will talk to the club about what we have to do for that, but also I have to work with my staff, with my players, to be better next season.”
Pushed on how the sale affects his planning for next season, Ten Hag said: “At this moment, I don’t want to discuss that. It’s about finalizing the season. We have to be quiet, analyze the season … set the right conclusions and take action.”
This season has shown the amount of work needed for United, indeed any team, to catch up to City.
While the win at Wembley on Saturday turned out to be narrow, there was a clear gulf between the teams in the first all-Manchester cup final, with only a contentious penalty and a late rally keeping United in touch with its dominant rival.
In the league, City — backed by the wealth of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family — won the title for the fifth time in six years and was 14 points ahead of third-place United.
With Pep Guardiola contracted to stay on for one more season, United and the rest of the league might just have to wait and hope City’s fortunes dip once the Spanish coach leaves.
There’s no doubt, however, that United is on the right track under Ten Hag, who has led the team to two domestic cup finals — winning the League Cup in February — and back into the Champions League.
That didn’t appear likely early in the season when United was losing 4-0 at Brentford and 6-3 at City.
“It’s not about (closing) the gap in the summer, or getting players in,” the Dutchman said. “We’ve been working all season, day by day, to develop the team, progress the team and I’m very proud from where we came from the start of this season.
“Remember Brentford, but also the Etihad. Now we showed today that our home win (United beat City 2-1 in January) was not a coincidence and today again maybe on another day we could have won this game.”
Ten Hag spoke of “huge decisions” and “major actions” at United in the offseason. He might have been talking about himself and his coaching staff, and not just the Glazers.
David De Gea won the Golden Glove award for the most clean sheets (17) in the Premier League, but that cannot hide the Spanish goalkeeper’s deficiencies that are holding United back. Aside from some glaring shot-stopping errors — like that blunder at West Ham last month — he clearly doesn’t have the technical ability with his feet to play in Ten Hag’s preferred style. That was also showcased against City, when he botched some clearances either side of letting a weak shot from Ilkay Gundogan get past him for what proved to be the winning goal in the 51st minute. Ten Hag refused to single out De Gea for being at fault but spoke in ominous terms when asked about the goalkeeper. “We are in the right direction — there are occasions in the game, issues in the game, that we have to improve, definitely, if you want to make the next step and win,” Ten Hag said. “It’s obvious.”
Ten Hag stuck with Harry Maguire as the club captain after arriving at United at the end of last season but the England centre back, signed for around $100 million in 2019 as the world’s most expensive defender, has slipped down the pecking order. He might be as low down as fifth in Ten Hag’s list of central defenders. It’s a big call, but Maguire might also have to be shipped out, even at a cut-price fee.
Buying a striker is United’s priority in the off-season. Ten Hag coped this season with the injury-prone Anthony Martial and on-loan Dutch striker Wout Weghorst, who scored two goals in 33 appearances — and none in the Premier League, as his striker options, with Marcus Rashford sometimes starting up front instead of on the left wing. Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Napoli’s Victor Osimhen are two potential options but United will have competition for them, if they even leave their current clubs, and might have to look elsewhere. One thing is certain, someone needs to come in.