Top-four must not be Man Utd's ceiling - Erik ten Hag has to start challenging for the Premier League title

Man Utd composite 2022-23
The Red Devils are back in the Champions League but they cannot pat themselves in the back - they must mount a serious title challenge next season

Manchester United are back in the Champions League but they are not yet back where they belong. Finishing in the top four in the Premier League is a solid start for Erik ten Hag, especially given the mess he had inherited from interim manager Ralf Rangnick.

The coach has also won the Carabao Cup and could yet add the FA Cup to round off a stellar debut campaign, although there is the small matter of facing Pep Guardiola's formidable Manchester City side in the final.

But under Sir Alex Ferguson, a top-four finish and a domestic cup would not be classed as a great season. The likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus would not see it that way either.

Too often in the last decade, United have let a top-four finish go to waste and have gone backwards instead of forwards the following campaign. They cannot afford to make the same mistake again this time.

  1. Time for a title challenge

    Time for a title challenge

    United's 4-1 win over Chelsea sealed their place in the Premier League's top four for only the fifth time in the last decade. However, they have only finished in the top two twice in that period, in 2017/18 under Jose Mourinho and 2020/21 under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

    But on both occasions they were barely involved in a title race. In 2017/18 Man City took an 11-point lead over United after winning the Manchester derby in December and ended up taking a record 100 points that campaign, while the Red Devils finished on 81 points.

    The 2020/21 season was more exciting and there was at least a brief title race, with United moving top in January after beating Burnley. But they lasted just two weeks at the Premier League summit, with City unseating them after United's limp 2-1 defeat to Sheffield United, who finished bottom that season. The Red Devils ended that campaign a whopping 12 points off City.

    It might be optimistic to envisage United toppling Pep Guardiola's side next year but they should at least be able to put up a fight. No one saw Arsenal's title challenge coming and United are in a better position now than the Gunners were this time last year.

  2. Back Ten Hag in the summer

    Back Ten Hag in the summer

    United made a big mistake in the summer of 2018 by not giving Mourinho the funds to land a top centre-back, and the only new players to arrive were Fred and Diogo Dalot. One year later they went on to sign Harry Maguire for £80 million, having rejected Mourinho's plans to sign him for £60 million.

    They invested more in 2021 by signing Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo, but the much- vaunted return of the Portuguese - which was not planned for - ended up holding the team back.

    United know exactly what they need to do in the summer: sign a proven centre-forward, a young sweeper-keeper to compete with David de Gea and an attacking midfielder.

    They are already in discussions to sign Mason Mount and are interested in a move for Anderlecht 'keeper Bart Verbruggen. Meanwhile, Goncalo Ramos and Harry Kane are serious striker options.

    Despite the uncertainty of the club's impending takeover, Ten Hag simply has to be backed financially if United are to go beyond their current top-four ceiling.

  3. Get business done early and stay clear of Neymar

    Get business done early and stay clear of Neymar

    The club should steer well clear of signing Neymar, however. Ronaldo's return should serve as a warning against signing glamorous superstars who are way past their prime and the club do not need any more injury-prone forwards.

    The club are asking the right questions but getting an early deal over the line has often proved problematic in the past. Last season, Antony was signed on transfer deadline day while Casemiro was brought in after the defeats to Brighton and Brentford.

    New signings work best once they have had time to gel with their team-mates - Casemiro did not start to excel until around October - so getting business done early should also be a priority.

  4. Be more clinical in front of goal
    Getty Images

    Be more clinical in front of goal

    Buying a new striker is key to mounting and maintaining a title challenge next season because United have simply not scored enough goals this season.

    The heavy win over Chelsea was their biggest victory league victory of the season and the only occasion in which they have scored four goals. They have only scored three goals in five matches, one of which was the 6-3 thrashing by Manchester City.

    Ten Hag's side have the lowest goal count of any team in the top six and among the top 10 teams in the Premier League, only Aston Villa and Fulham have scored fewer.

  5. Other forwards need to step up
    Getty Images

    Other forwards need to step up

    Marcus Rashford has been responsible for a huge chunk of United's goals this season, with 17 in the league and 30 in all competitions, his best ever tally.

    But his attacking team-mates have fallen well short. The £85 million signing Antony has scored four times in the league, only once since October, which is simply not good enough for a player who has played practically every game. Jadon Sancho should be improving on his five goals and three assists while Anthony Martial, if he can stay fit and if he remains at the club - neither of which are guaranteed - can surely do better than his six goals.

    Even Bruno Fernandes, who has been one of the team's best performers throughout the season, should have scored more than his seven goals, given how involved he is in the team's attacking moves.

    Big things will also be expected of Alejandro Garnacho in his first full campaign in the first team. The Argentine is a new fan favourite and should get more starting opportunities next season. Even though he has mostly been used as an impact sub, he has already looked like a star in the making.

  6. Improve away results - especially against the top sides
    Getty Images

    Improve away results - especially against the top sides

    United's home form has been outstanding in all competitions, and if they beat Fulham in their final game on Sunday they will have finished the season with 48 points, equalling their best home record since 2012/13. Only champions City have taken more points at home than Ten Hag's side.

    It will be difficult to maintain that record next season - but their main aim must be to improve on their dire away results. United have dropped 30 points on the road this season and their record against the main competitors is even more dismal.

    Of a potential 27 points against other teams in the top 10, United have taken just four. They have lost to every team in the top six and often badly, getting thumped 7-0 at Liverpool and 6-3 at Manchester City. Their away record has to improve next term if they want to have any hope of a title challenge.

    To do that, Ten Hag will need to work on the team's mentality and he may perhaps need to introduce the work of proven psychologists. Too often his players have simply melted in difficult atmospheres, showing no fight at Anfield, St James' Park, the Etihad and even Villa Park and the Gtech Community Stadium.