Man Utd 2023-24 season preview: Erik ten Hag has been backed in the transfer market again - it's time for a REAL title challenge

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The Red Devils have not made a serious bid for the Premier League since 2013 but after a satisfying transfer window they have no excuses left

Last season was an uplifting campaign for Manchester United as Erik ten Hag led a dishevelled team out of the darkness of their worst ever Premier League season and towards a bright new future. The Dutchman immediately secured a return to the Champions League by leading United to third in the league, beating all their major rivals at least once.

He also delivered a first major trophy in six years by lifting the Carabao Cup and led his team to the FA Cup final. There was also an exciting Europa League campaign and a night to savour when they knocked out Barcelona. Ten Hag has certainly got United heading towards where they want to be.

They are not there yet, however, as demonstrated by a series of harrowing defeats last season to Sevilla, Manchester City, Brentford, and the 7-0 thrashing by Liverpool. Now, they need to take the next step, which means making a serious challenge for the Premier League title. United have not made a proper push for the league since they last won it in 2013 and last season their faint hopes of catching Arsenal and City ended in January.

Ten Hag has got all the targets he wanted after signing Mason Mount, Rasmus Hojlund and Andre Onana for £165 million ($209m). He has been given the authority to revamp the squad, urging the club to make a U-turn on David de Gea's contract and cutting their losses on Harry Maguire.

Now it's up to him to lead the club back to where they truly belong, which is winning the biggest trophies. The Carabao Cup will not suffice this season, and it's time for United to go all out to win a first Premier League title in 11 years and make a real statement in the Champions League.

  1. Realistic expectations
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    Realistic expectations

    Ten Hag has played down talk of winning the title and does not want to raise expectations too much, despite another big summer of spending. Given City's recent hegemony and the transfer activities of Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Newcastle, another top-four finish, while getting to another Cup final, would be seen as a good season on the domestic front.

    But it is also important how the season goes. Bowing out of any title race early on and then scraping fourth would not be enough. While overhauling City might be too much of an ask, United should at least push Guardiola's side as much as they can and remain in the race until March or April.

    The Red Devils should also be aiming to go deep in the Champions League. They have not reached the semi-finals since 2011 and only hurdled the last-16 stage twice since then. Getting into the last eight is a must.

    Turning to the players, even more will be expected of Marcus Rashford after scoring 30 goals last season. He might struggle to match that tally but there is hope that the new signings will ease the goalscoring burden on the England striker. It will also be a big season for Alejandro Garnacho, who had a stunning breakthrough last year.

    The Argentine was a superb impact substitute, scoring against Wolves, Fulham, Leeds and West Ham from the bench and almost finding an equaliser in the FA Cup final. Now the challenge is for him to be as effective when he starts games and to try and hold down a starting position.

  2. Best-case scenario

    Best-case scenario

    Whisper it quietly, but United could win the Premier League. Last year they were playing catch-up after a dreadful start but if they can get off on the right foot and build confidence early, then they have a chance.

    Pep Guardiola's side may be treble winners but they have lost two players who were crucial to that success, Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan, and it will be difficult to maintain the squad's hunger after winning practically everything.

    Ten Hag has had more than a year to assess his squad, has made big changes such as getting rid of David de Gea and Harry Maguire, and got the transfer targets he wanted. And previous signings such as Tyrell Malacia and Antony should improve in their second year with the team. Winning the title might not be likely, but it is possible.

    Winning the Champions League is likely to be a bridge too far, though, as United are not yet on the level of the likes of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid and would struggle in a two-legged tie with City. But getting to the quarter-finals, provided they get a kind draw, is more than doable.

  3. Worst-case scenario

    Worst-case scenario

    Failing to finish in the top-four would be a disaster for United after the summer they have had and all the progress they made last season. But it is entirely possible.

    They are far from the only top team to have spent big over the summer. Liverpool have also made a big statement in the transfer market, landing Alexis Mac Allister from Brighton and the exciting Dominik Szoboszlai, while they are set to further bolster their midfield. They will be determined to return to the top four, as will Chelsea.

    Newcastle will want to prove they are here to stay after qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in 20 years, while Arsenal look set to build on their thrilling last campaign after signing Declan Rice, Jurrien Timber, Kai Havertz and David Raya, spending over £230m ($291m).

    Since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, United have only once managed to secure back-to-back top-four finishes. A promising campaign has often been followed by a disappointing one. It could well happen again.

    Failing to get out of the Champions League group stage would also be hard to swallow but also can't be ruled out, given that Ten Hag's side will not be seeded in the draw.

  4. The MVP
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    The MVP

    After having one of their worst years of his career and experiencing a serious drop in confidence after shoulder surgery, Marcus Rashford turned into the player he had always threatened to be last season. The striker scored 30 goals in a season for the first time and for much of the campaign carried the team on his back.

    Rashford has been well rewarded for turning his United career around and is now the the club's highest-paid player. That will bring extra scrutiny and pressure but he has proven before that he can cope with that.

    He had to play at centre-forward for several spells last season due to Anthony Martial's injuries and Wout Weghorst's ineffectiveness and although he is due to start the campaign in the role due to Rasmus Hojlund being injured, he will be able to return to his favoured position on the left of the attack when the Dane returns.

  5. Superstar signing

    Superstar signing

    United have not been shy about spending money this summer, beginning by paying £60m ($76m) to sign Mason Mount from Chelsea. Ten Hag has admired the England midfielder ever since he saw him in action for Vitesse and thinks he is a complete player who will help United's defence and attack.

    It will also be fascinating to see how Rasmus Hojlund adapts to the Premier League and how he copes with the pressure of costing £73 million despite scoring only nine Serie A goals last season. The Dane, unfortunately, will not be able to start the campaign due to an injury.

    But the most intriguing arrival of all is Andre Onana. The Cameroonian has been described by Ten Hag as the best goalkeeper in the world with the ball at his feet and he represents a radical departure from the conservative style of David de Gea. He has the ability to transform United's style of play and make them a much more bold, attacking side.

    There are likely to be a few gaffes and avoidable goals on the way, but if United are patient and supportive of their goalkeeper he can help unlock their true potential.

  6. Wonderkid to watch
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    Wonderkid to watch

    Kobbie Mainoo was the breakout star of the pre-season tour of the US. He was hugely impressive in the win over Arsenal in New Jersey after also playing well in the friendlies against Leeds and Lyon. Unfortunately, a freak injury early in the match with Real Madrid means he will miss the start of the season.

    The 18-year-old, who won the FA Youth Cup in 2022 alongside Alejandro Garnacho, has remarkable physical strength for his age and has not looked out of place against seasoned senior professionals, either in training or on tour.

    The defensive midfielder got a small taste for first-team action last season and was named the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year. He is highly regarded by many at United and is certain to be given more chances in the first team.

  7. Feeling the pressure

    Feeling the pressure

    It can take even the best players time to adapt to a new league. But the fact that Antony finished his first season with United with as many assists in the Premier League as in the Eredivisie underlines how hard the Brazilian found his debut campaign.

    Antony made a flying start to life at Old Trafford and became the first player in the club's history to score in his first three games after netting against Arsenal, Everton and Man City. A seven-month goal drought in the league followed and he only scored once more, against Nottingham Forest.

    That naturally prompted questions about United's wisdom in paying £85m ($107m) to get him on deadline day, overpaying by around £30m. It looked like he only had one move, to cut inside from the right and whip the ball into the top corner. When it came off it was magnificent, but so often defences were able to predict his movements and could nullify him easily.

    Antony was hindered by United's lack of a striker and Hojlund, if he adapts well, should be able to help him out by giving him a focal point to play off. But the Brazilian must improve his productivity and get more goals and assists, especially with Alejandro Garnacho and Facundo Pellistri knocking on the door.

  8. Calling the shots

    Calling the shots

    Since Sir Alex Ferguson's departure 10 years ago, United have had a habit of either hiring a manager who was not good enough for the club (David Moyes, Ralf Rangnick and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer) or one who was capable but was past their best and did not fit the club at the time (Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho). But with Erik ten Hag they have both an outstanding manager and one who understands what the club is about and what it needs to do to return to its former glories.

    The Dutchman has seriously raised standards and cares about the small details. On the pre-season tour of the US he ordered that the club reduce its number of commercial days to focus more on training. He is strict on discipline, dropping Marcus Rashford for arriving 45 seconds late to a team meeting, and has also made big calls, moving on United's longest-serving player in David de Gea and then club captain Harry Maguire.

    "Good is not good enough" is Ten Hag's motto and he will be determined to take United higher in his second campaign. Now he has the goalkeeper he wanted in Andre Onana, Ten Hag's challenge will be to oversee United's transition into a team that are bold in possession and can build quickly from the back.

    It will also be intriguing to see how he puts his plan for Mason Mount into action. The manager wants to see the former Chelsea man take on more responsibility defensively, which could hamper his creativity.

  9. Gaps to fill

    Gaps to fill

    United could still do with an extra midfielder to serve as back-up to Casemiro, who they came to rely upon to an unhealthy extent last season and who turns 32 in February.

    The club are still hopeful of signing Sofyan Amrabat before the transfer window shuts and a deal for the Moroccan is looking more likely after agreeing to sell Fred to Fenerbahce. United have also received offers for Scott McTominay and are looking to sell Donny van de Beek.

    The Red Devils are also likely to sign another central defender after selling Harry Maguire to West Ham, and they will almost certainly need to add another goalkeeper to their squad as back-up for Onana, as Dean Henderson is set to leave.

  10. Probable line up

    Probable line up

    The back four practically picks itself although there could be an intriguing battle between Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Diogo Dalot for the right-back spot. Mason Mount is likely to unseat Christian Eriksen on the left of the midfield three. The biggest dilemma for Erik ten Hag is, however, in attack.

    Should he give more opportunities to teenage sensation Alejandro Garnacho? The Argentine gets the Old Trafford crowd off its feet but has the misfortune to share his favourite position with Marcus Rashford.

    If he can move to the right wing then Garnacho can challenge Antony for a starting berth, but Ten Hag is somewhat loyal to the Brazilian, who he coached at Ajax, and the £85m man is likely to get the nod for most games. With Rasmus Hojlund injured for the start of the season and Anthony Martial also unfit, Rashford could begin the campaign as centre-forward, with Garnacho to his left.

    (4-3-3): Andre Onana; Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphael Varane, Lisandro Martinez, Luke Shaw; Bruno Fernandes, Casemiro, Mason Mount; Antony, Rasmus Hojlund, Marcus Rashford

  11. GOAL's Hot Take
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    GOAL's Hot Take

    Erik ten Hag has had one season and two big-spending transfer windows. Now is the time for him to deliver and oversee a proper title challenge. United do not have to end the campaign with the Premier League trophy for the season to be seen as a success but they must push City all the way.

    United also must make a big impression on their return to the Champions League. Ten Hag took an unfancied Ajax side to the brink o the final in 2019 while playing scintillating football. Why can't he do the same with this lavishly-funded United side?

  12. How it will go

    How it will go

    United will be in the title race until spring but will ultimately finish third in the table behind champions Arsenal and second-placed City. They will top their group in the Champions League and make it to the quarter-finals. They will struggle to retain the Carabao Cup but will go deep in the FA Cup.

    Rashford will be top scorer again as Hojlund will take some time adapting to the Premier League. Onana will have to ride some fierce criticism for his style of play but will ultimately be a success. And Garnacho will have a triumphant second season in the first team, ending the campaign with at least 10 goals.