Erik ten Hag’s summer-long pursuit of Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong: naive folly or a show of intent from a new Manchester United manager brave enough to do it his way? After a week on the club tour of Thailand and Australia observing the Dutchman, an impression forms of the latter, that Ten Hag is a steely eyed operator who knows precisely what is required to rebuild a squad that lagged 35 points behind Manchester City last season.
A naysayer might posit an argument concerning eggs and a solitary basket. That even if the repeated noises from the De Jong camp regarding his wish to stay at Barça are due to the £17m owed in deferred wages, the 25-year-old is hardly climbing the walls to join United, while his employers have named him in the squad for their summer tour. In refusing to be deterred Ten Hag could end up with all those eggs on his face.
The situation has echoes of Ángel di María’s then British record £59.7m transfer from Real Madrid in summer 2014. After being signed by Louis van Gaal, the Argentinian wrote an open letter to Real fans stating he never wanted to depart. Di María proceeded to bomb in United colours, was dropped by Van Gaal, and 12 months later was sold to Paris Saint-Germain.
There is an important sidenote to Di María’s tale: Van Gaal had “other players on the list” ahead of him so was never a first-choice. De Jong is decidedly Ten Hag’s No 1 target and while not a panacea for all of United’s ills is the type of fluid, X-factor schemer they have missed since Paul Scholes was in his prime a generation ago. If De Jong is not an exact facsimile he is certainly in the same vein and has the vision to change contests.
Ten Hag has told John Murtough, United’s football director, and the CEO, Richard Arnold, that even if De Jong has not arrived by the season opener – Brighton’s visit to Old Trafford on 7 August – they should continue the chase. This is not ideal, and a doomsday scenario may be if the window jams shut at the end of that month and De Jong remains at Barcelona critics will have a field day, even if a stand-by target has been acquired.
To have any chance of success in the feverish role of United manager, Ten Hag has to be courageous. And guess what: De Jong may be landed and the manager vindicated. If that scenario plays out De Jong would join the dynamic young left-back Tyrell Malacia, the classy Christian Eriksen and (the club expect) Ajax’s Lisandro Martínez, a spiky defender, to complete an impressive new quartet.
That would be one victory. The next would be for the new blood to work – particularly De Jong, around whom Ten Hag would construct his XI and as an A-list talent should brighten those lesser lights about him. Anthony Elanga is one. The 20-year-old made 27 appearances, scoring three times in last term’s breakthrough season. Now, he wants to elevate his performance.
“I can play anywhere in the front three,” says Elanga. “ I want to score more goals, make more assists. Affect the games, be a danger player, be a starter for Man United, which is a dream for any young lad coming through the academy. That’s what I’m trying to achieve. I want to build on what I did last season, make it even better.”
Witnessing Ten Hag leading training showed a coach intent on improving players, along with his assistants Mitchell van der Gaag and Steve McClaren.
Elanga says: “They are all trying to help us as a team, not just as individuals – by going into details, like the way we play out from the back and how we play in the final third as well, because it’s all information that we have to soak in. So far we are doing really well with it.
“The new manager has come in so we need to buy into his details and this new philosophy of playing and his managerial style, so we are all really buying into it. We are taking it session by session and it’s been really good.”
On the trip Liverpool have been beaten 4-0 in Bangkok and Melbourne Victory 4-1 in their home city. What matters, though, is the incoming campaign. Ten Hag’s initial plan for United is starting to come together. Land De Jong and a fair verdict on United’s fifth permanent manager since the last title win nine years ago will be so far, so good.