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Man United manager Hag has spent big and now the pressure is on to challenge Man City

Erik ten Hag Erik ten Hag - Getty Images

The stakes are higher for Erik ten Hag in his second season at Manchester United.

A year into one of the most daunting jobs in world soccer, the Dutch coach has spent big and made some even bigger calls.

As a result, he is now expected to bring the good times back to United.

While Ten Hag's first season was a success on many levels, there were also blunt reminders of the work needed to be done to turn his team into a genuine Premier League title contender.

He delivered his first trophy by winning the League Cup and also secured a return to the Champions League.

There were notable wins against Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Barcelona, as well as a feel-good factor among supporters after a decade of decline since the retirement of United great Alex Ferguson.

Under Ten Hag's guidance, Marcus Rashford scored a career-best 30 goals.

Those were the highs.

At the other end of the scale there were humbling losses. United was routed 4-0 by Brentford, 6-3 by City and 7-0 by Liverpool, which was the club's heaviest competitive defeat in 90 years.

United also advanced to the FA Cup final, but was comfortably beaten by City. The 2-1 score line did not reflect City's dominance in that match.

In losing that final at Wembley Stadium, not only did United fail to stop City's treble of titles, which also included the Premier League and Champions League, but the game underlined the gap that still existed between the teams.

In response, Ten Hag has made big calls in the offseason.

Long-standing goalkeeper David De Gea was released when his contract expired and replaced by Andre Onana, who will better allow Ten Hag to focus on building play from defense.

Harry Maguire has been stripped of the captaincy, with Bruno Fernandes taking over.

The United manager has also found an unlikely replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo at center forward. Despite being repeatedly linked with a move for Harry Kane, Ten Hag opted to sign the largely untried Rasmus Højlund, who was bought from Atalanta for a fee that could reach 72 million pounds ($92 million),

“I think he has such a huge potential," Ten Hag said of the 20-year-old Denmark international, adding “the whole team was waiting for a type like him".

There is little doubt United needed more goals, even after Rashford's outstanding campaign.

Its return of 58 goals in 38 league games last season was the fewest of any team in the top six.

While United describe Højlund as one of the “best players in the world for his age group,” he has been handed a huge responsibility to fill the void left by Ronaldo's departure last year.

He is still to play 100 senior games and only scored 10 goals in all competitions last season.

He will face comparisons with Erling Haaland at City, despite the fact they are at different stages of their development.

But United will need him to deliver quickly to provide the goals the team lacked last season.

Ten Hag's other key addition to his squad is England midfielder Mason Mount, who joined from Chelsea for 55 million pounds ($69 million) and was immediately given the iconic No 7. shirt worn by United greats like Ronaldo, David Beckham and Eric Cantona.

The summer business takes his total transfer spending to 334.6 million pounds ($426.3 million) in his time at Old Trafford.

That type of expenditure adds to the pressure on Ten Hag to return the club to the summit of English soccer sooner, rather than later.

By comparison, Pep Guardiola has spent 230.8 million pounds ($294.1 million) over the same period.

United has certainly backed its manager, both in the market and with the bold decisions he has made over the squad he inherited.

Maguire was the most expensive defender in soccer when he signed from Leicester for 80 million pounds (then $97 million) in 2019. Despite that, and his status as club captain, Ten Hag benched him for much of last season and has now stripped him of the armband.

United will be lucky to get back much of Maguire's original cost if he is sold this offseason.

Ronaldo, meanwhile, left the club after struggling to establish himself in Ten Hag's system, leaving a void up front for the second half of the season.

De Gea's exit came after his limitations with the ball at his feet were exposed.

Ten Hag had to accommodate De Gea by altering his preferred tactical approach, which sees keepers being involved in the buildup play, as has been successfully deployed by City and Liverpool in recent years.

The levels set by City and Liverpool are what Ten Hag is aiming to achieve at United.

While few expected him to hit those heights in his first season after taking over a team that had recorded United's worst Premier League points tally (58) in 2021-22, supporters are hoping for a significant step forward this year.

Ten Hag has a more settled squad and he is now used to the rigors of England's top division.

He has star signings and a team that has already won silverware under his watch.

Knocking City off its perch may still be too big an ask at this stage of his reign. But he will be expected to run Guardiola much closer than before.


James Robson is at


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