Once more we’ve tried to put ourselves into Erik Ten Hag’s bald head to rank the Manchester United squad by how important they are in the manager’s mind. There have been some big risers since October…
26) Phil Jones (April 2022 ranking: 19; July ranking: 24; October ranking: 24)
Not even on Ten Hag’s radar. Not even on the squad list in the matchday programme. Nice work for £100k a week.
25) Donny van de Beek (April: n/a; July: 18; October: 21)
Poor Donny. Was barely given an opportunity and when he did, he got knee-knack until the end of the season.
24) Tom Heaton (April: 17; July: 16; October: 23)
Still on volleys and brews duty, with first Martin Dubravka and then Jack Butland coming in to bench-sit. Heaton was briefly thrust into the limelight for the Carabao Cup semi-final second leg in which he was perfectly competent, but now back as no.3.
23) Jack Butland (new entry)
Taken on loan to replace the last back-up they borrowed, with Butland likely to see even less action than Martin Dubravka, unless something in David De Gea goes twang.
22) Anthony Elanga (April: 12; July: 19; October: 19)
Ralf Rangnick liked him because he did what he was told but getting into Ten Hag’s good books has been considerably tougher while the rest of the squad is tuned into the manager. His versatility is useful and presumably why so many clubs were keen to borrow him in January but the best he can hope for these days is the odd cameo from the bench.
21) Victor Lindelof (April: 13; July: 17; October: 18)
Fourth-choice centre-back, which might not be a role he relishes but if Lindelof sits tight, Harry Maguire will probably be on his way in the summer, bumping him up to first reserve.
20) Harry Maguire (April: 8; July: 5; October: 16)
Ten Hag spoke of his belief in Maguire in pre-season and he continued to profess his faith in the United captain through the first half of the season. But actions speak louder than words. Maguire was dropped after Brentford and remains third-choice centre-back. Which is a concern since the skipper isn’t the type who can find his flow with only sporadic action. Most useful to Ten Hag for the closing stages when United need an extra body and a massive head in their own box but Maguire is approaching a career crossroads in the summer.
Man Utd squad ranked on how important they to Ten Hag: Upon appointment | During pre-season | Pre-World Cup
19) Anthony Martial (April: n/a; July: 4; October: 13)
In the absence of any other centre-forwards, especially after Cristiano Ronaldo saw his arse, this was Martial’s chance to finally establish himself as United’s leading No.9. He has failed to take it. Injuries, of course, are partly to blame but the reasons almost don’t matter. Ten Hag can’t rely on him and he ought to be out of the door in the summer, assuming anyone will pay a reasonable amount for him.
18) Tyrell Malacia (April: n/a; July: 9; October: 10)
Ten Hag’s first signing has shown real potential, along with some understandable naivety, which has led to Luke Shaw reclaiming his place and gripping it tight. Needs to develop some consistency, which isn’t easy to achieve for the bench.
17) Scott McTominay (April: 6; July: 13; October: 12)
‘McTominay has plenty to do to avoid becoming a squad player,’ we wrote in July and, sadly for the Scot, he has been unable to avoid that fate. That isn’t to say that McTominay isn’t extremely useful, important even, but he is firmly behind Casemiro, Eriksen, Marcel Sabitzer and probably Fred too. His future depends on how willing he is to accept such status or rally against it.
16) Christian Eriksen (April: n/a; July: 3; October: 3)
Eriksen, along with Casemiro, formed United’s best midfield partnership since the Fergie era. Now, thanks to Andy Carroll evidently needing last weekend off, Eriksen is parked way up in the ranking for a couple of months and we’re about to see how crucial the Denmark star really is to United’s creativity. Things will have to go incredibly well for United and Marcel Sabitzer before Eriksen’s scheduled return in late April or early May for the veteran not to walk back into the team.
15) Jadon Sancho (April: 3; July: 7; October: 8)
Sancho seemed to hit rock-bottom after the last ranking in October. He failed to make the England squad for the World Cup, which he spent in the Netherlands with personal coaches recommended by Ten Hag to help the £72million signing rediscover his spark. His re-integration has been gradual but Antony and Rashford are blocking his path to the flanks. So it may be that Sancho spends more time through the middle, which could suit him and United better, especially with United light on cover for Bruno Fernandes. Regardless, Ten Hag just needs to see Sancho settled again after what appears to have been a traumatic time for the 22-year-old.
14) Alejandro Garnacho (new entry)
The emergence of the academy graduate was one of the highlights of United’s season up to the World Cup. Ten Hag has continued to use him sparingly, especially while Marcus Rashford is tearing up the left flank, but Garnacho generally makes an impact when he is given a chance and has become an important option. Now United just need to get him signed up.
13) Aaron Wan-Bissaka (April: 16; July: 23; October: 22)
One of the resurrection stories of the season. Wan-Bissaka’s United career looked dead and buried up until the World Cup break. He was wheeled out immediately after with Diogo Dalot not yet ready to return and when the Portugal right-back did, he succumbed to another injury. In his absence, Wan-Bissaka has rebuilt his credibility to the point that Dalot now has a fight on his hands.
12) Fred (April: 7; July: 11; October: 15)
It looked bleak for Fred when Ten Hag did the necessary by signing two new top-class midfielders. But the Brazilian has still played a major role and seems to be relishing the challenge. With Casemiro holding, Fred has been able to play further forward and looks infinitely more comfortable.
11) Diogo Dalot (April: 11; July: 10; October: 11)
The Portuguese seized his chance under Ten Hag – or rather, he didn’t blow it before injury struck once again. Ten Hag would almost certainly still rather strengthen at right-back, even if both Dalot and Wan-Bissaka have been competent.
10) Antony (October: new entry)
Ten Hag stuck to his guns over Antony, even though it meant United paying more than they felt comfortable with. Which means the manager is almost obliged to stick with the winger amid his struggles to adapt to the Premier League. Antony is hardly the first player to take his sweet time in that respect, but going on the outside, even just occasionally, would probably enhance his chances.
9) Wout Weghorst (new entry)
Literally no one saw this coming, and though United’s interest in the Burnley striker borrowed by Besiktas was initially greeted with cynicism, it might all work out in the end if the big Dutchman scores a few goals and leads the line through the remainder of the season before they take a more long-term approach to the centre-forward recruitment. However Weghorst performs, he’ll almost certainly play because Martial probably won’t.
8) Marcel Sabitzer (new entry)
Sabitzer came from Bayern Munich’s bench on deadline day to power high into this ranking on account of Eriksen’s injury. Will he do a passable impression of the Dane? F*** knows. But what we know of the Austrian from Bayern, and prior to that at RB Leipzig, is encouraging. And Ten Hag, with his other acquisitions, has shown he can pick a player.
7) David De Gea (April: 5; July: 6; October: 7)
Remains undisputed no.1 – for now. Is he Ten Hag’s type? We still don’t know. He doesn’t leave his line nearly often enough and while competent with the ball his feet, the manager would still prefer a keeper capable of breaking a line or two. Until he can source one, De Gea remains snug in United’s sticks up to the summer, by which time a big decision has to be made of the Spaniard’s future as his contract expires. United have the option to extend for a further year but on those terms, they would be daft to take it.
6) Luke Shaw (April: 10; July: 15; October: 14)
Started the season almost by default before being hooked at half-time of the Brentford debacle and Shaw was firmly second-choice behind Malacia. But the England defender enjoyed a fine World Cup and has impressed Ten Hag with his attitude and adaptability. When Lisandro Martinez was recovering from the World Cup, Shaw was shifted inside to play alongside Raphael Varane and he adapted superbly, helping to stifle Erling Haaland in the derby. Now first-choice left-back and probably first reserve in the centre too.
5) Raphael Varane (April: 4; July: 12; October: 6)
Ten Hag gave Maguire his chance early in the season before he had no choice but to bring in Varane after Brentford. And since then, the France star has looked more like the defender that won five Champions League medals with Real Madrid. Concerns remain over his fragility but retiring from international duty will likely enhance his reliability. Alongside Martinez, Varane has formed arguably the best defensive partnership in the Premier League. Certainly United’s best since Rio and Vidic.
4) Marcus Rashford (April: 9; July: 8; October: 9)
Rashford is back! And seemingly better than ever. The academy graduate was motivated by winning back his England place for the World Cup and since he achieved that, Rashford has played the best football of his United career, scoring goals for fun while nailing down his favoured position off the left flank, despite the emergence of Garnacho.
3) Casemiro (October: new entry)
The last time we ranked this mob, Casemiro hadn’t yet started a Premier League game. Since then, the difference he has made has been remarkable. Anyone who thought the Brazilian had been made to look good by the likes of Luka Modric and Toni Kross in the Real Madrid midfield has been proven to be a whopper, with Casemiro making the Premier League look a piece of p*ss. Finally United have a fit-for-purpose defensive screen – at roughly the same time they have a fit-for-purpose defence – and a midfield string-puller who can set the tempo and get forward like the United midfield greats of old.
2) Bruno Fernandes (April: 1; July: 2; October: 2)
‘United’s best and most important player’ we wrote in April. Come the start of the season, Fernandes had dropped to second-most important, only on account of how badly the defence required fixing. Further forward, Fernandes remains the most important cog in United’s attacking machine. The Portuguese star, team captain if not yet club captain, has certainly benefited from a solid base behind him, but Fernandes has performed admirably in his usual central role and out on the right when needed by Ten Hag.
1) Lisandro Martinez (April: n/a; July: 1; October: 1)
He was no.1 in July even before his Premier League debut on account of his relationship with Ten Hag and the absolute shambles United’s defence had become and, as the Premier League’s best central defender right now, he remains Ten Hag’s most important player. Size isn’t everything, apparently.