Getting the Band Back Together

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

Erik ten Hag wants to bring one of his old players to Manchester United.

In other news, the sun is hot, Chicago is cold in the winter and Chinese food makes LFO sick.

Since ten Hag took over in 2022, he’s had more reunions than the Grateful Dead.

In his first transfer window as United manager, the club acquired Lisandro Martinez and Antony, two of ten Hag’s players at Ajax, and unsuccessfully pursued Jurrien Timber and Frenkie de Jong. He reportedly tried to make a move for former Ajax winger Hakim Ziyech, who had flopped at Chelsea since joining the club in 2020, only for his superiors to block it. He even looked to sign Marko Arnautović, a player he worked with as an assistant at FC Twente, in a deal so unlikely that some people (including Ralf Rangnick, Arnautović’s manager with the Austrian national team) thought it was a joke.

The following year, United signed two more former ten Hag players: ex-Ajax keeper Andre Onana and former Utrecht midfielder Sofyan Armrabat and were linked to Ajax winger Mohammed Kudus, who ultimately went to West Ham (and scored against Man Utd in December).

Throw in Donny van de Beek, who played for ten Hag at Ajax but joined the club under Ole Gunnar Solskjær and United might have been better off just buying the Dutch club.

United’s recruitment under ten Hag hasn’t been limited to players ten Hag has coached. Ten Hag asked for Mason Mount because the Chelsea player impressed him while he was on loan at Vitesse early in his career and Tyrell Malacia because he had tried to sign the Feyenoord left back.

Brian Brobbey is the latest Ajax player and ten Hag alum to be linked to United. Ten Hag reportedly tried to bring Brobbey to the club back during his first transfer window in the summer of 2022, but the Dutch forward chose to return to Ajax after a disastrous spell at RB Leipzig (0 goals in 14 appearances).

Returning to Amsterdam has helped Brobbey find his scoring touch. In 84 matches, Brobbey has found the net 38 times. This season, he’s been in great form, scoring 17 goals in 27 matches and helping Ajax right the ship after a terrible start to the season that saw them in the unthinkable position of being in the relegation zone.

Naturally, this has led to talk of a big money move to the Premier League with United being an obvious destination. Ajax, which has made a killing off of its “buy low-sell high” model over the last several years, has already made it clear that its latest star won’t come cheap.

With United being hamstrung by Financial Fair Play, any potential move for Brobbey would have to wait until the summer transfer window. Even if he were to join the Ajax alumni chapter at Old Trafford, would it be a good fit? According to The Athletic, Brobbey lacks the pace of a player like Marcus Rashford or Rasmus Højlund and can be streaky in front of goal. Many of his goals have come against lower-table clubs, making one wonder if he’s a flat-track bully à la Romelu Lukaku. He also seems a bit too reliant on his strength and low center of gravity to score against Eredivisie defenders. You’d think a player like that would be easily found out in a fast-paced, physical league like the Premiership.

Then again, strength and power can be more easily transferable than speed and pace. After all, you can always get stronger but it’s much harder to get faster. Maybe Brobbey would embrace the challenge of having to go toe-to-toe with bigger, stronger, more talented defenders and add even more muscle to his frame.

Either way, it’s a gamble — and one that’s becoming a bit too common at United under ten Hag. Of all Eredivisie alums, only Martinez has really delivered — the rest of them have either underachieved or disappointed. One reason that’s been reported as to why ten Hag has been so reliant on players he’s seen up close is that United lack competent scouting and recruitment. As such, there’s no one to push back on ten Hag and give him alternatives — like Ralf Rangnick, who had a pretty good list of transfer targets and could have pursued some of them had he taken the consultant role like he was supposed to but either left United because of the widespread dysfunction at the club, his commitment to the Austrian national team, or because ten Hag wanted him gone.

Indeed, that last bit could also be a key to understanding what’s going on at United. It’s possible that ten Hag is stubborn and believes in not just promoting his ideas but the players who best executed them. After all, his 2018-19 Ajax team that took down defending champions Real Madrid (including a 4-1 beatdown at the Bernabéu) and Juventus in the Champions League and were seconds away from making the Final, played some excellent, sublime football and featured a number of players that are either currently under United contract or have been linked to the club in some capacity (Onana, van de Beek, de Jong, Ziyech and Matthijs de Ligt were all regular starters). It’s understandable that he’d want to recreate that on a larger scale.

Or maybe it’s about control. When Sir Jim Ratcliffe first came in, there was talk that ten Hag might not be able to work under him. “I set requirements in advance about how I want to work,” ten Hag said in 2022, as recounted in the Manchester Evening News. “If they aren’t granted, I won’t do it. I am ultimately responsible and accounted for the results. I don’t want to be the sole ruler, I stand for cooperation, but control in transfers is a condition for me.”

Ratcliffe has wasted no time in recruiting new members of the front office, including CEO Omar Berrada of Manchester City, and is looking to hire a new director of football. It’s also been reported that Ratcliffe and others are planning to purge United of underachievers and that includes the players. So if Ratcliffe overrules his manager’s wishes and closes off the Amsterdam-to-Manchester pipeline, vetoes a player like Brobbey because of doubts over his abilities, or ships out all of the underperforming Eredivisie exports (in other words, all of them except for Martinez), then we’ll see if ten Hag puts his money where his mouth is and heads for the exits.

Will his Ajax recruits join him? If so, it would hardly be a stunner. Not like snow being warm, a desert not having any sand or Meat Loaf saying that he actually wouldn’t do anything for love (especially not that).

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