Manchester United’s first-team recruitment had a Dutch theme this summer, through personnel or the agency SEG brokering deals. Contrast that strategy to the brains trust of Brighton sat in the Old Trafford directors’ box on Saturday, where their match-winners were German, Brazilian and from nearby Longsight.
Erik ten Hag is not the first manager to stick to what he knows in the transfer market and now, clearly at the lowest ebb of his 14 months as United manager, those signings will either guide him upwards in the Premier League table or become the stick with which he is beaten.
Sports Entertainment Group, the Dutch-owned agency known industry-wide as SEG, represent Ten Hag and have also provided their client with Rasmus Hojlund and Sofyan Amrabat, proudly claiming the deals as their work. The United manager’s agent, Kees Vos, is described as an “occasional visitor” at Carrington and certainly a noticeable presence when he has been at United’s training ground.
Those two SEG signings must now salvage Ten Hag’s season: Hojlund with goals once fit enough to play regular full games; Amrabat by joining forces in midfield with Casemiro to give United power.
Ten Hag’s other two major signings come with a flavour of Eredivisie. André Onana was with his current manager at Ajax, while Mason Mount played against both of them on loan at Vitesse Arnhem from Chelsea. United cannot be accused of failing to back their manager, whose primary areas to strengthen have been addressed with his targets.
“You look at Brighton, they are full of free transfers and players who didn’t cost much money at all. How do you explain that gap?” Ten Hag was asked by a journalist after Brighton won convincingly at Old Trafford. Technical director David Weir sat near the end of the Brighton row in the directors’ box and must have watched with satisfaction. Michael Edwards, the former Liverpool sporting director, was also in attendance, taking in a match featuring one of the best-run clubs in the Premier League.
At the other end of the scale, Brighton’s recruitment has a broad and global scope. Julio Enciso (Paraguay), Solly March (Lewes, East Sussex) and Pervis Estupiñán (Ecuador via Spain) were first-team players missing at the weekend. Longsight-born Danny Welbeck led their attack and was a free agent three years ago. German midfielder Pascal Gross and Brazil forward João Pedro also scored.
“My work is to help them to progress, to improve, because the history of the club is to reach one level where we have to sell the best players like [Alexis] Mac Allister, like [Moisés] Caicedo, like [Levi] Colwill,” said Brighton manager Roberto De Zerbi. How United would like such a football ecosystem themselves.
Instead, United is a place with little career progression beyond the club itself. Players get released or sold to smaller clubs. The last player to be sold while at the peak of their powers was Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid in 2009. It will buck a 14-year trend for Hojlund to become the striker the Champions League heavyweights are prepared to break the bank for.
United’s summer signings, though, hold the key to getting Ten Hag out of his predicament. He refused to call it a crisis when he spoke after the Brighton defeat but it was a performance that had turmoil written all over it.
How will they do it? Hojlund’s fitness is important. At the moment he cannot play 90 minutes as he manages a back injury. He had a goal disallowed against Brighton but will have wanted more impactful action in build-up play. Fans jeered the decision to sub him in the second half but, in reality, he was marked out of the game by Lewis Dunk.
Centre-back is a major concern for Ten Hag. Lisandro Martínez has been subbed in three out of five games and his form is poor. Harry Maguire is waiting in the wings for a chance to impress and surely must be worth a try at some point. Next is Bayern Munich and the threat of Harry Kane, who has scored four goals in as many Bundesliga games.
Ten Hag’s formation against Brighton tried to fit his senior players into a system to accommodate them all. Bruno Fernandes and Christian Eriksen, both No 10s, operated in a diamond formation that was picked apart by De Zerbi’s players. With Jadon Sancho exiled, there has to be a place for Facundo Pellistri or Alejandro Garnacho to provide genuine width.
Amrabat and Casemiro will help gain control of the midfield, with the Moroccan loan signing tightening up an area where players can pass through at the moment. After four years in Italy, it will be down to Amrabat to adjust quickly to the pace of the Premier League.
Ten Hag heads back to Bayern this week, where between 2013-2015 he was in charge of the second-string of Germany’s winning machine. As United manager, it could have been a glorious return for his opening Champions League fixture. Instead, it is a return where his old employers face a team in crisis.