It’s hard to ignore the eye watering sums United have been spending on some players, but behind that you can start to see the formation of a development pipeline. The club has doled out large sums for first team starters, but all of that money has gone to younger players not yet in their prime. All the attention goes to the first team, but people are starting to notice the success Erik ten Hag has had with his second squad approach and how he folds young players into the team. This year will be the weakest second squad of ten Hag’s tenure, based solely on the age of a few players. He will be starting four players 20-years old or younger, three of them in their first full season at United. If this works out, we could see a more sustainable system where second team players get promoted to the first team instead of spending heavily every summer. This is also the first year that United bought more Academy players than senior squad ones, it will be interesting to see if United maintain this approach.
With David De Gea leaving the club and Dean Henderson out on loan (again), the GK picture is very clear for ten Hag. Diogo Costa, who is actually a year younger than his backup, has firmly established himself as United’s #1 and could be in that position for 5-10 years if things play out well. Alban Lafont is now firmly in place as Costa’s backup after a year on loan and looks to get solid playing time with the second squad, this is one area of the team ten Hag can feel safe with.
The back line should continue to be solid, but this is an area where ten Hag is now developing two players in key positions. Raphaël Varane and Eric García formed a solid CB pairing that will continue to work together at least until the end of the 2025-26 season with Varane agreeing to a contract extension. Varane has somehow managed to avoid the injuries that plagued his career, but even if they come back ten Hag will have players to plug in. António Silva and Zeno Debast will take up their spots in the second squad, with Silva looking like a great purchase and Debast doing his best to catch up. García is the odd man out here, being under 6’-2”, as ten Hag begins collecting tall CB who can play as ball playing defenders in an attempt to pass out of the back and perform better on set pieces. Harry Maguire continues to hang around the club, with reports floating around that nobody would take him as a transfer or even a loan. It’s hard to think Maguire’s career is going anywhere at United, he will need to move on next year with his contract expiring this summer. Ten Hag didn’t change a thing with his wingbacks, either because he’s happy with them or because the club opted to spend elsewhere, but in truth it’s hard to see them making any realistic upgrades. Tyrell Malacia and Pedro Porro remain the first choice LB/RB with Renan Lodi and Diogo Dalot as their backups. Things should stay like this for a while barring United landing a young player the club would like to develop into a potential first team player in a few years.
United’s midfield has gone through some drastic changes over the past few seasons, and it’s hard to argue they haven’t improved. Jude Bellingham will remain in the roaming playmaker role with the newly acquired Declan Rice manning the more defensive deep lying playmaker role. Bellingham proved to be a wise investment on the left side of a midfield pivot, providing a level of creativity on par (if not beyond) what Christian Eriksen was producing while bringing a level of defensive solidity the team needed. Rice will be a massive defensive upgrade over Eriksen, who was serviceable in that role, so things are looking good on paper for the first team. Eriksen, who is proving to be an invaluable member of the clubhouse, is back to his RPM role in the second squad and will be paired with Andrey Santos. The departure of Casemiro was surprising, but with ten Hag putting so much focus on mentoring young players they will be in a better place if Andrey Santos is given room to grow. He’s even drawn comparisons to Casemiro, so swapping a 32-year old one for a 20-year old one seems like a no-brainer. Scott McTominay remains at the club and will serve as a capable third choice at both midfield slots.
Ten Hag is making a big bet that Rice is the final piece of the puzzle.
Captain, Talisman, Future United Legend. Bruno Fernandes turned in an incredible season last year that should have him in the running for the Ballon d’Or, there was no chance United would let him go or even think about finding someone to replace him. He continues to be the center of United’s attack, and with the addition of Rice he may be given even more freedom to move forward. Hannibal was handed a new contract and will continue to serve as Fernandes’ backup, at just 21-years old he figures to have a long career at United and may supplant Fernandes whenever he decides to leave or retire.
The attacking forwards don’t change all that much, though ten Hag has shifted some players around to make room for a new addition. Jadon Sancho, who wasn’t phased by the weight of wearing #7, remains United’s first choice LW. After a rocky start under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick, the former City youth player has blossomed under ten Hag as a creative player as well as a solid defender. With Athony Martial being sold, Yaser Asprilla moved over to the backup LW, keeping Alejandro Garnacho on the bench. Garnacho’s focus has fluttered, and for the moment he’s moving in the wrong direction after getting a solid run in ten Hag’s first season. Antony and his spinning antics remain entrenched at RW, with fellow Brazilian Angelo being brought in as his backup. Angelo is raw but extremely talented, ten Hag is taking a risk throwing him into the second squad but the upside could be tremendous. Anthony Elanga is still at the club and will be a bench regular with Garnacho, if Angelo struggles ten Hag has an excellent Plan B. When ten Hag sold Ronaldo everyone was concerned about the long term health of United’s CF position, and it looks like they nailed the answer. Marcus Rashford turned a good first season into a great one, something he should be in the Ballon d’Or conversation for, and will continue to be the club’s first choice striker. He signed a contract extension through the 2027-28 season, so he won’t be going anywhere soon. Vitor Roque was thrown into the deep end of the pool when ten Hag moved Martial to LW, and he started swimming immediately. Scoring (24) goals in (21) appearances is a great way to show your quality, considering he did it as an 18-year old is even more impressive. United may have lost out on Endrick, but they might be perfectly fine with Vitor Roque.
Can Rashford repeat his 2023-24 performance?