The 13 players for Manchester United to rebuild their squad around in the transfer window


Before the FA Cup final, Erik ten Hag was so fixated on his only victory over Pep Guardiola he repeatedly claimed Manchester United‘s 2-1 defeat of City in January 2023 was the only occasion he was able to pick his strongest side. It wasn’t.

Diogo Dalot was absent with a hamstring injury, Tyrell Malacia started at left back and Luke Shaw at centre back while Lisandro Martinez, still recovering from his World Cup excursions, was on the bench. Ten Hag was possibly mistaken as it was the first time he was able to start Anthony Martial against elite opposition. Martial lasted a half.

It was only when a journalist highlighted the squad selections in a piece that Ten Hag was advised to stop referring to the derby. It was in his interests as the two games he had his best players available for were more recent.

United plundered seven goals in their wins against Wolves and West Ham in February. They made needlessly hard work of it at Molineux, the scene of their best 45 minutes until the Cup final. United were 3-1 up in the 84th minute but squandered the two-goal advantage before Kobbie Mainoo’s magisterial 97th-minute winner.

Three days later, Ten Hag rested Raphael Varane and recalled Harry Maguire for the only change against West Ham. David Moyes’s side had ten more attempts at goal than United and Moyes opined West Ham were better than when they won the reverse fixture in December. The 3-0 victory flattered United but they were uncharacteristically clinical.

The money shot was of Alejandro Garnacho’s celebration after his first goal. Garnacho’s apparent send-up of the West Ham winger Mohammed Kudus was fleeting as he was soon joined on the advertising hoarding by Mainoo and Rasmus Hojlund.

During our interview at Carrington last month, Mainoo confirmed the celebration was improvised. Sir Jim Ratcliffe highlighted United’s Lunch Atop a Skyscraper a few weeks later as he held court at the Ineos office in Knightsbridge.

Ten Hag said afterwards “you see the potential”. His case for the defence would have been more compelling had he referred to the Ws against the teams beginning with ‘W’.

It should not have taken the Ineos brains trust 17 days to research that United won impressively in the two games that Ten Hag was able to pick his strongest XI. In the FA Cup final, just three players were unable to travel and Shaw was the only first-teamer.

Shaw has not played since February 18
Shaw has not played since February 18

Ten Hag had such an embarrassment of riches he dropped Casemiro and Hojlund at Wembley, banking on Sofyan Amrabat’s momentum and the tactical flexibility of Bruno Fernandes. His tactical set-up was flawless and United produced their finest performance in years.

Wolves, West Ham and City were a window into what United could achieve with a fullish squad. Mason Mount was sidelined for the former two fixtures but his first-team status was revoked as early as October and he made one more Premier League start all season.

United erred in investing £60million in Mount when he had entered the last year of his contract at Chelsea. Mount made eight starts and missed 31 of United’s 52 games. He and Casemiro were and are a midfield mismatch.

Mount’s name still cropped up prominently in United’s review. Senior figures at the club believe he will come good. Fitness permitting, Mount will have a head-start in pre-season with Mainoo and Fernandes at the European Championship but he would not feature in many United fans’ strongest XIs at the start of next season.

Mount recovered from injury to make the FA Cup final squad
Mount recovered from injury to make the FA Cup final squad

The silver lining for Marcus Rashford after his England squad omission is he can hit the ground running during United’s five-game pre-season. His and Ten Hag’s alliance is an uneasy one and a creditable FA Cup performance will either turn the page or close the book on his United career.

Ten Hag still has a nucleus of players to build a formidable team around. Andre Onana should be more dependable in his second season after an error-strewn first, Dalot and Martinez were integral to the Latino rebranding of a defence that kept the most clean sheets in 2022-23, Mainoo, Garnacho and Hojlund are the poster boys of the new United and Fernandes is indispensable.

They are supported by resilient professionals who have been around the block. Shaw, Harry Maguire and Scott McTominay are key squad members. There is merit in retaining grown-up academy graduates Tom Heaton and Jonny Evans, familiar with the standards Sir Alex Ferguson set.

Having been ignored as a starter for nearly five months, Amad demonstrated what an asset he is and United now regard him as more integral to their future planning. The academy secured a triple crown last season and a United campaign seldom goes by without a homegrown breakthrough.

Ten Hag was particularly warm with Harry Amass when the Under 18s returned from their title-clinching win at Wolves in April. Left back Amass, 17, can expect some fulfilling assignments on tour after his work experience stints on the bench.

Then the season starts where it ended last season: against Guardiola and City.



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