As for the tournament, Erik ten Hag doesn’t really want to be involved in, the Europa League can give the Manchester United manager everything he needs from his first season in charge.
If the Dutchman had not traded jobs in the summer, he would have spent Wednesday preparing Ajax for their Champions League opening match against Rangers in Amsterdam rather than sitting at a press conference in Carrington talking about the second-tier club competition in Europe. His main goal in his debut career at Old Trafford is to make his way back to the Champions League, closely followed by ending the club’s five-year wait for trophies.
Reaching the Europa League final in Budapest in May, then winning it – easier said than done with teams like Arsenal and Roma also in the draw – and Tin Hag ends his first season with two main goals, well positioned and really secure. Man United insist the 52-year-old’s appointment is a long-term appointment, but no manager has survived since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 after missing the Champions League after a full season in charge.
Initially, Tin Hag’s focus will be to finish the Premier League as high as possible, but he will know the prize at the end of the Europa League – the cup and automatic place in the Champions League group stage next season. First seeded – A very good chance to get rid of it. “We have to win every game, we want to win every championship, so we have to take everything very seriously,” he said on Wednesday. “This is the mentality that Manchester United need. Europe is always something special and you don’t know your opponents very well.”
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After a disastrous start to the season with defeats against Brighton and Brentford, United picked up some momentum with four straight wins. It’s done with a stable squad too – Ten Hag made just one change across games against Liverpool, Southampton, Leicester and Arsenal – but there will likely be plenty of rotation as Real Sociedad visit Old Trafford on Thursday.
Ten Hag has built a deeper squad after spending more than £225m in the transfer window, and early matches in the Europa League provide the opportunity to give players some much-needed time on the pitch. “We don’t just have a team, we have a team,” said Ten Hag, who will be absent from the team. Anthony Martial While he continues to recover from an Achilles tendon injury. “When the team behaves well, when the players behave well, I think we have more than 11 starting players.”
“The team is getting better, it is getting better, but on the other hand, for the players who are not now in the team, we know that they can, at any moment, be there and they will do the job. To more than 11 players to be successful.”
The conclusion is that, for now at least, the Europa League is the place to make changes, although Tin Hag’s priorities could have been upended by the time the confrontation begins. Jose Mourinho did not want to play in the Europa League either when he took over at United in 2016 and in his first group match against Feyenoord he made eight changes to his team. But by the end of that season, with United lagging behind in the race for the top four, Mourinho was resting players in the Premier League to keep them fresh in Europe. United have won only one of their last six league matches and finished sixth, but most importantly, lifted the Europa League trophy after beating Ajax 2-0 in the final to secure a return to the Champions League.
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For Tin Hag, just as it was for Mourinho, the Europa League is a means to an end. He will gladly see the back of him after this season, but for eight months it is too important to ignore it.
The comeback of form – especially the remarkable victories over Liverpool and Arsenal – has given fans hope that this could be the start of a new era of success, but no one realistically expects his side to face a serious title challenge this year. But before all that, Tin Hag has to get United back into the Champions League as quickly as possible. If this is done by winning the Europa League, his first season will be considered successful no matter where they finish in the Premier League.