Jamie Carragher has admitted it “doesn’t feel right” to see Manchester United competing in the Europa League but says it will not be easy for them to return to the top four this season.
United finished sixth in the Premier League in what was a hugely disappointing 2021/22 campaign, which saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sacked in November and interim replacement Ralf Rangnick endure an underwhelming sixth-month spell in charge.
The club failed to lift a trophy for the fifth successive season and were eliminated from the Champions League at the last-16 stage by Atletico Madrid.
All of that means United will be competing in the Europa League for the third time in four seasons, and they will do so under Erik ten Hag, who left Ajax to replace Rangnick at Old Trafford this summer.
The Dutchman has enjoyed a positive start on the pitch, with United thrashing Liverpool in Thailand in his first game before also overseeing wins over Melbourne Victory and Crystal Palace in Australia.
When asked by Sky Sports News if he was “nervous” that United may be capable of competing for the title in Ten Hag’s first season, former Liverpool defender Carragher said: “I wouldn’t say nervous. I think there’s a long road for United that they’re on at the moment in terms of challenging for the title.
“I think the first thing when it comes to Ten Hag and the players they’re bringing in will be, ‘we need to get this club back in the Champions League where it belongs’. That’s where Manchester United should be.
“They’re one of the biggest clubs in the world, never mind this country, so to not be in the Champions League just doesn’t feel right, not when United are in the Europa League.
“So I think that’s the first thing and I think once United do that, then it’ll be looking at the title in the next couple of years.
“But it won’t be easy to get back in the top four this season – not just for United but for any team who are normally in the top four.
“You’d expect [Manchester] City and Liverpool to do it because they’re always going for the title, but you look at how strong Chelsea will be and the signings they’re bringing in, Tottenham’s work as well, Arsenal also.
“So I think competitively now in terms of getting in the top four, it’s really tough, and it’s proven that way for a lot of Manchester United managers with great CVs in the past.
“But there’s no doubt this manager has a really good CV and they made a really good start in pre-season.”
‘De Jong would make huge difference for Man Utd’
Part of Ten Hag’s remit as United’s new manager has been to play a major role in overhauling the squad that performed so poorly last season.
A number of experienced first-team players – Juan Mata, Edinson Cavani, Jesse Lingard, Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba – were allowed to leave the club at the end of their contracts, while Dean Henderson and Andreas Pereira have also departed.
Ten Hag has begun to remould the squad he inherited by signing Feyenoord left-back Tyrell Malacia and picking up free agent Christian Eriksen, while United are also set to sign versatile defender Lisandro Martinez from Ajax.
But the pursuit of Frenkie de Jong – another target that Ten Hag previously coached at Ajax – has frustrated United so far this summer, with negotiations dragging on throughout the window.
United and Barcelona have a broad agreement in place for a £72m deal but the move is stalling over £17m in backdated wages that De Jong is owed by the Spanish club after agreeing to a pay cut during the Covid pandemic.
There are also reports that the midfielder is unsure about moving to Old Trafford, while United’s Premier League rivals Chelsea are also said to be keen on the Netherlands international.
But if Ten Hag does get his wish and is reunited with De Jong at Old Trafford, Carragher says it could be a game-changer for the club.
“It’ll be interesting if they get De Jong,” Carragher told Sky Sports News. “I do think he’s a top-class player and I think he would make a huge difference for them.”
‘So far, so good’ – Ten Hag on Man Utd tour intensity and De Jong pursuit
Erik ten Hag says the first three weeks of pre-season with Manchester United have been “so far, so good” but admits he would have liked all signings in place by now as their pursuit of Frenkie de Jong runs on.
Sky Sports’ senior reporter Melissa Reddy reported this week that United players are feeling ‘physically fit and mentally sharper’ since Ten Hag took over at Old Trafford and, in an exclusive interview, the Dutchman admitted he was impressed – but not yet satisfied – with what he has seen from the group.
“I see they respond well and every session they give maximum, and that is also transferred into the game,” he said.
“I am not satisfied. I think they have to bring more but it will not come overnight. It takes time, it’s a process.
“The demand is they have to get more fit than they are now. But we are building it. It’s also the responsibility of the players themselves to be fit.
“They’ve responded really well but I know we are in the start of a process and it takes time. We need the full pre-season, minimum, but I know also at the start of the season we will not be ready. But I know also at the start we will need results.”
Read Melissa Reddy’s full feature here.