Erik ten Hag might have allowed his inner-patriot to enjoy the Netherlands beginning their World Cup charge with an expected victory over Senegal – but from the moment his former Ajax player Davy Klaassen scored nine minutes into added-time it would have been business as usual.
After being sworn in from Amsterdam this summer, Ten Hag made five permanent signings during his first window as Manchester United manager and the club already have one eye on January. Ten Hag might have both, though, as supporters are swept up in Qatar fever.
Colourful scenes in the stands, iconic moments on-field and the world uniting together for another football festival – albeit in unique and unfamiliar surroundings – gives everyone something to savour in these testing times and those involved at the top level domestically can, also, go back to the drawing board and (re) assess.
One or two questionable defeats aside – and *that* bombshell interview from Cristiano Ronaldo – it has been so far, so good for Ten Hag in the United hotseat and recruitment has been a major plus. Each of his five summer additions have made a mark directly or indirectly on the United squad.
But there is no time to settle. As always in the modern game, what comes next is vitally important.
The end result with Ronaldo might force United into a January rethink, but their business will, predominately, come next summer anyway and such plans are now being put in place. So while the rest of us watch this global showcase purely for entertainment, Ten Hag will have his pen and notebook firmly in hand.
After his momentary support mission, Ten Hag should be more business-like when Holland continue their Group A charge against Ecuador on Friday afternoon. It’s a match which creates intrigue for the United faithful, too, and not merely for the obvious connections to Frenkie de Jong and Cody Gakpo.
Having missed out on his primary target this summer, Ten Hag eventually signed Casemiro and yet the dream is for him to eventually pair the Brazilian with De Jong in the United engine room. It might be fanciful at this stage, but he will not give up on landing his former Ajax protege.
Gakpo continues to earn rave reviews for his displays with PSV and he made his mark during the World Cup opener with a goal against Senegal. Should he make it two in two against the South Americans then that could well amplify calls for him to follow summer signings Antony, Tyrell Malacia and Lisandro Martinez in from the Eredivisie.
Deployed in the number 10 role first up, an impending battle with Ecuador sees Gakpo go toe-to-toe with another name who has United on red alert – Brighton midfielder Moises Caicedo. Casemiro was signed for the here and now and Caicedo might, ultimately, be one for the future.
He’s certainly one to monitor on the global stage as one young star who already calls Old Trafford home – Hannibal Mejbri – prepares for a unique challenge later in the group stages. Born and raised in France, the teenager played for his birth country at Under-16 and Under-17 level before opting to represent Tunisia.
As luck or fate would have it, those two have been paired together in Group D and Ten Hag will be eager to watch how the Academy graduate fares against top opposition. It will clearly be an emotional occasion, a test for not only his technical ability but his capacity to handle external pressures – and could help Ten Hag decide on his plan for the midfielder next season.
That showdown on Wednesday, November 30 comes in the group finale. Before that, though, Belgium vs Canada (November 23) and Portugal vs Uruguay (November 28) should also get primetime screening in the Ten Hag household.
United need another striker and they might recruit two depending on what happens with Ronaldo, so could Jonathan David be an option? He has caught the eye in France with Lille and will carry Canadian hopes on his young shoulders against the fearsome Belgians and throughout the tournament.
His goals have seen him mooted as a possible replacement for the five-time Ballon d’Or winner. While they are big shoes to fill, United and other suitors have the perfect opportunity to rate his credentials.
It will be impossible to ignore Ronaldo throughout the tournament, meanwhile, but one task for him and Portugal comes against a fancied Uruguay team who could well be dark horses. Kept on a leash by United and even tipped by his agent to secure a winter exit, their wildcard option Facundo Pellistri is well-known to supporters by name at least, even if he has been seldom used by Ten Hag and his predecessors.
Upstaging that man Ronaldo would be one way to ignite a transfer U-turn. But will Ten Hag be swayed by what he sees in Qatar, or has he already made his mind up on the United winger? With the group stage now well underway, players’ performances during the tournament could have a big bearing on what Ten Hag does come January.