UCL talking points: Should Man United sack Ten Hag? Who is MVP?
The 2023-24 Champions League group stage is all wrapped up after a dramatic final matchday across Europe. Paris Saint-Germain clinched Group F’s remaining spot in the Round of 16 as AC Milan dropped to the Europa League and Newcastle United finished bottom. Meanwhile, things went from bad to worse for Manchester United, who also finished last in their group and are out of Europe altogether.
We asked ESPN writers Gab Marcotti, Rob Dawson, Sam Marsden and Julien Laurens to answer some of our burning questions.
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1. Manchester United’s problems are piling up after their exit from Europe as they hit another new low. Is it time to move on from manager Erik ten Hag? Why/why not?
Rob Dawson: Ten Hag has enough credit in the bank for what he did last season and at least deserves the chance to turn things around. There are bigger issues at Old Trafford than the manager and with Sir Jim Ratcliffe and INEOS coming in to oversee football operations, Ten Hag should be first to have a go under the new regime. That said, results this season haven’t been good enough and finishing bottom of Group A is a massive blow, so things will have to change quickly or the pressure on the Dutchman will reach a point where there’s no option but to let him go.
Julien Laurens: This is a really difficult one. We saw some interesting things from him last season. There was a third-place finish, the Carabao Cup win, some good individual form from some players, and Old Trafford had become a fortress. So how has this season become so bad? I think Ten Hag took progress for granted and just assumed the squad would build on last year. He got his recruitment wrong and has been hit by injuries too. If you add the Jadon Sancho issue, the Marcus Rashford issue, and the media leaks issue together, you get the current mess. I think he is a good manager. A great one? I’m not sure. Can he still improve this team and change its fortunes? I just about think so. So I would keep him until the end of the season and see where United are then.
Sam Marsden: Managerial changes have hardly worked in the decade since Sir Alex Ferguson left Manchester United, so, other than a potential new-manager bounce, I see no reason to move on from Ten Hag yet. There were signs last season he was taking United in the right decision. He won a trophy and showed he will not shirk big decisions. This season has been dire, admittedly, but injuries have not helped. Now does not feel the time for a change of coach, either, with Ratcliffe set to come in and make structural changes across the club. The noise will grow if United struggle at Liverpool this weekend, though.
Gab Marcotti: I don’t think you can answer this question until you determine who will pick his successor. This nonsense at United has gone on far too long. It should be the job of the director of football, in conjunction with the chief executive and the owners. Right now, United have one set of owners (the Glazers or, rather, Joel and Avram), another owner who has agreed to take over a minority stake in the club but whose deal has not yet been finalized (Ratcliffe) and no chief executive since Richard Arnold has moved on. They do have director of football, but it’s John Murtough and it’s by no means clear how empowered he is (signing all those Dutch Eredivisie alumni presumably at Ten Hag’s behest isn’t a great look) or whether Ratcliffe wants to keep him around.
So until that part is settled — and it may take a while because the pace of change at Old Trafford is often glacial — I don’t see how you can move on from Ten Hag (unless, of course, the situation gets so bad that you appoint an interim boss … heck, Ralf Rangnick worked out great, didn’t he?) United have six league games (and one or two FA Cup games) between now and the end of January. By that point, you’d hope, the takeover will be complete and either Murtough will be given real power, or another guy will be brought in above him. That’s the time to take stock and assess where you are. And if you feel like the squad has holes (and it does), look to loan signings in January: there’s no shame in that, you won’t get ripped off (hopefully) and you won’t get stuck with guys the new manager won’t want (if you do make a change.)
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2. What is the round of 16 tie you most want to see?
Marcotti: Manchester City vs. Paris Saint-Germain. Simple. I want the strongest seeded team against the strongest unseeded team. I want to see the favorites, whoever they are, face the toughest possible path to the final.
Dawson: Everyone wants to see big games and PSG against Real Madrid would be the game of the round. Not only would it be two teams with ambitions to win it playing each other in the knockouts, you’d also get all the Kylian Mbappé fuss — which would crank up the noise around the two matches even further. Beyond that, Bayern Munich against Inter Milan in a repeat of the 2010 final would be interesting. Inter are probably the best team in Italy at the moment and Bayern, with Harry Kane scoring, look like a team capable of winning it, even if they have some clear flaws.
Marsden: PSG against any of Man City, Bayern, Arsenal, Real Madrid or Barcelona. I would also quite like to see Arsenal against Inter. Given Arsenal’s absence from the Champions League since 2017, it feels like a fresh matchup between teams with different styles at a time when we so often see the same opponents facing off. Given their form, and a lot can change before February, it will also be fascinating to see Barça against whoever they draw in a high-stakes knockout game after their recent European failings.
Laurens: I want a rematch of last season’s final: Man City vs. Inter Milan. I want to see how Simone Inzaghi and his players would fare against Pep Guardiola and his men now, with the experience of what happened in Istanbul six months ago. Imagine the atmosphere at San Siro for the first leg. No Romelu Lukaku this time, but an in-form Marcus Thuram. Inter are the best team amongst the runners up, better than PSG or Napoli, while Man City are still the best team in the seeded side of the draw.
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3. Who is your group stage MVP and why?
Marcotti: I’m going to go with Real Madrid midfielder Jude Bellingham. He scored four goals from midfield, two of them were winners, one of them was deep into injury time. For my money, he’s the best player in the world right now. Would Madrid still have advanced without him? Possibly. But it was a whole lot smoother when he took charge.
Marsden: Bellingham as well. The 20-year-old has been the standout player as Madrid once again laid down their Champions League credentials by winning all six of their games in a group they made look easier than it was.
Laurens: I have loved Antoine Griezmann’s performances in this group stage. He scored five goals (his highest ever in the groups), he led by example and was outstanding in this really interesting Atletico Madrid side. His partnership with Álvaro Morata up front is great as they understand and complement each other so well. Griezmann in this kind of form is amongst the best players in the competition for sure.
Dawson: Man City boss Pep Guardiola. The group stage of the Champions League isn’t easy — just look at Barcelona last season and Manchester United this year — but City glide through season after season. It was no different this time as the defending champions won six out of six to finish top of Group G with two games to spare and guarantee a place as one of the seeds in the Round of 16. There is a lot of pressure on the big teams because they’ve got targets on their backs but it doesn’t seem to bother City. In eight attempts, Guardiola has got them out of the group eight times. United, for one, are desperate for a record like that.
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4. Let’s reassess after our predictions on the third matchday. Which team is your favorite to win it all?
Marcotti: Manchester City, evidently. No team is perfect (and we’ve discovered some flaws) but they have fewer flaws than anybody else. Oh, and that Kevin De Bruyne fellow will be back soon after injury, presumably.
Laurens: I think this could be an open and interesting knockout phase if the draw is good and top teams avoid each other early on. Manchester City are still my favourites because it’s City, Guardiola and Erling Haaland. De Bruyne will also be back in the new year and will add another dimension. The chasing pack are not too far behind, so City can’t take anything for granted.
Marsden: I am not budging from City, despite a few setbacks in the Premier League. On their day, I think they are in a tier of their own in the Champions League, followed by a clutch of clubs including Madrid, Bayern and Arsenal.
Dawson: Everyone else has said City (they’re probably right), but just to be different, I think it’s going to be either Bayern Munich or Real Madrid. In Kane, Bayern have got a player who can make a difference in tight games — just like he did against Man United with a ridiculous pass to Kingsley Coman for his goal. Real Madrid have the weight of history behind them and also Bellingham, who can’t seem to do anything wrong. Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid, what a final that would be.