Christian Eriksen is emblematic of hope. And if there is one thing Manchester United need a bushel of, it is hope.
Like most new players, Eriksen, Manchester United’s second signing of the season after full back Tyrell Malacia, hit the right notes after joining on a three-year deal. Beyond that, he said something that should resonate with the Manchester United faithful. “I still have major ambitions in the game, there is a huge amount that I know I can achieve and this is the perfect place to continue my journey,” he said. In all the years of the team sliding south, Manchester United may never have been lacking in ambition but it wasn’t always evident. In the second half of last season, it was definitely in short supply.
So there is a lot riding on the 30-year-old who, 13 months after an on-pitch heart attack, has joined a club that has largely forgotten what it feels like to win trophies. “He (Eriksen) will add valuable experience and leadership skills to the squad,” John Murtough, the club’s football director, has said.
But in a World Cup year, would joining one of football’s most popular brands be a lot to process for Eriksen who now plays with an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator, a machine that regulates heartbeat? “If there is one baggage Eriksen brings to Manchester United it is his health,” said Phil Brown, the former Hull City manager. “So, yes there will be pressure on the guy.”
“I am sure United’s medical team has been at the top of its game and we will not have a situation like with Khalilou Fadiga,” said Brown referring to the Senegal midfielder’s heart problem at Bolton Wanderers when Brown was assistant coach. “It led to him not being sure of himself and that affected him and us.”
You never say never but Manchester United’s new manager Erik ten Hag has seen Eriksen train at Ajax whose connection with players from Denmark goers back to the time of the Laudrup brothers. John Steen Olsen, a recently retired scout at the Dutch champions and who had first seen Eriksen when he a 13, has said he is “completely himself again, and perhaps even better now.”
“But how Eriksen fares will also depend on how Manchester United fare between now and the close of the transfer window,” said Brown over the phone from England.
Manchester United have reinforced the defence, signing Lisandro Martinez from Ajax after Malacia but a defensive midfielder is needed given the team’s well-documented woes in that department. And, even if the Cristiano Ronaldo saga is ending quietly, they will need goals. Teams have needed 67 goals or more to finish in the top four over the past five seasons; Chelsea’s 58 goals in 2020-21 being the exception that proves the rule. On way to finishing sixth, only once have they finished lower in the Premier League, Manchester United scored 57 goals.
The onus, therefore, is on Ronaldo (assuming he stays), Marcus Rashford, Antony Martial, Anthony Elanga and Jadon Sancho, now that he has been shifted to his favoured wide right position by Ten Hag, to find more goals. What better than to have another player apart from Bruno Fernandes who, with the right defensive midfield protection, can regularly find that line-breaking pass. Since a lot of a goal-bound moves need to be routed through Ronaldo, having another player capable of providing a pass that can create a goal should help Manchester United. And Eriksen can also score off set-pieces.
At Brentford, where he joined last winter, Eriksen provided four assists in 11 games. Brentford won seven of the 10 games Eriksen started with the Dane having 73.6 touches per 90. With Eriksen pulling the strings in midfield, Ivan Toney, Yoane Wissa and Bryan Mbuemo finished the season well for Brentford. “You can always give it (the ball) to Christian and he will find a solution,” Brentford coach Thomas Frank said last term. It is why Mauricio Pochettino had called Eriksen a complete player.
Since seven seasons at Spurs (113 league goal involvements including 63 assists), Eriksen has evolved into a more mature midfielder. He is most comfortable playing provider in a 4-2-3-1 but adapted being a central midfielder in a 3-5-2 at Inter Milan. At Brentford, he would drop deep and operate from the left.
“Eriksen is a quality player but United have two or three similar kinds and it will have to be seen whom the manager prefers,” said Brown. Apart from Eriksen, Ten Hag would have Fernandes and Donny van de Beek and no one’s ruling out the possibility of Frenkie de Jong joining yet.
“But he could play a big part. Unlike Paul Pogba who really held the club back and it was astonishing that a club that big was held back by one player,” said Brown. Unlike Pogba again, Eriksen is more efficient on the ball.
But can a new attacking midfielder, a new central defender, a new left back and a new coach help repair the Premier League’s most successful team? “I think they will need one or two more transfer windows to make a serious pitch for the title. Erik ten Hag is a good manager and I think the return of (assistant-coach) Steve McClaren will play a big part in Manchester United’s season. That said, I don’t see City going away, I don’t see Liverpool going away or Cheslea and I think Spurs will have a good season. So, I don’t see United in the top four,” said Brown.