By Simon Peach, PA Chief Football Writer
Erik ten Hag says Manchester United must be playing Champions League football next season, stressing there can be “no misunderstanding” about their need to return to Europe’s top table.
Having taken over at the end of last season with the club at a low ebb, the former Ajax boss has overseen an impressive turnaround in both culture and quality at Old Trafford.
The Carabao Cup final triumph against this weekend’s opponents Newcastle saw Ten Hag became just the second manager in United’s history to win a major trophy in his first campaign at the helm.
The FA Cup and Europa League provide further opportunities for silverware, but there is no doubting the importance of Champions League qualification ahead of Sunday’s trip to their top-four rivals.
“One thing let’s make clear, we have to play Champions League football,” Ten Hag said.
“A club like Manchester United has to act in the Champions League, so there’s no misunderstanding.”
Asked if being in the Champions League makes United more attractive to potential summer signings, he said: “Of course we are more interesting when we are in the Champions League.
“But I think even when we’re not we are still attractive for players. I have noticed that also last year when we were not in the Champions League.
“But I want to make my point clear: we have to be in the Champions League.
“We have two paths. One is the Premier League, being in the top four, or win the Europa League, so they are the two paths.”
Third-placed United are currently well-placed to qualify through the Premier League but would drop out of the top four if they lose at Newcastle and Tottenham won at Everton on Monday.
Lifting the Europa League trophy in May offers another avenue for a club that has remained attractive despite its recent travails.
“I think a very good example is Casemiro,” said Ten Hag, whose side face Sevilla in the Europa League quarter-finals. “He won everything, including the Champions League, but he was willing to come to Manchester United.
“Even when we were playing in the Europa League because this club attracts people, it’s very interesting for them and they want to be part of this club.”
Brazil midfielder Casemiro was the most eye-catching signing of a summer that also saw Antony, Lisandro Martinez, Christian Eriksen and Tyrell Malacia join United.
“From my analysis, I think we are in a good direction, in the right direction,” Ten Hag said of the strategy at the club.
“I think we’re building a base this season but from hereon of course we have to develop and we have to progress.
“You can do that by developing the team and that is in every game you have to play better a better game, so every training (session) you can develop your way of playing and that’s what we are doing.
“We are also setting every time higher demands and standards to our players, and then for the rest in the summer we will see.
Building towards our #PL return 📈#MUFC || #NEWMUN pic.twitter.com/9JMklEylef
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) March 31, 2023
“But that’s not in this moment the focus point. The focus point is now the way of play, make a better game, make a better way of play, so we have a better chance to win games.”
A key area for United to improve this summer is up front after Anthony Martial’s injury-hit campaign and the exit of Cristiano Ronaldo hit an already shallow pool.
Wout Weghorst has been leant on heavily since his surprise January loan switch from Burnley and could stay at Old Trafford beyond the end of the season.
“Of course (he could stay) and I think he’s doing a lot of elements of football really well,” Ten Hag said of the Netherlands striker, who has scored twice in 18 appearances for United.
“He’s doing a really good job for us in pressing. He’s the leader of the process in the pressing, starts the press, he’s very good in the backward pressing.
“He’s taking other positions, his link-up play he’s doing really well.
“He’s making good movements, making space for others, so he’s also good in the set-plays, so he is really contributing to the performance of this team.
“And I think after Christmas we play 25 games and we lost two game and he played almost all of the games so he is really part of that success.”