Manchester United will begin a crucial three-month period when they face Atletico Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 on Wednesday. What happens between now and the end of the season will have a critical impact on the big decisions that must be made by United's owners, the Glazer family, and recently appointed chief executive Richard Arnold.
The Premier League's most successful club -- 13 titles since 1993, but none since 2013 -- not only have to recruit a new permanent manager to replace Ralf Rangnick, who has been in interim charge since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was fired in November, but also identify and sign much-needed reinforcements for a squad that is likely to lose a number of out of contract players this summer. There are also big question marks over the futures of players with contracts which run beyond the end of this season including Cristiano Ronaldo, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford.
United's 4-2 win at Leeds on Sunday enabled Rangnick's team to open up a four-point lead on their rivals in the race for the Premier League's fourth spot and their crucial objective of Champions League qualification remains open via two routes: a top-four finish or winning this season's competition in Saint Petersburg on May 28.
Missing out on next season's Champions League next season will only make it more difficult for United to attract the calibre of manager and players they need to enable the team to compete for major honours again, but regardless of their European fate, the Glazers and Arnold have some big issues address.
This is the No. 1 issue that must be addressed by United and the one which will dictate what happens with every other football-related decision at Old Trafford.
Sources have told ESPN that no manager is yet regarded as the favoured candidate, with the Glazers and Arnold determined to undertake a comprehensive search which will involve analysing the strengths and weaknesses of each possible appointment, their playing style, the players they would need, as well as the prospects of persuading them to take the United job.
Such an in-depth approach is deemed crucial by the Glazers, who want to avoid the mistakes made in previous appointments, but the owners also risk overcomplicating a process which ultimately boils down to finding a world-class coach with a track record of producing teams that win and entertain at the same time.
Mauricio Pochettino (Paris Saint-Germain), Erik ten Hag (Ajax) and Luis Enrique (Spain) are all being considered, sources told ESPN. while Simone Inzaghi (Inter Milan) and Julian Nagelsmann (Bayern Munich) are unlikely targets but are still being assessed in terms of their suitability and potential availability. Meanwhile Leicester City's recent slump in form is likely to have ended Brendan Rodgers' prospects, despite the former Liverpool manager having admirers at Old Trafford.
The compensation fee for hiring any of the above, plus wage demands and transfer requirements, will be a factor with whomever United appoint, so it will not simply come down to the best candidate for the job. But all have different approaches to the game and therefore will want different players, so the managerial appointment process is likely to be complex unless an outstanding candidate suddenly becomes available in the weeks ahead.
United spent just short of £130 million on new signings last summer by adding Jadon Sancho (£72.9m), Raphael Varane (£41m) and Ronaldo (£13m) to the squad, but they are likely to have to spend even more when the transfer window opens simply to avoid falling further behind Manchester City and Liverpool in the Premier League.
Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Edinson Cavani are all out of contract at the end of the season and will leave as free agents. While Mata and Lingard have been peripheral figures in recent months, their departure will leave holes to fill in the squad, but the loss of Pogba and Cavani will mean United have no option but to find an attacking midfielder and centre-forward to replace both players.
United already have issues to address in defensive midfield and at right-back -- where neither Aaron Wan-Bissaka or Diogo Dalot are regarded as long-term solutions -- but with so many positions in need of reinforcement, United will have to prioritise and make smart additions to the squad rather than the expensive signings of recent years.
Sources have told ESPN that West Ham midfielder Declan Rice is a target, but with a likely valuation upwards of £80m, efforts will be made find a less expensive alternative. Meanwhile, Rangnick has already suggested RB Leipzig's Christopher Nkunku as a possible replacement for Pogba in the attacking third of the pitch. A move for Tottenham striker Harry Kane is a possibility, especially if Pochettino is appointed as manager, but signing the 28-year-old will cost at least £100m and would command the same kind of wages as the club's second-highest earner David de Gea (£350,000-a-week) -- Ronaldo is out on his own with a £480,000-a-week deal.
The key for United, however, is to find players who can make the team better without breaking the bank. Liverpool have mastered that approach by signing the likes of left-back Andy Robertson (£8m), as well as forwards Mohamed Salah (£34.3m) and Diogo Jota (£41m) in recent years, so the blueprint is there for United to follow.
With Pogba, Mata, Lingard and Cavani all set to leave for nothing this summer, United must now look 12-24 months ahead to avoid similar high-profile names becoming free agents in 2023 and 2024.
De Gea, Rashford, Fred, Ronaldo, Dalot, Luke Shaw, Nemanja Matic and Phil Jones will all enter the final 12 months of their contracts this summer, but while United have the option of extending the majority of those by a further year, decisions must be made now as to whether it makes financial and football sense to extend them, offload them or allow some to leave as free agents in 2023.
With a new coach likely to want his own players, some of those named above may need to be offloaded to raise funds, especially if they make it clear that they will not sign new deals. Matic and Jones could both leave for a fee, while Dalot and Fred are both expected to be rewarded with new contracts.
ESPN has reported that United will prioritise a new contract for Rashford, but has the 24-year-old done enough in recent months to merit a big pay rise and extended deal? And will he even want to commit to a club that has failed to challenge for the top honours during his five years in the first-team? Rashford is likely to be a challenge for Arnold and the Glazers -- he is too valuable a player to risk losing for nothing, but his recent form does not justify the reward of a new contract, so that is one situation to watch closely.
De Gea's future may be down to whoever United appoint as manager and whether they require a more modern sweeper-keeper or are prepared to stick with the Spain international who, while prone to mistakes, remains one of the most naturally gifted goalkeepers in the world. But like Rashford, a bold decision to offload De Gea could lead to significant funds being gathered for new signings and avoid the risk of the 31-year-old leaving as a free agent in 2023 or, if United choose to extend by 12 months, in 2024.
If any club is ripe for clear-out it is Manchester United. The new manager will inherit a squad that has been constructed by five different managers, from Sir Alex Ferguson through to Solskjaer, and many of those players have under-performed at Old Trafford. But with at least four out-of-contract players set to leave, can United really afford to offload five or six more? Even if they appear to have to reached the end of the line at the club?
Jones, Martial (on loan at Sevilla), Matic, Eric Bailly, Dean Henderson and Axel Tuanzebe (on loan at Napoli) could all leave, while midfielder Donny van de Beek (on loan at Everton) is another who could go after struggling to make an impact since his £40m arrival from Ajax in August 2020.
The manager, Arnold and the Glazers must make clear-headed football decisions about all of the above, but the reality is that some will stay because no top club can sanction the departures of as many as 10 players in a summer window and expect to replace them all. The churn of ins and outs would be far too great to expect consistency next season, so United must find a way to dispense with the dead wood, but retain those players who could be useful squad members. It will be a difficult balancing act, but it is not as simple as getting rid of every player who doesn't measure up.
The Ronaldo dilemma
Ronaldo signed a two-year contract with the option of a third year when he returned to United from Juventus last summer, 12 years after leaving Old Trafford for Real Madrid. He has delivered this season, scoring 15 goals in all competitions for United, but the 37-year-old has scored just one goal in eight games in 2022 and is beginning to look like a passenger in Rangnick's team.
With Cavani leaving at the end of the season, United will prioritise a new centre-forward. Indeed, it seems highly unlikely that, whoever the new manager is, Ronaldo will be a regular starter with the likes of Rashford, Sancho and young Anthony Elanga all pushing to play, as well as whoever United sign up front.
So what do United do with Ronaldo? If he is prepared to stay and accept a role as an impact substitute next season, he would be a useful member of the squad. But an unhappy Ronaldo, frustrated by a lack of opportunities, would only become an unwanted distraction. The obvious decision would be to offload him, even though it won't be cheap to pay up the final year of his £480,000-a-week contract, but recent performances suggest that one of the world's greatest-ever players is running out of steam.
If United are sensible, allowing Ronaldo to leave would allow their new manager to start with a clean slate and without the constant issue of how to deal with the superstar hovering over every team selection.
Rangnick signed a two-year deal to become a consultant at Old Trafford once his stint as interim manager comes to an end at the conclusion of this season. What that actually means has yet to be explained, with United already employing John Murtough as head of football operations and former midfielder Darren Fletcher as technical director.
If Rangnick is asked to add his expertise and contacts throughout the world to United's football department, it will strengthen the club's ability to find the best emerging players but also enable them to tap into the knowledge of a man who has help build successful structures at Hoffenheim and within the Red Bull football group. But Rangnick needs a defined role in order to avoid him straying into Murtough and Fletcher's areas of responsibility as, without a clear remit, the German could confuse matters behind the scenes.
If United decide to appoint Luis Enrique, but are forced to wait until the former Barcelona coach's contract with Spain ends at the 2022 World Cup, Rangnick could extend his interim stint into next season. But whatever his future role turns out to be, United must ensure everyone at the club knows what it involves before he starts.