United manager also defended club’s spending in the transfer market and demanded more of Jadon Sancho

Erik ten Hag says Manchester United have no right to be considered title contenders heading into the new Premier League season.

The United manager has told his stars they must first prove they are good enough to get themselves in the mix and that only Manchester City – champions in five of the past six seasons – should be discussed as potential winners.

United finished 35 points behind City in the season before Ten Hag arrived but closed that gap to 14 points under the Dutchman last term.

But Ten Hag – who has left the door open to more signings before the close of the window after United agreed a £72 million deal with Atalanta for Denmark striker Rasmus Hojlund – wants his players to focus only on hitting the ground running rather than any title talk.

“I think in pre-season we shouldn’t talk about that [the title] – I think no one in the Premier League can do that, [except] maybe City,” said Ten Hag, whose side kick off their season at home to Wolves on Aug 14.

“They can do that because for the last six years they won the title five times. So they can talk about that but any other club must first compete for the first four positions and make sure you are getting in the first four. And then, after, the first two and then maybe you can see about getting yourself in such a position. But don’t talk about that achievement.”

After being crushed 6-3 by City in the league last October, United won the return game at Old Trafford 2-1 in January before losing the FA Cup final to their bitter rivals as Pep Guardiola’s side went on to win an extraordinary Treble.

Manchester United players

United’s victory over City in January was a high point of last season, but they still fell well short in the title race Credit: REUTERS/PHIL NOBLE

Ten Hag believes United have shown they can compete with City in one-off games but that they must strive to match the champions’ relentless consistency.

Speaking on United’s preseason tour of the US, he said: “I think we have proven we can beat them but you have to do it every day and in this moment we have a way to go.

“City are also winning their games much more easily than we did so I see the facts. But I actually don’t want to talk about them because it sounds negative and it’s not the way I meant it. I want to talk about our project. I want to talk about how we improve and I think the improvements last year and the results were quite obvious but also in the performance.

“It was quite obvious that we could beat the big opponents, and also City. In the three games you saw absolutely that we increased the levels against them.

“We are looking at ourselves and not looking at other teams. We have a competition with seven, eight clubs in the Premier League, across Europe even more teams, so we have to work on our way of play and improve our performance. It has to be optimum.”

Ten Hag defends £400m spent on signings

United have agreed deals for Hojlund, goalkeeper Andre Onana and midfielder Mason Mount this summer to take their spending under Ten Hag past £400 million.

But the manager insists United are no different to any of their immediate rivals in terms of investing heavily and he does not rule out more incomings.

Ten Hag likes the Fiorentina and Morocco midfielder Sofyan Amrabat but United would have to sell to make another signing.

Asked if United’s spending increased the pressure on him and the team next season, Ten Hag said: “It can’t be because all the teams are investing huge money, such huge amounts.

“In comparison with the others we are not doing more or less. They all invested a lot in their teams. I’m not focusing on this issue because it’s totally, for me, unattractive.

“I have to think about my way of play and how I improve my team. I will fight for players who I want to have in and I will demand from the club to get the right players in and when we have that, we have to get results.”

Mason Mount and Luke Shaw

Mount, left, has been recruited to improve United’s depth in midfield Credit: Manchester United/Ash Donelon

On the prospect of more arrivals, Ten Hag added: “We are always looking for better quality. So if you want to be at United you have to match a really high standard and when we find the opportunities to get better we have to do it because everyone is expecting the best from us.

“So we also have to raise the bar there but it’s also very important that the players understand we believe in them - believe in their potential, believe in their personalities because team spirit, togetherness, the social connection, the relationships have to be really good among footballers. It’s a team sport and when we are unified we are stronger.”

‘I believe in the potential of Harry Maguire’

One player facing an uncertain future at Old Trafford is Harry Maguire, who lost his place in the team under Ten Hag last season and has since been stripped of the captaincy. West Ham had a £20 million bid for the England defender rejected last week and Ten Hag said it was up to the player to decide if he wants to fight for his place or leave.

“When you are at Man United you have to fight for your position and bring your skills in and prove you are the best for the team and contribute the most,” he said.

“It’s [stripping Maguire of the captaincy] nothing against Harry, it was in advantage of the team. Then you make the decision. But I will not say that Harry isn’t part of this group.

“He has to fight for his position. He is a very good centre-back, and I believe in the potential of Harry Maguire. It’s just that he has to prove himself and fight his way into the team. It’s up to him, and I think he can do it.”

When it was suggested his treatment of Maguire did not point to him believing in the defender, Ten Hag added: “Didn’t I play him? See his competition. It’s tough when you’re competing with Rapha Varane and Victor Lindelof. It’s huge competition. That has nothing to do with the belief.

“I have often chosen a player ahead of Harry, that’s true. But that says nothing about me not believing in him. He has to show he is better for the team than Rapha or Victor. I think that’s a normal situation in top football.”

‘Sancho has to show he can contribute’

Ten Hag has also challenged Jadon Sancho to show far greater consistency next season. The England forward faces something of a make-or-break campaign after two difficult years that included him working on his physical and mental condition away from the squad for three months last season.

“He has to show consistently that he can make a huge contribution,” he said. “When you are a front player that end product is the key. So make sure you are making the key actions, the final pass and get your goals in, because that’s why he is here.

“The rest has to be good as well. That is your foundation and then you meet all the other standards that we expect from a player - on a high level every third or fourth day.”

Ten Hag has been experimenting with Sancho as a false nine in preseason and believes the winger is in a good place mentally.

Jadon Sancho heading the ball

Sancho may be used in a more central role this season Credit: Lucas Peltier

Ten Hag also offered a stark reminder to his squad that it was imperative they live their lives in the right way. The Dutchman has made a number of references to Marcus Rashford ensuring his “attitude is right” but said that message applies to every member of his squad.

“For all the players, you have to live the right life,” he said. “Professional football is tough, so in general our players can’t match the sensational life [while] playing top football.

“Top football is tough nowadays, 60 games a year in club football, 10 international games. Seventy games means that every third or fourth day you have to match the highest physical levels. When you’re not living the right life, you get killed. What is important? Sleep, recovery, nutrition.

“Three key areas and when you don’t do this right, you have a problem. You can’t perform. So when you ask me about Rashford, the same counts for Rapha Varane and every player. You will not reach the levels when you don’t do the things right.”

Ten Hag added: “I think in general when I came in at Man United, the standards were not right. That’s true. I demand the highest standards in sleep, recovery and nutrition because that makes the difference if you can perform every third or fourth day. That is the demand for every top football player, so at Man United we are demanding the highest standards.”