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Manchester United have been an utter disaster this season with the experiment of Ralf Rangnick nothing short of laughable. That said, there are problems at the club that run much deeper than the man in the dugout. With that in mind, here we’re taking a look at their new manager, Erik Ten Hag. We’ll be discussing his career to date, his footballing philosophy and his likely tactical set up ahead of next season.

Who is Erik Ten Hag?

Ten Hag was born in Haaksbergen, a decent-sized town in the Twente region of the Netherlands back in 1970. It was in Holland – and specifically in the area of Twente – where he spent his formative years. His breakthrough into senior football came with that very club and although he played for several Dutch sides, his playing career is largely synonymous with Twente where he spent three different spells. As a player, Ten Hag was known as a ball-playing centre back but he called time on his career at a relatively early age, 32.

Despite the early retirement, it took a decade for Ten Hag to take up his first senior managerial role. That came with Go Ahead Eagles in his homeland but within a matter of months, he became the manager of Bayern Munich’s second string where he worked under Man City manager Pep Guardiola. A move back to Holland came after two impressive years at Bayern and after achieving a 50.5% win ratio as Utrecht boss over 111 games and scooping the Manager of the Year award, Dutch giants Ajax came calling.

Since being with Ajax, Ten Hag has continued to evolve their brand of ‘total football’ winning two further Manager of the Year awards. He’s also achieved big things on the pitch in the shape of three Eredivisie titles, two KNVB Cups and, notably, guiding an unfancied Ajax side to the Champions League semi-final in 2019.

The principles of Ten Hag

When you look back at interviews Ten Hag has completed over the years there is one message that is really clear; he lives and breathes ‘standards’. That’s not just on the pitch either. He is a manager that treats his players well but he’ll demand 100% effort and 100% loyalty and transparency from them too; that might not go down well with certain members of this United squad!

Of course, there is more to Ten Hag than just those basic principles. He’s someone that believes in developing players – and teams – over a period of time. Ten Hag himself has cited that he isn’t someone that can go into a club and wave a magic wand. Instead, he’ll want to spend quality time on the training ground where he’ll apply his motto of “being good, isn’t good enough”.

That tireless desire for improvement and evolution should stand Man United in good stead but with such high standards, you can expect a few players to be thrown on the scrap heap. Ten Hag might have the ability to put a comforting arm around the shoulder but everything we’ve seen and heard from him so far also suggests he’ll be willing to show who is boss as well; if anyone is not on board with him, they’ll be out.

Erik ten Hag celebrates with Ajax players
Erik Ten Hag is known for building a close bond with his players. Photo by Icon sport

How will United play?

Formation

It almost nailed on that Manchester United will line up in a 4-3-3 formation under Ten Hag next season; that system has been pretty much an ever-present feature during his time at Ajax. What does that actually mean though? Formations when pushed into numbers i.e. 4-3-3 are very static but it’s the makeup of the midfield and front threes that really define this Ten Hag set-up. You can expect to see two deeper-lying midfield players, one operating in the pocket as something like a number 10 and then two wingers with a lone central striker. 4-3-3 is the common formation associated with Ten Hag; in reality, it’s more of a 4-2-3-1.

The style

Where the actual style of play comes in is where we could see a real shift in the way United approach games. Ten Hag demands that his team control games. That starts with his central defenders – and one of the deeper midfielders – dropping to take the ball; from there the fullbacks and other midfield players are expected to make angles higher upfield and ‘show’ for the ball.

On paper, this is schoolboy stuff. It’s about giving your teammate an option and showing bravery to take the ball; this has been a criticism of the current United squad – particularly from their former captain Gary Neville. The other thing these little movements do though is ‘make the pitch bigger’; this creates spaces in the opposition that allows for really penetrative, breaking the line type passes. This is a fundamental of Ten Hag’s style; it allows the attacking players to drop into holes to get on the ball and start to control territory.

Once into that final third, Ten Hag’s game plan thrives on movement and fluidity in his players – albeit with the demand that someone – either the wingers or fullbacks – hold wide to maximise the space. The intention of this is to create overloads and pull the opposition out of shape thus creating gaps to create chances for crosses into the box and shots on goal.

erik ten hag
Erik Ten Hag is a manager that knows what he wants. Photo by Icon sport

Can Manchester United play the Ten Hag way?

This is the killer question. In recent times, United have looked best when playing on the counter; when they do control games though they look ponderous, slow and devoid of any real ability to pick apart defences. Ten Hag will want to rip that up. The trouble is, there are major question marks over whether he has players in the squad that can do what he wants.

There has been a lot of talk about Cristiano Ronaldo but, actually, he’s far from a problem for United. The likes of Anthony Elanga, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho could all thrive under Ten Hag although the addition of another winger-come-attacker wouldn’t be a massive surprise. Bruno Fernandes is another who should be fine.

Where the problems come is at the back; Ten Hag’s system needs defenders who are comfortable on the ball and, because of playing quite a high line, he’ll want them to be capable of making recovery runs as well. If building the backline from scratch, you could argue that none of the current first-choice back four (Dalot, Maguire, Varane, Shaw) would be in it. Of course, it’s unlikely you see all of them go but a new centre back – probably Jurrien Timber – and a new full-back are absolute necessities. Ahead of them, there are probably upgrades to be had in the two deeper midfield roles too. Donny van de Beek has thrived under Ten Hag before and could come into the reckoning but, again, don’t be surprised to see a new face.

The final verdict

The appointment of Ten Hag should excite Manchester United fans but there are a couple of key things that will underpin how successful he becomes. The first of those things is recruitment; it’s imperative that a new centre back, midfield player and full back arrive. A new striker to lighten the burden on Ronaldo is going to be pretty high up the priority list too. The other thing that must be afforded to Ten Hag is time; that said, he’ll need to show a positive direction of travel pretty quickly as well!

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