ONE of the worst kept secrets in football was finally officially announced last week – Ajax boss Erik ten Hag is to take charge of Manchester United next season.
United fans can dream of actually getting what they were promised when Ralf Rangnick rocked up – fast football, pressing, pressing and more pressing and plenty of players bombing forward.
Man Utd have confirmed Erik ten Hag as their new manager, replacing interim boss Ralf Rangnick in the summerCredit: Getty
Cristiano Ronaldo is one of several Man Utd stars who could face the chop under new boss Ten HagCredit: Getty
Ten Hag is not a coach that has been an overnight success.
He worked his way through a series of jobs before finally getting a chance at a big club in Ajax and the job that he has done in Amsterdam has been nothing short of excellent – even when you factor in the whole “of course he’s won stuff, he’s at Ajax” thing.
The challenge ahead at Manchester United still feels like a huge step up.
The sheer size of the club and the fact that they will have to compete with two teams, in Liverpool and Manchester City, let alone the shorter term challenge of being better than Arsenal, Spurs, West Ham and other top-four hopefuls.
The club will have to get things right over the summer and there is no doubt that Ten Hag will have an important voice in terms of player recruitment.
In this article we will have a look at what we should expect to see from Ten Hag’s United team next season.
Playing out from the back
From a tactical point of view playing out from the back has almost become a buzz term at top-level football.
However not every team is blessed with a goalkeeper like Ederson who effectively operates as an extra midfielder, and at United we know that David De Gea struggles at times with the ball at his feet – though, in fairness, he’s not the only one.
Positionally the full-backs are flexible – they can stay deeper, to form a three at the back, or they can move into forward positions. When they move forward, a midfielder will drop back.
What Ten Hag will bring in this area is the knowledge of how to coach his side in order to make sure they have players in the right positions to play out from the back – sounds simple, right?
He is not a coach who insists on every player being structured and in their position at all times, as United fans might remember from their last Dutch coach Louis van Gaal.
Instead players are expected to be flexible, usually in a 4-2-3-1 formation, in order to find ways to play forward and through the opposition.
This means that while the two central defenders stay deep to build the play, we then see flexibility in the rest of the team.
If one of the full-backs stays deep then a central midfielder pulls wide.
If the full-backs go into attacking positions then one of the central midfielders will drop off and make a line of three with the centre-halves.
The positioning ahead of the ball is also flexible with the wide attackers free to come inside into the channels or even into the central areas.
This movement and rotation of positions tends to mean that Ajax would always have at least one player in space in the opposition half who could receive the ball and let them play out from the back.
This time there is no pressure from the opposition and so centre back Jurrien Timber is free to push forward and carry the ball deep into the opposition half
If the opposition do not look to press and instead drop back to defend their own half then Ten Hag likes his central defenders to be comfortable carrying the ball forward to the opposition half.
This will suit the likes of Harry Maguire, or an upgrade, who is always happy to step out in possession of the ball.
But, if we were Alex Telles or even Aaron Wan-Bissaka, we’d probably be having a quiet word with our agents to see what else is out there.
Getting players forward
One of the trademarks of the last great United team, under Sir Alex Ferguson, was the willingness to send a lot of players into the final third when they are attacking.
One of the features of this Ajax side under Ten Hag has been the willingness to send players forward in search of a goal as they attack.
No, this is not us saying that Ten Hag is the next Alex Ferguson.
There is a sense of risk and reward around the way that Ten Hag wants his teams to attack.
When his side are in the opposition half of the pitch he wants his full-backs to get forward on both sides.
The wide attackers are free to choose their positioning and if they stay wide then the full-backs will come up into the channels, in the same way that Man City use Joao Cancelo and Liverpool use Trent Alexander-Arnold – while if the wingers come inside then the full-backs go wide.
All three central midfielders are also expected to get forward and to try to support the striker in central areas – meaning United want to find new options here more than ever.
Ajax have six players around the penalty area and when the cross is pulled back Anthony has moved inside, from right-wing, to finish centrally
It is not unusual for Ajax to end up with eight outfield players in the final third as they threaten the opposition goal.
Even the central defenders are expected to defend high, at the half-way line.
This could be an issue for Ten Hag with the United central defenders, Maguire, Victor Lindelof and Raphael Varane, being more comfortable defending with the ball in front of them as opposed to when the ball is played over the top and they are asked to defend back towards their own goal.
That’s the tactical way of suggesting there’s not been a lot of pace there.
Ajax have eight outfield players in the final third. With Anthony positioned wide on the right, the right-back, Mazraoui comes inside and receives the ball before scoring from distance
It will take some work from Ten Hag to coach the full-backs to not only understand how they are expected to support the attack but to be able to do so effectively.
Can Wan-Bissaka learn to fulfil this role or will they have to enter the market for a right-back who can?
The latter, most likely, as mentioned.
Equally, United must be hoping that Luke Shaw can string together a whole season fully fit as Telles does not seem to fit the Ten Hag bill.
Erik ten Hag is a coach who expects his team to work hard against the ball and to press aggressively and high up the pitch.
Whether he is able to use this style of defensive play at United though is another question.
Let’s not forget that United are currently managed by Rangnick and the German is considered the godfather of pressing football in his home nation.
When he first took charge there were signs that he was going to expect United to press high and with aggression but this seemed to stop within his first three or four matches in charge.
It is likely that Rangnick realised that the players in the first-team squad just weren’t suited to pressing in this way. Looking at you, Cristiano.
When Ajax lose the ball, especially in the wide areas, Ten Hag likes them to move aggressively in groups of two or three to put immediate pressure on the ball. Even if the opposition do get through the press they tend to have to play long passes that can be intercepted
How is this going to change over the course of the next few months?
Of course there could potentially be players coming into the club over the summer who are better pressers but it feels like there needs to be a real shift in the dressing room for this to work.
Again, Ajax press and defend across the width of the pitch with four players moving high aggressively
Pressing high in this manner is something that will be extremely important for United under Ten Hag as we can expect them to push lots of players forward in the attack.
If they do not look to press and counter press when their attack breaks down then this will lead to the central defenders being exposed in space time and time again.
And one thing we have certainly seen in recent weeks is that you do not want to leave Maguire exposed with a lot of space around him – but this is going to mean that Ronaldo either has to do it or Ten Hag will have to change his approach ala Rangnick.
And can Erik replace Ronaldo’s goals across the team? We will have to wait and see.
As for Bruno Fernandes, often seen as a one-man pressing crusade – or in simpler terms, a man running up a blind alley whilst others watch on – is he too tactically ill-disciplined to fail under the new boss?
In fairness, Ten Hag has bigger issues to solve before he gets to the maverick Fernandes conundrum.
United have moved relatively early to get Ten Hag to sign on the dotted line.
Therefore, you can assume they quite like how he does things on the pitch with Ajax and they fancy a bit of that at Old Trafford in the future.
So we can expect them to try and play out from the back, attack in numbers and press high.
We all know the players they have can’t or won’t do it – Telles, Wan-Bissaka, McTominay, Fred, Ronaldo, Bruno, Maguire could all be under threat for different reasons – so, who are they going to sign instead?
For more tactical analysis, scouting and stunning data visuals head over to Total Football Analysis – check out their monthly digital magazine which features 22 top articles in the May edition.
Manchester United’s disappointing stats this season