Erik ten Hag and Manchester United have finalized a contract for the Dutchman to take over as the next Red Devils’ gaffer.
He joins a lengthy list of successors to Sir Alex Ferguson, who have not remotely replicated the triumphs the Scottish legend helped Manchester United enjoy.
From a footballing standpoint, Ten Hag has the most refreshing style compared to many of United’s past managers, especially Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, who opted for more defensive tactics.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær also struggled massively during his stint as United manager. He failed to implement a sense of identity into the Manchester giants, who have historically had more of an identity than most. We have also seen this with interim manager Ralf Rangnick recently, where the players on United play as individuals rather than working together as a team with a proper system.
The soon-to-be-former Ajax manager certainly knows what kind of football he wants his teams to play, and we can look at the Dutch sides’ set-up from Ten Hag’s time spent in Amsterdam to get a sense of what that is.
How Ajax Played Under Erik Ten Hag
Ten Hag would often line up his Ajax team in a 4-2-3-1, emphasizing high-tempo possession-based football. In other words, the 52-year-old manager is an adopter of the famous tiki-taka style that Johan Cruyff and Barcelona famously coined and utilized.
Ten Hag prefers more technical players than more physical defenders to build from the back, as short passes from the back are vital to overall build-up play.
Andre Onana has occupied the goalkeeper role admirably at Ajax during Ten Hag’s spell, and since he is excellent with his feet, he was an ideal number one for Ajax.
Some notable technically gifted defenders on Ajax over the years have been Nicolás Tagliafico, Daley Blind, Matthijs de Ligt, Noussair Mazraoui, and Jurrien Timber, who have all formed excellent partnerships together.
His sides can win the ball back quickly in defense, a simple fact that can explain why they’re so dominant in possession. Ajax averages a phenomenal 67.3% possession per game in the Eredivisie this season, and United fans will be happy that their attackers will see a lot of the ball.
One concern at United moving forward will be establishing a solid double-pivot, as we saw with Ryan Gravenberch and Edson Alvarez at Ajax. Alvarez occupied more of a ball-winner role, while Gravenberch had more freedom to move up and down the pitch. Midfielders are key to possession-based sides.
Ten Hag could potentially bring a player like Gravenberch or Alvarez on board, which would be thrilling.
Now let’s look at the bread and butter of Ten Hag’s tactics, being the free-flowing and innovative attack he instills in his teams.
Ten Hag’s attacking structure allows for constant progressive passing, and it will be so exciting to see United play total football with the formidable attackers they have.
The Dutch manager’s Ajax side would often create overloads on the wing with exciting attackers like Dusan Tadic, Antony, and Steven Berghuis while having a focal point in attack with Sébastien Haller.
With the attacking players on United’s senior squad, these tactics fit to a tee. Let’s look at how they will transfer to Old Trafford.
How Manchester United Could Lineup Under Ten Hag
Starting with the goalkeeper position, Ten Hag will want to start a keeper that is excellent on the ball, similar to Andre Onana.
There is massive work to do defensively; however, looking at United’s current personnel, players like Alex Telles and Diogo Dalot could perform well under Ten Hag. These fullbacks will need to be comfortable moving into midfield roles at times during games, so they need to be technical.
It is critical that United look to sign another stellar center-back this summer, as Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, and Harry Maguire have proven to be too shaky. Manuel Akanji is an excellent option, from Dortmund, as he is entering the best years of his career, is excellent on the ball, and has the pace to back up Maguire when he is in the side. Akanji and Raphaël Varane could form an brilliant duo.
As previously mentioned, the central midfielders will need to have ball-winning abilities and be able to contribute to a free-flowing attack. One can be more defensive-minded and protect the backline, while the other has more freedom to move around.
Fred could perform excellently in Edson Alvarez’s role, given his high energy and willingness to press, or United could just go out and sign Alvarez themselves.
We also could see Donny van de Beek revive his career under Ten Hag, who helped him flourish as a youngster in Amsterdam.
In the attack, United will be able to deploy four main threats, two being wing-dominant players, one being a creator (a number ten), and the final being a proper number nine that can provide a more direct outlet to goal.
United has scintillating wing play in abundance with Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, and Anthony Elanga, so options are available. As far as age goes, Sancho and Elanga have the most potential; however, a rejuvenated Rashford or new signing could be tempting to deploy.
The Portuguese man, Bruno Fernandes, will likely occupy a creative midfielder role as a number 10, and he will need to prove to fans that he was worth the massive contract renewal.
His teammate for club and country and arguably the best player of all time, Cristiano Ronaldo, is perfect for this system, given his old age and declining physical prowess. Like Haller has done for his Ajax side, Ronaldo can act as a more direct route to the goal under Ten Hag.
Now, the final question that people will speculate until they witness it with their own eyes…
Will United Become Giants Again?
With players like Sancho, Ronaldo, and Fernandes, United should instill absolute terror into their opponents; however, this has not been the case this season.
We are witnessing a dismantled dressing room that is not collaborating on a pitch where collaboration is imperative, and if Ten Hag doesn’t sort this issue out, United will continue to struggle.
They are currently a team of individuals that needs solidity and fluidity week in and week out, and if that is achieved we could see dazzling football.
The Red Devils’ board also needs to sort out where its priorities are, as many people have questioned their ambition. United’s squad is currently a couple of pieces away from competing for titles, and if those positions aren’t filled, we will see the same football.
It will be very intriguing to see Manchester United adopt Erik Ten Hag’s coaching philosophy next season. With the rest of the footballing world, I am curious to see how he will get this team to perform.
I suspect that it is going to take some time for Manchester United to return to dominance in England.
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