Football Features

How Erik ten Hag might try to recreate his famous Ajax midfield at Man Utd

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 8:45, 28 April 2022

Erik Ten Hag has been confirmed as the next Manchester United manager, and he’s got a big task ahead of him.

Ten Hag has signed a contract at Old Trafford until June 2025 (with an option for a further year) and is scheduled to take over at the end of the current season.

There’s a lot on Ten Hag’s plate as he tries to take Manchester United back to the level they aspire to be, but his first concern will undoubtedly be the midfield. A long-neglected and oft-lamented unit at Old Trafford, United need dramatic improvement in their midfield if they are to return to the top table of football.

Ten Hag has an advantage, of course, because he knows the kind of midfield he wants to build and the roles he wants to fill, as he has already done it at Ajax, twice! So he will look to his fantastic sides in 2018/19 and 2021/22 for inspiration on how to fix United’s midfield trio, and when he does, he will see three distinct roles that need filling.

What are those roles? Read on!


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The 10: Piercing Fang

Ordinarily we’d start at the base of the midfield, but in United’s instance it’s better to start at the head of the midfield, with “the 10” as Dutch parlance would define it, because this is the one midfield role Ten Hag will not need to worry about.

When you look at Ten Hag’s blueprint, the obvious one here is Donny van de Beek in the 2018/19 Ajax side. A player who can drop deep to help overload in midfield but is also capable of driving forward beyond the striker to add a goal threat and a danger in the box (less so this season with Dusan Tadic in the role, but more so when Ajax played a false nine in 2018/19, and something that will matter in the Premier League where runs into the box are so important).

And, well, Donny van de Beek already plays for Manchester United. The Dutchman cut a frustrated figure under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but he knows exactly how to play this role (and others) under Ten Hag. Van de Beek excelled for the Dutch side and was instrumental in their run to the semi-finals of the 2018/19 Champions League, to the extent he was nominated for the Ballon d’Or; he is the blueprint!

Then there’s the small matter of Bruno Fernandes.

The Portuguese superstar, who joined United in January 2020, has been one of the very best players in the league since then. Even in a down year, as he has had in 2021/22, he has still managed to be among the leading chance creators in the division (86 chances created in 2021/22 is a Premier League high).

Fernandes brings exactly the kind of vertical thrust and goal output that would allow him to slot in perfectly as the most advanced member of Ten Hag’s midfield three. He will have to work on his positional game and not always look for the killer ball, but having a functional midfield around him should make the world of difference to United’s no. 18.

Fernandes has looked completely bereft of quality lately, going seven straight Premier League games without a goal or an assist, even as he continues to rack up chances created.

Even with his overwhelming quality, he is still in need of good coaching, and Ten Hag should provide that coaching to get the Portuguese back to his best level.



The 8: Charge Forth

In the two great Ten Hag sides, 2018/19 and 2021/22, the role of the no. 8 has been a key one to the midfield. In 2018/19 it was Frenkie de Jong (kind of) and this season we have seen Ryan Gravenberch take his game to the next level.

Frenkie is obviously the paragon of this role, because he was really a 6 who could move like an 8, so when he played next to Lasse Schone, who also functioned as a 6, Ajax had a really solid base to work from that was built around a world-class talent.

But Manchester United aren’t going to sign Frenkie de Jong, and there’s no one else really like him right now. Barcelona manager Xavi has reiterated his desire to keep the Dutchman, saying: “If it were up to me, [Frenkie] would continue here for many more years. He is very important and can mark an era here.”

Luckily for Manchester United, there is another blueprint for them to try and recreate in Gravenberch. Not quite as miraculous as De Jong, Gravenberch is nevertheless a spectacular talent whose ability to run with the ball adds a key element of verticality to Ajax’s play. He has completed 64/95 take-ons in the Eredivisie this season, the second-most of any central midfielder in the Dutch top-flight.

So how can United replicate that? Well, the first way is simply by signing Gravenberch himself. “The contract negotiations have now been stopped,” said the young Dutch midfielder. “I just have one more year of contract now and that’s it, really. We’ll see.”

The expectation is that Ajax will look to sell Gravenberch this summer rather than lose him for free. Both Bayern Munich and Real Madrid have been linked, but renewing his relationship with Ten Hag, as well as a guarantee to start, might tempt him to United.

And it would be a perfect fit. Gravenberch knows the role and he has the technique, the talent and the temperament to instantly improve the Manchester United midfield and lift it back to its best possible level.

However, should Gravenberch choose a different club to join (and he has no end of suitors) then United will need to look elsewhere, and two options for a new potential no. 8 stand out from the crowd.

Giovani Lo Celso may have been a disappointment at Spurs, but he has shown during his time at Real Betis and Villarreal that he has the ability and skill-set to play this role perfectly. A hard-working tackler, Lo Celso can carry the ball well (just ask Bayern Munich) and deliver key final passes. His radar (see visual below) matches up well to Gravenberch’s and the only real issue is whether or not Daniel Levy is happy to sell a player as talented as the Argentine to a rival like Manchester United.

The other option for United is Houssem Aouar, the French midfielder has a remarkably similar profile to Gravenberch and has been linked with top European sides for years. With his keen dribbling ability and goal threat, he would be an ideal no. 8 for Ten Hag’s midfield system. He’s not much of a defender, but neither is Gravenberch.

The 6: Barricade Shield

The most important role at Manchester United, and the most important role in football these days, is that of a defensive midfielder. Playing alone at the base of midfield leaves you responsible for playing key progressive passes for your side when they have the ball, but also being able to sweep up behind your attacking players and protect the defence.

This is a role Manchester United have not properly filled since the days of Michael Carrick. Their continued failure to sign a proper defensive midfielder as Manchester City signed Rodri, Liverpool signed Fabinho, Chelsea signed N’Golo Kante and Arsenal signed Thomas Partey is a big reason why they are such a shambles now.

The likes of Fernandes and Paul Pogba simply cannot get the ball in the kind of positions they need to get them in because the players advancing the ball are the technically sub-par Scott McTominay and Fred, who only occasionally shows the capability to play proper football.

So, who is the Ajax archetype? Well, Edson Alvarez is Ten Hag’s shield in the current edition of Ajax and De Jong and Schone shared the role in 2018/19. Alvarez is an unheralded but crucial member of the Ajax team and United need someone of that ilk, someone better ideally, closer to the De Jong level. Someone who can tackle and pass with great efficiency, regaining and recycling possession at speed and putting his more advanced team-mates into promising positions.

With that in mind there are two outstanding options: Aurelien Tchouameni and Ibrahim Sangare. Tchouameni plays for Monaco in Ligue 1 and has already been hailed by former coach Niko Kovac as the best midfielder in the division, plus he is a France international too. Meanwhile Sangare plays for PSV and had a big role in nullifying Ten Hag’s Ajax as the club recently beat them in the KNVB Cup final.

Sangare leads all midfielders in the Eredivisie this season for tackles (82) and interceptions (58). He also places fourth for possessions won in the attacking third (26), something that will impress Ten Hag given his desire for his team to press high. Moreover, only Orkun Kokcu has attempted and completed more passes than the Ivorian’s 1,773 attempted and 1,520 completed.

You only need to look at Sangare’s radar (above) to understand what an utterly dominant force he already is in the Eredivisie and is capable of becoming in the Premier League and beyond. This is a midfielder who has it all.

Tchouameni, meanwhile, has 81 tackles and a league-high (among midfielders) 89 interceptions in Ligue 1 this season. Tchouameni is more of a true sweeper though, as he has won possession in the attacking third just 18 times. With the ball, Tchouameni has completed 1,649/1,892 passes and he has already proven he can handle the biggest of stages with some excellent displays at the base of midfield for the France national team.

Both men are miraculous talents whose youth and skill-set make them ideal to complete United’s new midfield alongside Bruno Fernandes and Ryan Gravenberch. With those two new signings backing-up Bruno, the quality of United’s football will leap several notches, even if Ten Hag isn’t able to upgrade the rest of the team.

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