Football Features

The anti-Mourinho? A tactical profile of new Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 18:57, 25 April 2022

There is perhaps no bigger job in world football than restoring Manchester United to its past glories.

Following another humiliating defeat against eternal rivals Liverpool, the 20-time English champions announced that Erik ten Hag will serve in this unenviable, but life-altering, managerial position from next season onwards.

Unlike his four immediate predecessors, he’s never coached in a ‘Big Five’ European league.

For some this isn’t an issue, but it does bring to light the fact Ten Hag hasn’t previously dealt with huge egos or faced the best tacticians on a near-weekly basis. That all changes now. If the pragmatic Dutchman is to reverse United’s decline, then so much needs to happen.

Read more on Manchester United:

The key differences between Ajax and Manchester United

It’s been written ad nauseam that United is a structural mess and it seems the powers-that-be at Old Trafford have somewhat begrudgingly recognised the gravity of the situation. Ten Hag will need to crawl before he can walk, though, let alone run. In other words, expect yet another transitional phase at the Theatre of Dreams.

Ten Hag can at least control what’s on the pitch, but a manager is only as good as his tools and the make-up of his first United squad is to be determined with several first-team regulars expected to be moved on (e.g. Paul Pogba) and a big summer transfer window on the horizon.

Whoever is going to play under him, the astute man-management he has displayed at previous clubs will be key to allowing everything to come to fruition. The difference is that Ten Hag has until now been dealing with a team largely in their early 20s, which means his duties have extended far beyond simply coaching. He’s not a totalitarian like Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho, but isn’t afraid to crack the whip either.

One thing will be for certain, he’s not in Kansas anymore. While the pressure to succeed at Ajax is somewhat comparable, the Amsterdammers have the first-among-equals status currently reserved for either Liverpool or Manchester City in Ten Hag’s new surroundings. At the helm are Europe’s two finest coaches, both proven team-builders and tactical wizards who Ten Hag must outlast if United are to be champions once more and that’s not even factoring credible threats in the guise of Thomas Tuchel or Antonio Conte as well as Mikel Arteta, who could also be a thorn in his side.

From what he’s already demonstrated at the helm of Dutch football’s most illustrious club, Ten Hag is at the very least a tactically astute signing. Under his leadership, De Godenzonen lived up to their proud cultural history. They exhibited a modern interpretation of Totaalvoetbal (modified by Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal), which Ten Hag successfully re-implemented. The fruits of his labour saw Ajax become an unrelenting scoring machine while simultaneously boasting defensive numbers that would make Arrigo Sacchi proud. Group C in this season’s Champions League witnessed it firsthand. All the more evidence that with the right players, who buy into his vision, great things can happen.

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More like Guardiola or Klopp? Key characteristics of Ten Hag’s tactical philosophy

1. Versatility

It should come as no surprise, given their prior working relationship at Bayern Munich, to hear Ten Hag is cut from the same cloth as Guardiola. Both draw their philosophical influence from the aforementioned Cruyff-Van Gaal school. Teamwork is fundamental. Universality is wholly essential. Players under their leadership are required to be comfortable in multiple positions and roles.

Positional interchanging is integral to Ten Hag’s game. Once an area is vacated an area of the field, a teammate drops in to maintain the attacking shape (either 3-1-4-2 or 2-1-4-3).

Ajax’s passing network in the 2021/22 Eredivisie & Champions League

2. Possession

Another concept both Guardiola and Ten Hag value greatly is retaining possession. Circulation football in this case used as a means to not only create scoring opportunities but as a defensive weapon. By having the ball, the opposition can’t harm you. To illustrate this point, Ajax — who nominally lineup in a 4-3-3 shape with a double pivot — have completed nearly 2,000 more passes than any other Eredivisie side this season, with an 85% passing accuracy. They have also conceded just 15 goals in 2021/22, nearly half the second-best defensive record this Eredivisie season so far.

Some might be wary of falling into the trap of pursuing possession for possession’s sake. And in other tactical approaches, such as Gegenpressing, it is in fact beneficial at times for the opponent to have the ball in their defensive third. But for Ten Hag and Guardiola, possession is everything, and not just because it’s the only way he knows how to play. What’s more, the simple truth is that without the ball, Ten Hag’s Ajax aren’t very good.

But another often-overlooked benefit to keeping the ball is that it conserves energy. Much like those who held the seat before him, this incarnation of Ajax seldom passes more than ten metres during a build-up phase, letting the ball do the running. Every pass needs to be precise in a particular way, too. It must be a metre ahead and never into feet. This way, the circulation is kept flowing. Spending time with Guardiola, where he shadowed the Catalan as Bayern’s reserve team manager, reinforced Ten Hag’s vision, which he unleashed on fields up and down the Netherlands.

3. Pragmatism

Ten Hag’s immediate position after leaving Bayern was with FC Utrecht and to some extent this experience will have prepared him for the United gig, because Utreg were middle of the pack and when compared to sides above, there was a gulf in class. He is stepping into a similar situation at Old Trafford, one perhaps even more challenging (although United have the resources to close the gap).

When coaching Utrecht, the Ten Hag had to compromise some of his ideals, such as utilising a back three and two strikers. However, what never changed was setting up his side to be difficult to break down. At least in the short-term, that mindset should return as he experiences his first season in England’s top division.

4. Pressing

Ten Hag’s new colleague Ralf Rangnick (the ‘Godfather of Gegenpressing’) would nevertheless be impressed watching his Ajax press in the immediate moments where they lose possession: the perfect time to press because the opposing player who has just won the ball is at his most vulnerable having expended energy (and sometimes composure) to win it. At Ajax, possession needs to be regained in three seconds, usually by forming a wall of three behind the player closing down. If they haven’t won it back, instead of falling back and regrouping, Ten Hag’s teams move up the pitch using a high defensive line to form a compact ten-man wall.

Once they’ve won possession, the job is to keep the ball, controlling the ebb and flow until a gap appears (normally through the opposition becoming tired). Subsequently each attack is built patiently toward a desire to finish with a sweeping move. This is Ajax’s house style, which Ten Hag mastered and now calls his own.

5. One club ethos

He has enjoyed the luxury of working at a club rich in tradition with its own unique culture, identity, world-class academy production line and where key areas are served by football-minded people. Guardiola and his cohort have shown this way can be transferred over to a club with a blank slate but you can’t put the cart before the horse. Or, to be precise, there needs to be a symbiotic connection between United’s academy, Ten Hag and those above him.

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Could Ten Hag’s ‘anti-Mourinho’ ideas create friction with Man United’s fanbase?

Being steadfast to one’s ideals, as commendable as it may be, can lead to an oversight Ten Hag has often been guilty of, including in this last-dance season.

Another part of his philosophy is that Ten Hag effectively leaves his players to solve their own problems during games. “Players should not just run with their legs, but with their head as well,” as Guus Hiddink once said. Individual-based training (or the ‘Rinus Michels model’) is on the Ajax training curriculum and that has gone a long way to help.

But consequently, this approach can create frustrations with Ten Hag’s in-game management. Much like Guardiola, it leaves a lot to be desired when things are going off the rails. He has often been guilty of disregarding his bench, making late substitutions that could have either saved or won a game. No one is expecting peak Mourinho, but this inability to read the game and sense its trajectory, especially if it is going away from his team, is a weakness that will be ruthlessly punished in a much tougher league.

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The very same playing philosophy he lives by was also designed to break down stubborn opposition. The majority of sides Ajax face at home play in a compact 6-3-1 formation: the general idea being to make the pitch small, suffocate their creative players, and hit them on the break. To counter that, the centre-backs need to play a key role by constructing from the back. On four notable occasions during what has turned out to be his final campaign at Ajax, it malfunctioned. Each of Ajax’s three Eredivisie defeats (two of which have come at home) were by a single goal margin and those sides (then ranked 5th, 8th and 14th) secured their victories by defending deep.

Ten Hag either waited too long to make a change or kept things the way they were. Ajax naturally dominated large swathes of the match but weren’t able to create any meaningful clear-cut chances. Their exit from the Champions League at the hands of Benfica followed this script.

His usual go-to when chasing is taking off a defender for a forward, subsequently changing the formation but nonetheless retaining Ajax’s possession-based game. These are rare moments given Ajax’s dominance, but they do give us a small peak into his approach when things go awry. When everything does click his side can be a ruthless force and that’s what United are banking on with this appointment.

Seasoned and decorated managers have come and gone. Ten Hag exits Ajax having restored their credibility in Europe, and is now chasing a three-peat as a parting gift. He is now United’s gain. They are bringing in a brilliant coach who’s proven capable of changing a club’s fortunes, but the Red Devils’ brass need to be in lockstep with him and exercise patience of a saint. Only then may their future be a rosy one.



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