Football Features

How Man Utd could line up under Erik ten Hag

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 11:38, 21 April 2022

Manchester United have confirmed that Erik ten Hag will be their fifth permanent manager since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Ten Hag will finish the season with Ajax before taking up the reins at United in the summer.

Man United odds (2022-23 season)  Sky Bet
Premier League winner 22/1
Finish in the top four 1/1
Top half finish 1/10
Bottom half finish 11/2
Relegation 500/1
You have to be 18+ to gamble. UK only. All odds in the table above are accurate at the time of writing (07:45, 07/05/2022). BeGambleAware.

Interim head coach Ralf Rangnick is expected to move into a consultancy role subsequently leaving the Old Trafford dugout for Ten Hag, who has done wonders in his present role at Ajax to re-establish the Amsterdammers’ relevance within the European footballing sphere.

Seen as one of footballing management’s hottest talents, Ten Hag’s appointment is a progressive choice. But it’s also a bold one. Unlike his four predecessors, he’s never coached in a ‘big five’ league before.

Another area to keep an eye on will be his relationship with United’s backroom staffing structure, one whose precise form is clouded by uncertainty. The exact nature of Rangnick’s role is reportedly undecided, and he himself confessed he doesn’t know what technical director Darren Fletcher’s purview entails.

In some ways both Rangnick and Ten Hag are seen as two sides of the same coin, but their approaches to football couldn’t be any more different and this could be exposed when it comes to recruitment.

Speaking on his appointment at Old Trafford, Ten Hag vowed to “develop a team capable of delivering the success they deserve” with the club’s Football Director, John Murtough highlighting the Dutchman’s dedication to “attractive, attacking football and commitment to youth”.


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Which players are most likely to join Man United this summer?

Reports suggest Ten Hag will insist on being involved in transfers and contract renewals. The current transfer committee is said to include Fletcher, football director John Murtough and chief scouts.

There are so many unknowns when it comes to how this summer’s transfer window will pan out. What calibre of player will United be able to attract if they finish outside the top four? Where will Paul Pogba be playing next season?

Player Sky Bet
Kalvin Phillips 2/1
Declan Rice 3/1
Youri Tielemans 3/1
Ousmane Dembele  5/1
Harry Kane 9/2
Jude Bellingham 12/1
Jarrod Bowen 14/1
You have to be 18+ to gamble. UK only. All odds within this article are accurate at the time of writing (11:45, 21/04/2022). BeGambleAware.

System addict

Like Dutch compatriot Van Gaal, Ten Hag is a tactical fundamentalist whose arrival in the short-term at least spells change and fresh direction with regards to how Man United are set up on the field. Even before the proverbial ink has dried, it’s curious to imagine how a Ten Hag side in the Premier League would operate.

The first visible change will be United’s formation of choice. Already in a near-decade career Ten Hag has been known to be a pragmatist. Wherever he’s been — Go Ahead Eagles, Bayern Munich’s reserve team, FC Utrecht and Ajax — the system used is primarily a reflection of personnel on hand and needs. For example, his two most recent jobs are on opposite ends, Utrecht are punching upwards while Ajax sit atop of the mountain.

At the former, he set them up to be a counter-attacking and hard to break down; in Amsterdam, it’s about living up to certain ideals most notably controlling possession, that fluid style of dictating tempo only works if they’re put together correctly. It goes without saying, the better quality of players makes a manager’s job easy, depending on what else happens in the summer United could potentially line up in more ways than one.

1. Classic Dutch

To nobody’s surprise, Ten Hag’s most commonly used shape is a 4-3-3 with a double pivot. His championship-winning Ajax sides have predominantly been fielded this way and there’s nothing to suggest United couldn’t line up the same way under him. A quick glance at their present squad and, putting form to one side, you can see they have the players to replicate this widely used formation. Picture a number nine with fleet-footed wingers either side. Behind the centre-forward is a calculating playmaker, who is protected by a classic ‘number six and eight’ tandem, respectively tasked with reclaiming and recycling possession either through impeccable tackling or good positional sense.

2. Wing-backs of desire

As touched upon it was his good work at Utrecht which ultimately convinced the powers that be that Ajax was Ten Hag’s natural next step. His time at Utreg saw him move away from playing four at the back and utilising a lone striker. Instead we saw the Haaksbergen native establish himself as one of the more tactically flexible coaches around. He deployed at least four different formations, the most prominent being his 3-5-2 which turned his side into a relentless threat in the opposition half and a presence in their own. Here we saw the effective use of wing-backs which, to be fair, has also been seen at Old Trafford this season.

Antonio Conte has shown it to be a winning formula and if it means — in a competitive league — guaranteeing United to be a hard nut to crack then expect Ten Hag going back into his old bag of tricks.

3. Diamonds are forever

It’s been a long time since Ten Hag has played with a back-three. Returning to it may seem out of left field, but in a cutthroat business where you’re only good as your last result, anything that ensures his head stays above the parapet will be considered. Of course there’s a halfway house, that being a 4-4-2 diamond, another set-up he often used to some effect during his Utrecht days.

Ten Hag’s deployment of two centre-forwards, uncommon back then across Europe let alone in the nation where 4-3-3 is sacrosanct, allowed for the blossoming of a strike partnership. United possess a number of forwards who could be paired together with flank support coming from the full-backs. A diamond also means slotting a No.10 behind the primary attackers while their backline is marshalled by a holding midfielder.


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Which Man United players are most Ten Hag-ready?

It goes without saying, a new manager spells new opportunity for every player, those on the outs could be welcomed back into the fold and regular mainstays may even gain a new lease of life. Ten Hag, at least during his Ajax spell, has made no bones about what he expects from his charges and if we are to expect him to transfer his recipe from the Dutch capital to M16, then several individuals are set to play a key role in United’s immediate future. One of whom has seemingly turned his career around.

Previously much maligned, Fred is starting to fulfil the promise many once placed upon him. Ten Hag’s 4-2-3-1 is dependent on a box-to-box midfielder. Case in point: Ryan Gravenberch, who’s former Ajax former Under 15s coach Brian Tevreden claimed recently is a “better version of Paul Pogba” and will soon join a European super club. Meanwhile, the 25-time capped Brazilian international has excelled in that role under Rangnick and even in the past stated it’s where he’s best at, which raises the question to why Solskjaer seldom utilised him to his strengths. That said, if Fred is to truly shine then he needs a solid defensive partner beside him. That would require a summer transfer.

Another major signing who flattered to deceive initially was Jadon Sancho. The Londoner was a revelation at Borussia Dortmund, scoring and creating goals at will. Being a winger, he’s practically made for a manager from the Dutch school of thinking. We’ve seen this season how Antony has thrived under Ten Hag’s guidance. Somewhere inside Sancho — who’s started to come good in the last few months — is that forward who bamboozled Bundesliga defences and if anyone can unleash this version of the English winger it’s the reportedly incoming coach.

If United are to fight on several fronts they need a squad rich in depth. Ten Hag is someone who believes in meritocracy, before Ajax embarked on an improbable run to a Champions League semi-final, Donny van de Beek was on the outside looking in. He famously took his chance and never looked back, which earned him a mega-transfer to English football’s most successful league side. Now a forgotten man at Old Trafford, there’s a great chance he’ll be given another look by his former Amsterdam boss.

Ten Hag positioned Van de Beek as the most advanced eight in a midfield three. Not in a pivot or any role that requires dropping back to progress the ball. He’s serviceable doing so but it’s not exactly the best use of his talent. Ten Hag understood Van de Beek needed to be the guy receiving and playing between the lines with freedom to play in or around the box and run beyond the striker like a Thomas Müller-esque raumdeuter. It remains to be seen whether he becomes a starter, but at the very least someone who can be dependable from the bench.

Which Man United players should be concerned?

For every player incorporated, another will be shunned. It’s nothing personal. Simply a case of not fitting the manager’s plans. For a while now, many have lamented United’s inability to sign a number six. That has to change if Ten Hag stands any chance of implementing his vision. Someone who could theoretically undertake these responsibilities is Nemanja Matic but as good as the Serbian midfielder once was, it’s a long time since he’s been mobile or sharp enough to play regularly at the top level.

Considering how fast Ten Hag wants his side to circulate the ball, Matic would only be a detriment. But he’s not the only United player whose stock has fallen this season. From being a first-choice at right-back, and knocking on the England door, Aaron Wan-Bissaka is no longer a guaranteed starter. His weakness in attack could be costly when Ten Hag surveys his potential new squad.

Another fascinating angle, when discussing United’s dressing room, is the egos that fill the room. It’s been well-documented how strong those personalities are, something Ten Hag has never experienced before, and even though the expectation of winning is the same in Amsterdam there’s levels to this. It only takes a couple months of consistent bad results before the calls for his resignation.

His appointment in truth is down to being a master tactician, but you wonder if he’s made of the right stuff when dealing with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, who — as crazy as this might sound — doesn’t fit Ten Hag’s approach. Firstly, he’s not an orthodox centre-forward, which the Dutchman prefers, and Ronaldo’s days as a winger are long behind him. A probable lack of Champions League football might force him to look elsewhere, though, in turn saving Ten Hag the trouble of benching international football’s most prolific scorer.

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