Football Features

Three ways Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United could line up this season, from a Cruyff homage to the ‘Sao Paulo Special’

By Ben Green

Published: 14:48, 6 September 2022 | Updated: 10:23, 7 November 2022

Manchester United required major surgery this summer after finishing last season with their lowest-ever points total in Premier League history. Erik ten Hag has been the man in the operating room, and he’s been hard at work trying to revive the club.

As well as a shopping spree at his former club Ajax, where he has taken Antony and Lisandro Martinez for a combined £130m, the Dutchman has also picked up experienced playmaker Christian Eriksen, promising left-back Tyrell Malacia and Champions League medal-hoarder Casemiro.

It’s a real mixed bag of talent to go with an already-bulging squad, not least tactical pariah Cristiano Ronaldo. So, with all the possibilities, we’ve looked at three ways Man Utd could line up in 2022/23.

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The Sao Paulo Special

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Man Utd played identical XIs in wins over Liverpool, Southampton and Leicester City — but it’s hard to envisage a scenario where Scott McTominay is keeping out Casemiro in the long run while Ten Hag deployed Antony in place of Anthony Elanga straight away for the Arsenal victory.

It’s most likely that the Sao Paulo natives will eventually become permanent fixtures in the XI, and for Man Utd fans, that is a very exciting prospect. Casemiro is, in essence, a refined hatchet man who can anchor the midfield and offer the backline ample protection, while Antony brings all the zest and panache that’s so synonymous with Brazilian attackers.

With Christian Eriksen setting the tempo alongside Casemiro, Man Utd will have a world-class creator-destroyer partnership in the heart of their midfield – one of the division’s most complete double-pivots.

Bruno Fernandes will have license to roam further up the field, while Jadon Sancho and Antony can link up with the Portuguese playmaker, forming a quite frightening frontline. Marcus Rashford will continue to lead the line. If he’s not scoring, well, then he is certainly integral to Ten Hag’s high-pressing system, hence his inclusion over an aging Ronaldo.

The backline naturally remains unchanged. Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane have looked comfortable next to one another and will feel even more confident with Casemiro in front of them, while Diogo Dalot and Tyrell Malacia provide the modern full-back blueprint, marauding on the ball and retreating off it.

David de Gea, of course, keeps his place between the sticks, despite question marks over his ball-playing qualities. If in doubt, hoof it long.

Indeed, this looks like Ten Hag’s most probable set-up.

The elephant(s) in the room!

Man Utd’s bench in their 1-0 win over Southampton cost £300m, give or take. Their starting XI on the South Coast was £250m. Now, that’s a pretty expensive Plan B. Of course, it’s easy to identify the two biggest names from that bench: Ronaldo and Harry Maguire.

Jorge Mendes has been offering out Ronaldo like a flyer this summer, but so far there have been no takers, leaving both the 37-year-old and Ten Hag in a bit of a pickle. Ronaldo certainly won’t be best pleased with a role on the sidelines, so at some point, Ten Hag will need to find room in his XI for him.

The same rings true for Harry Maguire. Although the Martinez-Varane partnership looks like the best on paper, Maguire remains football’s most expensive defender and Man Utd’s captain. That simply cannot be brushed under the carpet.

So how would Ten Hag get both into the Man Utd first-team?

A back-three seems pointless as Casemiro’s defensive resilience can facilitate a traditional back-four and protect Maguire (to an extent), while Ten Hag will need to overload the frontline if he is to take some of the pressing burden off Ronaldo. CR7 can then focus predominantly on doing what he does best: finding the back of the net.

It’s an interesting experiment, but perhaps Ten Hag can channel his inner Fergie and deploy a more modern interpretation of a 4-4-2, or even an old-school diamond.

Casemiro would sit at the base with his none-shall-pass bullying, while Fernandes will occupy the No. 10 role a little further forward. Ronaldo is supported by Rashford up top, while Antony and Sancho, again, take up the flanks, with the latter trio instructed to do most of the pressing to preserve and bubble wrap Ronaldo.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka may be the more logical choice to come in at right-back, just offering a bit more defensive bite and industry, with Maguire partnering Martinez for the left-foot-right-foot centre-back combo. It’s not a formation Ten Hag is used to, but it certainly solves a few of the glaring issues in his squad – and probably keeps a few egos in check.

An ode to Jopie

The great Johan Cruyff popularised the concept of in-game positional switching, hence his love of the multifunctional footballer. Lisandro Martinez is one such player.

In total, the Argentine played 1,345 minutes in the Eredivisie for Ajax under Ten Hag either in defensive midfield or central midfield — and there has already been a clamour from the likes of Rio Ferdinand to see the 24-year-old be tested in the middle of the park at Old Trafford.

His 5ft 9in frame has been questioned by some pundits, but he more than held his own against Liverpool and muzzled a Southampton attack that put two past Chelsea. Height doesn’t appear to be an issue unless ‘Big Sam’ makes a Premier League return.

Even so, Martinez has proven capable of playing in midfield under Ten Hag, so it’s perhaps not completely out of the question to see the Dutchman deploying him there at some point. This would also ensure an £80m centre-back isn’t just wasting away on the bench.

Ten Hag was largely wedded to a 4-3-3 at Ajax, so here he can choose to either play two 6s with Martinez alongside Casemiro to really tighten the midfield lock and free the shackles for the third midfielder (either Eriksen or Fernandes), or have Martinez at the base, flanked by Eriksen and Fernandes for a creative splattering on his tactical canvas.

That may seem more Football Manager than actual manager, but Ten Hag is from the Ajax school of thought, where experimentation, fluidity and invention are common tactical traits. Cruyff blazed a trail, his disciples now follow those principles.