English Premier League

Manchester United Are Going Dutch

On Manchester United’s newly announced manager and the positives, and concerns, about the United project…

So…it’s going to be ten Hag.

As initially reported by The Athletic‘s David Ornstein, Manchester United have reached an agreement in principle with Ajax manager Erik ten Hag to be the next man on the touchline at Old Trafford. While the deal has not been finalized as of time of writing (update: it is now finalized), it is expected that the deal will be completed soon, with ten Hag and Man United wanting to show respect to Ajax given their recent KNVB Beker Final against PSV (which, for what it is worth, PSV won 2-1).

While already in his early 50s, making him around the same age as established managers like Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp, and Antonio Conte, Erik ten Hag’s managerial career still feels like it is not quite at its peak. Having risen meteorically from helping Go Ahead Eagles get promoted to the Eredivisie in 2013 to guiding Utrecht to European qualification in 2017 to his now famous “five trophies and counting plus Champions League semifinal appearance” tenure at Ajax, ten Hag is now getting his chance to shine on the biggest stages of the sport and under the brightest lights and most pressure possible. It is merited for the Dutchman, who has been a phenomenal manager for Ajax and has shocked many people by not making this jump sooner.

And he arrives at a very important crossroads for Man United, the “sliding doors” moment to end all “sliding doors” moments for the Red Devils. Ten Hag will be the fifth permanent manager of the club since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, or eighth total manager in that timeframe if you choose to count the interim tenures of Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick, and Ralf Rangnick. United, to put it kindly, are in a not good situation at the moment, on pace to potentially not qualify for the Champions League this season following incredible disappointment in European competition the last two seasons. The team is incredibly bloated, having spent more on player acquisitions than almost any other team in the world in the near-decade since Ferguson’s retirement but still lack any sort of identity, philosophy, or tangible identifiable characteristic about their team aside from Harry Maguire’s meme-able mistakes, Cristiano Ronaldo’s constant pouting, and the magician-esque disappearing act of Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba. They have continued to burn more money in a desperate attempt to be competitive again while watching their two biggest rivals, Liverpool and Manchester City, ascend to becoming perennial league and Champions League favorites and, probably, the two best teams in world football at the moment.

This is a team and football club in desperate need of a rebuild, if not a revolution. Every bit of the shaky planks and rotting foundations from the last decade need to be torn out, and the Manchester United Project needs to begin anew, completely from scratch and with completely new leadership. Ten Hag might just be the right guy for the job, but he also might not be, but we will get to that later.

When it comes to the overall structure of how ten Hag will line up United next season, it can be kind of difficult to pin down exactly what the Dutchman’s “style” is due to some distinct differences that exist between the Ajax teams of the beginning of his tenure compared to this season’s team. For instance, the famous Champions League semifinal team from the 2018/19 season did have a traditional center forward in the team, veteran Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, but often played with Dušan Tadić as a false nine instead. This season, however, Ajax have almost exclusively played with a more traditional center forward in Sébastien Haller while utilizing Tadić as a left winger. This is not the only difference, but it is stark enough to illustrate the point here.

While there are differences, there are also distinct features that act as a thread connecting his Ajax teams, and we can look at these features to understand how he may set his teams up at United and how, or if, United’s players are capable of matching that identity. Most of the Ajax teams under his management lined up in a sort of 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation that almost always became a 4-1-4-1 or some sort of 3-2-4-1 when Ajax were in possession. The system, despite team variations, has shared key characteristics which include specific roles for the fullbacks, playing with inverted wingers, having a focal point up top, and having an anchoring midfielder that keeps things balanced and allows the other two midfielders to contribute to the attack.

Ajax on paper
Ajax in possession, usually

Ten Hag, like most modern managers, asks his wingbacks to be ball-playing players and to contribute in attack, but he also asks them to be more of inverted wingbacks, coming inside toward the middle of the pitch at times and attacking through the half spaces rather than down the outside like a traditional wingback. This is where the “3-2-4-1” aspect of Ajax’s in-possession shape comes from, with the fullback at times tucking in alongside a midfielder and utilizing that half space to play within while the winger in that space played wider. This was accomplished expertly at Ajax by Nicolás Tagliafico and Noussair Mazraoui, who were staples of ten Hag’s teams throughout his tenure.

Ajax in a 3-2-4-1, Mazraoui acts as the invert within that right half space, though either fullback can do so.

For United, this is probably the most seamless adaptation. Luke Shaw, Alex Telles, and Diogo Dalot are all well equipped to handle these responsibilities. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is the odd man out in that regard, but he is still young enough to be molded into something, just maybe not the right back that ten Hag desires. Ten Hag also prefers capable ball-playing center backs, but given all of the problems with United’s current assortment of center backs, I think we can move on without poking at that nerve, for the sake of any United fans reading this. I think we all know there likely needs to be a signing here.

The further we get up the pitch, however, the more issues emerge. And this is not a bad thing! I think we all know United need investment in the transfer market at the moment. The “glass half full” viewpoint of this is now we know exactly where United need direct upgrades and where they need to start looking for long-term signings.

On the wing, ten Hag wants his wingers to be able to invert and operate in narrow lanes and half spaces, as well as occasionally operate in wider areas when the fullbacks come inside. For United, the left winger position is fairly well-decided. While the future of Marcus Rashford is still very much up in the air, Jadon Sancho and Anthony Elanga are both very capable options in that position. Jadon Sancho in particular presents a very tantalizing option as a player who has a very different skillset but has the same creative mentality that could allow him to be a capable like-for-like (ish) replication of European assist king Dušan Tadić.

The right side is, well, problematic. Manchester United do not have a realistic left-footed winger option to occupy that position, as Amad Diallo and Tahith Chong are not at the level needed at the moment and Juan Mata is largely over the hill, so to speak. Given the specificity in what ten Hag looks for in that position, it is very likely that United will heavily pursue the easiest possible fix for this position in the summer: signing Antony from Ajax. I imagine there will be quite a bit of transfer attention on Ajax players this summer as the media discuss which players ten Hag will bring with him to Manchester, and I imagine Antony will be the lowest-hanging fruit for the tabloid journalists when it comes to these transfer stories. But just because it is the easiest possible headline does not mean it is not the best possible signing, fitting the tactical and skillset need that ten Hag wants from that position while being a young talent that can be a key part of United’s long-term project.

What, you want other suggestions? Fine, understandable. It makes sense to not put all of your eggs in one basket. I imagine if the Antony file is not quite realistic for whatever reason, United would look at signing one of Leverkusen’s Moussa Diaby, PSV’s Noni Madueke, Real Sociedad’s Mikel Oyarzabal, Porto’s Fabio Vieira, or Crystal Palace’s Michael Olise. I think all of those players provide relatively close to what ten Hag wants in that position while being all quite young (aside from the nearly 25 year old Oyarzabal) and within a price range that United would be willing to operate in. Right winger is one of the positions that United definitively need a starting-caliber signing, so I would anticipate that they are willing to spend big on that position.

The midfield is also one of United’s biggest question marks for multiple reasons. Right off the bat, ignoring any questions of formation and tactical fit, there are three distinct concerns. Paul Pogba’s future is still very much up in the air, but I am writing this under the assumption that the Frenchman will not be returning to Old Trafford next season because, well, I think it is a relatively safe assumption to make. Bruno Fernandes has not been near the level of player or at the level of overall consistency that he has been at over the previous season and a half, and the degree to which he has struggled to find impactful positions or even really use the ball in an effective way will be a concern. And then there is the question of the defensive midfielder, the position that everyone has been screaming for United to fill for the last several years now. There are several areas for ten Hag and United to address.

Looking at Ajax’s midfield, they tend to line up on paper with a midfield three akin to a 4-2-3-1, with a number 10 operating ahead of a double pivot. In actuality, especially this season, their midfield three is lined up with the number 10 and a more attacking-minded box-to-box midfielder operating ahead of an anchor, in this case being Steven Berghuis and Ryan Gravenberch operating ahead of Edson Álvarez. This structure is key to Ajax’s success, as it allows the very effective and dangerous pairing of Gravenberch and Berghuis to operate within the attack while Álvarez keeps solidity in the midfield and drops into the defensive line when needed to participate in and aid the build up from the back.

The “Berghuis” role will very likely be filled by Fernandes who, despite questions about his form this season and his rather rash decision-making on the ball at times, could be coached by ten Hag to fill that role supremely well. Also he just signed a big long-term contract so he clearly is not going anywhere. Operating under the “Pogba is leaving” assumption means that the “Gravenberch” role will likely be filled by Fred, who has shown his capability as a box-to-box midfielder in the second half of this season. I would also assume this means that Donny van de Beek, a player who played this sort of position under ten Hag at Ajax, now has a very distinct and clear future in Manchester that he did not have under Solskjær or Rangnick. It is also a position that Scott McTominay could fill at times, though I question whether the Scotsman is of the level needed for ten Hag’s midfield. It also leaves the door open for younger players to step into the first team in that midfield, and I would keep an eye on someone like Hannibal Mejbri or James Garner to play a bigger role within the United first team under ten Hag.

The defensive midfielder position, as it has been for several years now, is a major problem. McTominay is not good enough. Fred is not a defensive midfielder. Matić is leaving the club in the summer. There is no way around it, United need to sign a player in this position this summer, and there is absolutely no excuse for them to not make this position their number one priority. I imagine United are likely after a home run signing in this position, and I anticipate that they will heavily pursue a deal for West Ham’s Declan Rice or Monaco’s Aurelien Tchouameni. Both would be perfect fits for what ten Hag needs. Given the absurd £100 million-plus price tag that West Ham have put on Rice, I do thoroughly believe that a move for Tchouameni, a player of comparative quality available for potentially half of the price, would make significantly more sense from a pound-for-pound value standpoint, especially since defensive midfielder is not the only position United need to be upgrading in the transfer market. Given the importance of this position within ten Hag’s set up, this is not a deal that United can afford to get wrong.

For those who want other options, I imagine United would also inquire about Marseille’s Boubacar Kamara, who would be available on a free transfer in the summer, as well as Sporting Club’s João Palhinha, Leicester’s Wilfred Ndidi, and PSV’s Ibrahim Sangaré. This could also be a position where ten Hag brings in one of his Ajax players, with Edson Álvarez likely being available for a reasonable price and coming with the skillset and understanding needed for ten Hag’s midfield. Signing an additional more advanced midfielder to replace Pogba might also be on the transfer priority list for United, but I imagine it is of lesser importance. With Gravenberch likely on his way to Bayern Munich, he is not an available option for ten Hag to bring over. Since there are already options available at the club, and I believe the starting option of Fred or van de Beek is at least good enough for now, I imagine their aim for this position is a younger player who does not need to immediately start but can contribute in rotation and push to be a starter. Portugal offers two very solid options, with Porto’s Vitinha and Sporting Club’s Matheus Nunes checking all of the necessary boxes. They could also look at Feyenoord’s Orkun Kökçü or Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Manu Kone. There are a variety of options, they just need to think in the longer term.

And then we have the center forward. There is a very large, very Portuguese elephant in the room here.

Much has been made about Cristiano Ronaldo’s return season to Manchester United. There have been strong overreactions, both positively and negatively, to Ronaldo’s presence in the team. Is he the problem at Man United? Not necessarily, no. Has he been phenomenal for the Red Devils this season? No. The peaks are high, yes, but they do well to cover up the lows of his level this season. Overall, Ronaldo has been fine. He has been very bad at times and very good at others, an active detriment to United’s attack in some games while being their savior in the next. Ultimately, I do not think United should have brought him back, choosing instead to use that money on a defensive midfielder and center back, but we cannot change the past. Ronaldo is here, he will likely be here next season, and he will be the starting number nine for Man United in the 2022/23 season.

Does he fit in ten Hag’s system? Sort of, it is not exactly a clean fit. Sébastien Haller is much more of a traditional number nine, participating in the build up in some regards but mainly acting as a player needed to be a fox in the box to get on the end of cut back crosses. Can Ronaldo be that? Certainly, but I think we have seen some issues caused by Ronaldo’s game and its effects on players like Rashford and Fernandes, who find the spaces they used to occupy taken by Ronaldo. Ronaldo is egotistical, yes, but I do think he is also very smart. I think, if he is willing to work with the manager, he can fit into this system in the short term. Ronaldo does not always work with managers, however, so it will be something to keep an eye on going into next season.

Regardless of whether Ronaldo stays or goes, United need to sign a striker in the summer. Edinson Cavani is most likely leaving the club, and Anthony Martial’s lackluster, to put it kindly, loan to Sevilla has shown for the umpteenth time that he should not be a part of the future in Manchester. Marcus Rashford is a somewhat viable option in this position, but I feel less than confident in his ability to play this role. It feels clear that United need to make a signing in this position.

The unfortunate thing for United is that every major club in the world seems to also be in the market for a center forward this summer. I feel fairly comfortable saying that United will not be signing Erling Håland or Kylian Mbappé, and the most desired forwards in the summer window aside from those two, likely Benfica’s Darwin Núñez, Napoli’s Victor Osimhen, and RB Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku, might not work given Ronaldo’s presence blocking them from the playing time that other top teams could provide. Signing Haller or actualizing their rumored pursuit of Paulo Dybala does not make much sense for their situation, but I do not quite know what the answer would be.

It is possible that United are able to convince a younger player like Darwin or Nkunku to play second fiddle to Ronaldo for the final season of the Portuguese’s contract before stepping into the role in the 2023/24 season, but that could be a tougher ask for some players on the fringe of their national team selection given that we are in a World Cup year and given that the World Cup will be happening at the end of the year and not during the summer months. It is possible that this might be more convincing with a slightly older striker, one that would be less concerned about missing out on crucial development time. Someone like Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Sassuolo’s Gianluca Scamacca, Leverkusen’s Patrik Schick, or Roma’s Tammy Abraham could be an option in this regard. It is tough, but it certainly is a position that needs to be filled.

Some of these tougher questions lead to the main drawbacks of ten Hag’s appointment. He is a project manager. United have to go into this with the intention that this is going to take a few years and it very well might get worse before it gets better. United need to have patience with ten Hag, they need to allow him to implement his philosophy and build with three to five years down the line as the target rather than next season. If things do not go well initially, and they certainly could not, there needs to be some sort of patience and trust. Continuing the merry-go-round of manager sackings will only lead to worse results.

United also need to operate in a much more logical and organized way behind the scenes when it comes to player scouting, transfer deals, and the overall sporting organization of the club. Ten Hag was able to be so successful at Ajax because the structure of the club behind the scenes is immaculate. Working through CEO Edwin van der Sar and then-Sporting Director and now largely awful human being Marc Overmars, ten Hag could be confident that the signings made would fit into his system perfectly and the youth players promoted from Jong Ajax would be ready for the first team. It was not perfect, with Sven Botman’s departure highlighting that Ajax does make mistakes, but the overall structure and organization of the club is very strong and works in conjunction with the manager to support the on-pitch vision of the club.

Ajax know exactly what they want to be, while Manchester United do not.

Manchester United’s largely scattergun philosophy on managers and transfers seems to be antithetical to the structure that ten Hag is used to at Ajax. The fact that a major roadblock to a potential deal was ten Hag needing to negotiate his right to coordinate with the United hierarchy on signings is a big deal (and it probably paints the signings of the Mourinho and Solskjær tenures especially in a different light). There is also still some ambiguity around the role Ralf Rangnick plays at the club after this season, and I do not think it is ridiculous to question whether his influence at the club has taken a hit following his less than impressive interim managerial tenure. With additional rumors now coming out about Rangnick potentially being the next Austrian National Team manager, this question is clouded in even more ambiguity than before.

Are we sure we trust United to operate in the way they need to in order to support ten Hag’s rebuild? Are United suddenly going to act smart? They need to, as this is not a short-term gig. This is a long-term rebuild, one where quite a few current United players will likely have to be moved on over the next few years and quite a few players will have to either be brought in or promoted from the youth teams. It is possible that this rebuild does not start truly paying dividends until year three under ten Hag. The correct organizational structure in player recruitment, youth player management, and loan organization needs to be set up in order for this to be successful.

Are there any issues tactically? Well, one major one sticks out. Obviously United not having perfect options for this system is an issue, but we all knew United needed to make signings. This is not a surprise. Regardless of who they hired, they would need to make signings. The issue, however, comes from the pressing system that ten Hag uses. “Pressing” has been a nightmare word for United this season, especially when thinking back to the end of Solskjær’s tenure. The lack of desire of some United players, namely Ronaldo, to press high up the pitch early in the season and their general lack of coherent organization in their press led to significant issues, highlighted best in Liverpool’s 5-0 demolition of United back in October.

Pressing and counter-pressing on loss of possession is crucial for ten Hag’s set up purely to compensate for the amount of players that ten Hag’s Ajax commit to attacks. With two wingers, a striker, two midfielders, and very likely one or both fullbacks committed forward, that leaves very few players actually back in defense. A smart and immediate high counter-press when they lose the ball allows Ajax to either win the ball back high up the pitch and be immediately dangerous or, at worst, buy enough time for their team to reorganize in their defensive shape. Should that press be immediately beaten, then there are very few players back in defensive positions to cover the opposition counter. Ajax can obviously get away with inconsistency in the press and overcommitting in attack while playing in the Eredivisie, since they are significantly better than every team they will face aside from PSV, Feyenoord, and maybe AZ Alkmaar, but ten Hag will not have the same sort of protection managing against Premier League teams. Even some of the worst teams in the Premier League are capable of punishing mistakes in the press and in overcommitting to attacks. If ten Hag is not able to effectively compensate for these new challenges, coach this system into his players, and if his players are not willing to buy in, then there could be some significant early issues.

Ok, I have taken up enough time here. Overall verdict, I do think this is possibly the best hire United could have made. I think there were issues with their top two choices of ten Hag and Mauricio Pochettino, but given the fact that United need a longer-term rebuild, I do think Erik ten Hag was the right man to choose. This appointment does not come without risk, and it does not come without the understanding that United still need to majorly restructure and refresh their team through the transfer market. This is a long-term hire, one that will need patience, and if United’s hierarchy and fanbase are willing to give ten Hag the patience and support he needs, then the Dutchman can be successful in Manchester.

If not, then we will be back here in a years time having this same discussion about someone else.

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