Erik ten Hag has the tactical, recruitment, and player development qualities to make an instant impact at Manchester United. He sets his teams up like Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in possession and Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool out of it, and he’s rebuilt this Ajax team to a special standard twice over! So, without any further ado, let’s take a deep-dive into the specifics regarding his management style!

Ten Hag’s Ajax set up in a 4-3-3 with the two #8’s between the lines in the half spaces & the fullbacks pushed on high & wide with the wingers stretching the play on either flank. However, they’re not rigid. It is a fluid system although rigidity of positioning is key, but let me explain further.

Ten Hag’s team are rigid in the sense that the occupation of each lane on the pitch between the lines is constantly covered. The players can interchange at will within those zones, but each zone must be occupied. There are many examples we can use to demonstrate this.

Here, Gravenberch drops into the half space allowing the fullback to push onto the flank with Tadic coming inside to combine, much like Pep does with Cancelo, Gundogan & Sterling or Arteta does with Tierney, Xhaka & Martinelli. It’s all about maintaining good angles to combine in.

Here, Blind (the left back) finds himself in the left half space between the lines and Mazraoui (the right back) drops deep to create an angle to play out on the right-hand side. However, Blind does this to increase the quality of the passing lane to the wide player (Tadic).

This type of movement from Blind epitomises this Ajax team – a run into space to A) create a passing angle to the isolated wide player but also B) to maintain the occupation of the zones across the pitch.

It’s elite coaching.

This type of fluidity but rigidity of positioning is fantastic because it means the structure in which the team play in is always present. The players understand the importance of maintaining team shape, thus suggesting that ten Hag is a fantastic coach. The structure is superb. Both fullbacks regularly find themselves in central areas which A) creates a free passing lane for the wide players to receive in isolation before combining or using the 1v1 they have but also B) maintains compactness in defensive transition when play breaks down.

Look at them!

Much like Arteta at Arsenal, Pep at City, or Xavi at Barca, the left-hand side of the pitch is primarily used for combinations whereas the right is used for isolation and 1v1 situations. Blind often inverts, but not as often as Mazraoui.

Look at the angle he creates for Antony.

This is a situation we see Saka, Mahrez and Adama receive at constantly for their respective clubs, and it’s no different at ten Hag’s Ajax thanks to the usage of the inverted fullback and emphasis he puts on positional play.

It’s the perfect position for a 1v1 specialist.

Alternatively, Antony can combine with the player in the right half space between the lines or the right back who has license to overlap or underlap where possible. Then, within those situations, the #8’s, CF and far side wide player attacks the box to offer a goal threat.

This type of attacking structure is absolutely fantastic, particularly when considering that Mazraoui inverts or the conservative Blind stays back to keep the unit compact if the attack breaks down (as seen with Mazraoui, the number #12, below).

The structure enables sustainment of attacks, penetration & top chance creation. However, although what I have just described is incredibly similar to Arteta, Xavi, & Pep’s 4-3-3, where ten Hag’s philosophy differs is in relation to fluidity. Mazraoui has more offensive licence than a Walker or a Tomiyasu does at their respective clubs.

Ajax’s build-up is very much so a 2-1 with high and wide fullbacks whereas Tomiyasu and Walker are often slightly deeper and each teams build-up can resemble a 3-1 shape as opposed to a 2-1. In settled attacks, Mazraoui is regularly as high up the pitch as Antony.

However, as I implied, this isn’t a big issue because of Ajax’s fluidity. They still build with a 3 at the back on occasion when Blind/Mazraoui drop deep to create extra passing angles, and the far side fullback drops to keep sufficient players behind the ball in defensive transition.

The key to success of any team that attempts to dominate the game with the ball is compactness as soon as possession is lost i.e. the ball can be regained as quickly as possible and attacks can be sustained. Ajax take risks with their fluidity, but largely remain compact. However, what is key to note is that the teams that Ajax play against are regularly incapable of exploiting them in defensive transition. This is because of A) a lack of quality and B) Ajax primarily have sufficient players behind the ball to prevent counter attacks.

So, ten Hag’s team has a big advantage in that regard, but let’s not act like they’re only dominant because of their superior quality. Ajax have only conceded 15 league goals in 29 games whilst scoring 85 themselves. They also walked their Champions League group with ease and were only undone by Darwin Núñez excellence in the last 16.

So, it’s absolutely clear that ten Hag is a special coach in possession. His teams are compact so can sustain attacks, constantly occupy each zone on the pitch so attack amazingly well thanks to their rotations, and are balanced in terms of “to feet” players and direct runners.

However, what makes or breaks coaches at the *highest* level is the off-ball game. Ajax are expected to be good in possession because they dominate the ball in virtually every domestic game due to the sheer disparity in quality in their league. buttt.. they’re elite off the ball.

As explained, ten Hag’s men are compact in defensive transition thanks to the inversion of their fullbacks. However, settled defensive play is where the very best teams get tested – every PL team is good enough to keep the ball for periods, so you’ve gotta be compact as hell.

In settled defensive play, Ajax press in a Liverpool-esque narrow 4-3-3. The two wide players invert, the midfielders match-up man-for man in midfield, and the fullbacks push on to support the press. They attempt to collapse the play on the ball side flank.

The 4-3-3 is such a hard pressing system to implement because it requires a lot of moving pieces to be in sync. Where teams fall down is by A) defending in a 4-5-1 & failing to pressure the CB’s sufficiently or B) defending in a narrow 4-3-3 with no support from the fullbacks. The optimal solution is the narrow 4-3-3 with aggressive fullbacks because each area can be pressurised, and that’s how Ajax defend.

Below, Antony and Tadic are narrow and as Benfica use the fullback, Mazraoui pushes on and condenses the play with Timber covering the winger.

That requires special, special, coaching. Ten Hag’s Ajax play like Pep Guardiola’s Man City on the ball and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool off the ball, and that’s not an exaggeration. The style and execution is very, very similar (with slight tweaks) in each facet of play.

Ten Hag is also not linear in his approach. His early Ajax team were known for their fluid 4-2-3-1 which similarly excelled in each and every phase of play. The built out from the back using a standard double pivot which afforded them plenty of options in the build-up whilst all being in close proximity to play their short passing game.

Then, further up the pitch, ten Hag fielded an attack of Ziyech, van de Beek, Tadic, and Dolberg. The fluidity and quality of the combination play was elite and Ajax played the most beautiful football in Europe at the time.

The implementation of a 4-2-3-1 suited Ajax down to a tee with the quality and profiles of players they had. Frenkie de Jong and Lasse Schöne were two pass heavy midfielders who contributed heavily to build-up plays whilst the likes of Ziyech, van de Beek, Tadic and David Neres interchanged exceptionally well between the lines. The system made sense in every facet of on-ball play when considering the suitability of the players in relation to it along with the natural spacing of the players which afforded the unit compactness in defensive transition.

Furthermore, in relation to pressing, they were similarly elite. On the ball-side flank they matched up man for man by using standard triggers such as the #10 dropping off onto the opposition #6, the ball-side centre forward marking the ball side centre back, winger on fullback, midfielders match up, etc.

However, again, and crucially, on the far side, Ziyech came inside to press the far side centre back to prevent an easy switch of play. Then, out of the picture, Mazraoui pushed all the way up to press Spurs’ left back, Danny Rose. So, again, Ajax left no spare men in the build-up when pressing, and they also used their fullbacks to back up the press. It was incredibly aggressive but also very compact and difficult to play through.

So, just like the 4-3-3, ten Hag’s 4-2-3-1 is similarly elite, and he even showcased the ability to use a false 9 within the system to a top quality standard which further improved the fluidity, combination play, and runs from deep to score goals in attack. This is another trait that suggests he’s just like a Pep Guardiola, a Jürgen Klopp, or a Thomas Tuchel!

More specifically, with regards to Manchester United, that 4-2-3-1 could be a short-term solution for the club whilst ten Hag signs players that are suited to his ideal 4-3-3 system. When Jürgen Klopp took over Liverpool he used a 4-2-3-1 before adapting to his preferred 4-3-3 because the players at his disposal were more suited to that system. Mikel Arteta started off in similar fashion at Arsenal before transitioning to a 4-3-3 when he got players that suited his system. It’s entirely possible that ten Hag adopts the same approach due to United’s familiarity with that system under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

With the likes of Matic and Pogba likely leaving the club, United are left with two first team players who can play in the double pivot, Scott McTominay and Fred, both of which work well as a duo but have little to no experience in a single pivot. Then, further up the pitch at number 10, ten Hag will have Bruno Fernandes and Donny van de Beek to choose from. Alternatively, in the 4-3-3, the depth becomes much lighter and the stylistic fits in the single pivot and in that left-sided box-to-box #8 role become awkward. Both McTominay and Fred can play as an #8 or in the single pivot, but it’s not ideal in comparison to what ten Hag’s system requires.

Again, in terms of suitability, the 4-2-3-1 also makes sense when considering that United lack suitable forward profiles to play a front 3. However, ten Hag’s teams shouldn’t be thought of in relation to their front 3; much like the way Pep’s City aren’t, but that’s beside the point. Although Sancho is a perfect fit on that combination-heavy left-hand side, United lack certainty with regards to Ronaldo’s future but also an isolation player on the right wing like Antony who’s similar to a Buyako Saka, Riyad Mahrez, Raphinha, or an Ousmane Dembélé in the sense that they hug the touchline and understand the importance of holding the width. Rashford is someone who could play that role but lacks the dynamism to go either way in 1v1 situations. As such, it is imperative Manchester United sign the aforementioned profiles who will enable ten Hag to play his optimal 4-3-3 in the long-run but also his 4-2-3-1 in the short run.

At Ajax, ten Hag utilised Ziyech (a combination heavy playmaker, creator and goal threat) as a fluid left-footed dynamic option on the right-hand side of a 4-2-3-1 with Antony being a similar profile (except more positionally disciplined and 1v1 orientated due to the difference in the demands of the system) in his 4-3-3. That left-footed, combination-heavy 1v1 threat who excels at goalscoring (striking through the ball), creating (being direct to create for others), and playmaking (playing short passes in an effort to initiate combination play and dynamism in attack) is essential in ten Hag’s teams. Similarly, within other 4-3-3 Juego de Posicion (positional play) based teams such as Manchester City, Barcelona or Arsenal, each manager has a profile who can do all of these things (Mahrez, Dembélé, Saka). As such, the signature of a player like Raphinha is imperative for Manchester United. Currently, the squad do not have a player like this and I anticipate that a left-footed right winger will be one of ten Hag’s biggest priorities this summer.

So, with the lack of suitability profile-wise in midfield combined with the absence of a left-footed right winger and uncertainty at centre forward, the 4-2-3-1 makes more sense for United in the short and long-run. What’s encouraging is that United are linked with players like Kalvin Phillips are exactly what United need in each system i.e., a double pivot player but also someone who’s capable of playing in a single pivot in the long-run when ten Hag transitions into that system. United’s signings should be centred around that type of thinking and an isolation player like Raphinha on the right wing would similarly enable short and long-term progression.

So far, the players United are targeting are largely in line with exactly what they need, and that’s incredibly encouraging for the project. Then, in the long-run, ten Hag can improve upon positions like goalkeeper or at right back where he’ll need a reliable technician at inverted fullback, but guys like De Gea and Wan-Bissaka can do a job in the short-term. Other positions such as central midfield, right wing, and centre forward cannot wait. United have little to no strength in depth in those areas.

However, there’s still *LOTS* to be answered about ten Hag. Tactically, he’s elite, and that much is very clear, but management is more than that, particularly at such a big club. Does he have the talent identification to sign the necessary players? Can he rebuild a squad? Is he mentally strong enough to deal with difficult times? Does he have the cojones to get rid of a Cristiano Ronaldo which may be in the best interests of his project? And, as we all know, Manchester United are far bigger than the average club. How well will ten Hag deal with the big personalities and being the main man in the midst of that?

To answer those questions, all we can go off is the evidence to date. Firstly, in relation to his talent identification and ability to rebuild a squad, it’s clear that the job ten Hag carried out at Ajax was special beyond belief in this regard. Ten Hag sold well over £300,000,000 whilst spending just over £100,000,000 at his time at the club. Daley Blind was his most expensive signing at the club at £14,000,000 which sums up the type of money he had to work with.

Despite making the club over £230,000,000 in player sales alone, ten Hag still managed to maintain Ajax’s high-quality level on the pitch. Signing the likes of Antony as replacements for Ziyech or Klaassen to replace van de Beek or Edson Alvarez to replace Frenkie De Jong and developing from within to replace guys like Dest is the sign of a special coach. Profiles are the most important thing in any team and the fact that ten Hag replaced specific profiles with other specific profiles from across the continent speaks to the intelligence of the man. To identify a technically proficient central defender in Lisandro Martinez to replace a player like de Ligt for £70m less than what he was sold for is unbelievable talent identification and crucially unbelievable squad rebuilding.

Profiles and balance across the board is what makes systems tick. Clubs like Liverpool or City only sign specific profiles in each position because the system is more important than any player, and the same applies to ten Hag, but the fact that he has been able to find solutions in the market with such little resources to maintain the quality of his team is sensational management.

The sheer volume of finances generated from player sales cannot be ignored, either. The amount of players who excelled at Ajax within a specific system before flopping elsewhere (van de Beek, David Neres and Kasper Dolberg to name a few) speaks to the quality of player development and coaching ten Hag is capable of. Not only that, but the amount of players he developed to go on and flourish elsewhere is and at his own club is similarly insane. Someone like Sebastian Haller having 42 goal contributions in 37 games for Ajax this season when compared to him being dropped towards the end of his time at West Ham speaks to the qualities of ten Hag as a coach, and lest we not forget the situation with Donny van de Beek.

So, as it stands, we’re looking at a man who is:

  • Elite tactically whilst being tactically adaptive to his team,
  • A special coach in relation to player development,
  • Fantastic in the transfer market and has already rebuilt a team successfully.

Pretty exciting, right? But there’s still questions that have to be answered! Rebuilding a team like Ajax is one thing but rebuilding a Manchester United team with mass scrutiny on every decision along with big personalities in the dressing room is even harder. With regards to a Jürgen Klopp, a Pep Guardiola or a Thomas Tuchel, these guys are the main men in the dressing room. They are bigger than all of the players at the club. I think that is crucial for any big team otherwise the dressing room will be divided and the manager won’t have total control i.e. Ralf Rangnick’s current situation. As such, I think the first logical step to gain that control would be to get rid of the 37 years of age Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ronaldo is obviously special and would score a lot of goals in ten Hag’s team, but the Dutchman needs time and that’s not something Ronaldo’s presence affords. There also cannot be any uncertainty in relation to who the most important man in the dressing room is, and Ronaldo’s presence adds noise to the situation if he doesn’t play or if United aren’t winning, etc., etc. To sell Ronaldo would be a big power move which would instantly gain respect and attention from the rest of the dressing room which would also afford the manager time, which is exactly what he needs in a club at the beginning of a rebuild.

Either way, regardless of all of the uncertain political and power-based questions surrounding the role, the ability to implement elite tactics, contribute to player development and possessing a track record in rebuilding teams is something that cannot be ignored. Ten Hag has earnt the right to show he has the character and personality to rebuild a club with massive characters and player-based issues. If he has that character, Manchester United have a super coach on their hands.

@EBL2017 – 21st of April 2022


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