Manchester United have finally got their man, and their fans can allow themselves a quick moment for celebration, or perhaps merely relief. The stark truth however is that getting in Eric ten Hag is only the very start of what needs to be a root and branch upheaval at the club. It has been the worst season in United’s EPL history in terms of position and points gained. But that only tells half of the story. The performances, the attitude, and the inability to keep teams out of their final third or the ball from their own net has been quite frankly astonishing.
Much has been made of the Dutchman’s preferred tactics, but it is not simply a case of changing formation. There are fundamental issues that need addressing in the team and squad if his style of play is going to be able to work. There are other factors, more specific to the man himself that do have to be addressed too.
How do ten Hag Teams Play?
In a nutshell, and at the risk of getting Manchester United fans overexcited, his aim when setting up his team is to play like the current Manchester City side when they have the ball, and when they don’t to be like the current Liverpool side. Of course, that is far easier said than done, but in principle at least that is how he sets his teams up, with a fluid 4-3-3 system.
That word fluid is crucial and is key to how his teams play. Likewise, anyone who has spent any time seeing Klopp’s Liverpool will also know the energy levels, the discipline and the teamwork required to press effectively. How a team performs without the ball is in many ways as, if not more important than what they do with it. At Ajax, ten Hag was able to win the vast majority of games by dominating possession, while at the same time being able to transition to the defensive press when their opponents’ won possession.
Stepping up to the EPL
One of the issues facing ten Hag is the huge step up to the EPL. That step-up will manifest itself in many ways. Firstly, the competitive nature of the league means every game needs to be taken as seriously as every other one. There is no resting players for a league game against a team near the bottom. You can get away with that in Holland, you cannot in the EPL. Added to that is the sheer number of games. Managers have gone on record to complain that it reduces the quality of games, but it also lessens a team’s ability to play the high press with either key players injured or the ones you have too tired to do it effectively.
With no disrespect to the Eredivisie, or the teams in it, it is a lot easier to contain and nullify the threat posed by a team from the Dutch league when they have the ball than it is when a club from England’s top tier has it. He will also find the defences and midfields of the teams United will be attacking will offer a more resolute resistance.
Manchester City enjoy the vast majority of possession, but few other teams are able to dominate their opponents in that way, and with the best will in the world, United are not going to be turned into a team who can win 75 % of possession overnight, or even over two or three seasons.
Straight away you can see that not only is the new manager stepping into a league that is completely new (and very coaches are able to hit the ground running in the EPL) but the tools and tactics he has employed to such devastating effect in Holland will either be blunted or just not possible for his first season at the very least.
Two things spring out of the above analysis. The first is that this will not be an overnight fix, and he will need to be given patience. He will also need money, because the squad and team he has inherited are just not capable of playing in the way he will demand. The reported £120 million war chest may sound impressive, but it doesn’t buy you many ready-made world-class players, especially when you are already playing catch up with at least 5 teams and probably more.
Both of those issues lay at the door of the owners, but ten Hag would not have been naïve enough when he took the job that he did not know he would require both of those things in spades, so you would hope – or United fans would at least – that they were both promised him.