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Monday, January 30, 2023

Erik ten Hag is embracing the challenge of fixing Manchester United on and off the pitch

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The complexities of Manchester United’s issues over the last ten years have known no bounds. From often being devoid of tactical identity and a manager’s authority being undermined by players to hordes of fans entering the Old Trafford to protest against the ownership and a bitter interview against the club by a player under contract, the ride has often been rather ugly – to put it kindly. Managers at United have never been strangers to immense turbulence at various stages of their stints and the same was expected to be true for Erik ten Hag.

When the Dutchman stepped into the Old Trafford hotseat, the doubts that revolved around him were obvious. Many realized that United were going to be a much different cup of tea than Ajax, who offered the security of a conveyor belt of talents, a previously established identity that suited ten Hag and a reliable recruitment structure. Some looked at the black and white record of managers who have arrived from the Netherlands and those familiar with United’s bureaucratic functioning were concerned whether a ‘tactics-first’ boss could actually work out at Old Trafford. There were some who felt that ten Hag’s inclination to a particular philosophy would have to change because of United’s inability to sign the right players.

Fast forward seven months, ten Hag has, stage by stage, dispelled doubts of every kind as United are now in a spell which is perhaps the most convincing one in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era. And it isn’t as if ten Hag has not been put through severe tests, but he has come through those tests with flying colors, and there is a feeling that something is being built.

More importantly, something is being built by the Dutchman with certain processes in mind.

United began with crushing defeats to Brighton and Brentford, and, as scoreboard journalism would like, immediate questions were raised about the reliability of ten Hag’s approach. Questions arose about the style’s suitability to a side as hollow as United’s. Brighton and Brentford had exploited United’s inability to play out from the press, as ten Hag’s men did show some promising movements in the final third but never seemed on the same wavelength. While a lot of it came down to the fact that ten Hag hadn’t fully imposed his ideas, the lack of a defensive midfielder was also problematic.

While the build-up shape in possession was clear, progression beyond that suffered. The signs before a huge game against Liverpool were barely promising but ten Hag picked the perfect time to showcase his tactical flexibility. In what was a very Ole Gunnar Solskjaer-esque approach, ten Hag’s United were transition-based and incredibly direct and played deeper in their own half. They beat Liverpool, Arsenal, Southampton, Leicester and Everton in rather pragmatic ways but it symbolized ten Hag’s ability to adapt and change depending on the circumstance at hand. There was a realization on the Dutchman’s part that while the squad was being built for the longer term, there was a striking need to address the short-term worries.

It was reminiscent of ten Hag’s early days at Ajax, when he abandoned the vital parts of his long-term picture to use a more direct approach. More than that, it was also reminiscent of Mikel Arteta and the manner in which the Spaniard took Arsenal to FA Cup glory using a Plan B that was miles away from his preferred approach. Due to the squad’s inability to play his style of play, Arteta sacrificed the overarching system to use a style which best suited the squad he inherited.

ten Hag understood that David de Gea isn’t the usual sweeper keeper and in the Plan B period, we saw the Spaniard going direct to the forwards. Raphael Varane’s defense-first tendency also proved vital. As the sprouts of ten Hag’s own system were being sown, the impeccable performance against Tottenham will always stand as the watershed moment in the Dutchman’s stint. In a perfect performance, United pressed Spurs out of the park and choked them in possession. The fluid and well-charted out movements shone through in that game, which could possibly be hailed as United’s best performance in the post-Sir Alex era. It was resounding and if it wasn’t for ten Hag’s ruthlessness and pragmatism in tactical approach and selection, the inclusion of a corroded Cristiano Ronaldo could have hampered the progress.

The approach to the Ronaldo problem though, will go on to become emblematic of ten Hag’s understanding of what he wants in players, their strengths and their performances. In some ways, Ronaldo dug his own grave by not being part of pre-season training and by giving that interview but ten Hag essentially proved to be the undertaker (no, not the WWE one, even though it was Rest in Peace for CR7’s United career).

United have, over the decade, become a players-first club. They have let themselves be dictated by players and their whims, while giving limited priority to how the managers can fit that player into his system on the pitch. Perhaps, that is a given for a club that has focused on earning revenue using a lackadaisical top-to-bottom approach. Even when players past their prime or those that brought about difficulties for the team were excluded by managers, the club essentially forced the bosses into submission (unintentional WWE reference). ten Hag’s ruthless extermination presented a cultural change that the club had been crying out for across the whole decade. It was fitting that he left the stadium before United’s most complete performance in the post-SAF era ended.

It isn’t just Ronaldo’s treatment that speaks volumes of ten Hag’s intentions (before the guy tells you about his belief that ETH is ‘jealous’ of him or something). Marcus Rashford was dropped to the bench for oversleeping and failing to turn up at a team meeting on time. Jadon Sancho was United’s key target for two transfer windows in a row and the saga had left many United fans starving for him. He was seen as the ‘right-wing solution’ for the club and the harbinger of hope. His performances reflected a lack of interest in the sport sometimes and ten Hag has publicly referred to Sancho’s issues as ‘mental’ more than physical. He hasn’t gone into detail about the nature of the issue, which is the pleasing difference between the brash man-management of someone like Jose Mourinho (his issues with Luke Shaw) and the much more accountable man-management of ten Hag. Sancho may end up being hugely successful at Old Trafford and he may suit the system on paper and despite his portrayal as this technically eloquent footballer, he has to do more under ten Hag.

More than that though, what ten Hag is building has made sure that United don’t miss a player of Sancho’s on-paper quality. That is perhaps the biggest compliment one can pay to the Dutchman, whose over-arching system and the habit of enshrining players into that approach has made sure that specific players aren’t missed unless there is no stylistic alternative.

Luke Shaw did play at left centre-back in a back three under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but him operating at centre-back in a back four is a completely different context. The Englishman came out with flying colors, deputizing excellently in the absences of Lisandro Martinez, Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire. Bruno Fernandes has been used out wide on certain occasions and the team has made minor adjustments likewise, suggesting that ten Hag has already understood as to where the strengths and weaknesses of players lie. Fernandes’ high risk, high reward approach has loads of advantages but a player that possesses strengths like that can be more beneficial out wide, as it reduces the risk of losing the ball in midfield.

Scott McTominay’s occasional usage higher up the pitch is another example of the Dutchman’s flawless identification of talent. It was a usually accepted fact that McTominay was never a defensive midfielder and his usage there was only a stopgap option till another player joined. ten Hag was swift to realize that and McTominay is now usually viewed as someone who is much more valuable higher up the pitch. Casemiro’s impact has been a massive help to everyone in the team, of course.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka was always viewed as a full-back who was one-dimensional, in comparison to a more complete full-back like Diogo Dalot. The Portuguese showed signs of being someone who could invert, act as an extra man in build-up at the back or in midfield, make underlaps and overlaps. That wasn’t always true for Wan-Bissaka. But the last three games have stood for the ex-Crystal Palace man’s career resurgence and for his evolution as a footballer. A bit like Eddie Howe, ten Hag’s recipe for success at United hasn’t just revolved around new signings working out. There has been substantial effort put into bringing the most out of the players who were already there and finding and using their strengths. That is another reflection of ten Hag’s pragmatism.

Fresh challenges will present themselves and United will lose some games but it would be fair to say that there is much more unity amongst the club’s fanbase than there ever has been. Almost like a country that once had a leader who ruled with an iron fist but his exit led to internal strife, civil wars and warring factions, United were barely operating like a united nation. From warring fans that supported certain players and managers to players in the dressing room seeking a certain status, those around United were pulling in separate directions.

Erik ten Hag, through his ruthlessness, pragmatism and impeccable belief in his systems has made sure that factions don’t even exist anymore and every part of the wheel has the same priority: Manchester United.

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