Nearly five months after firing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, it seems like Manchester United finally do have their man. And for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, it seems like they finally got the top guy on the coaching market.

Ever since he took Ajax to within seconds of the Champions League final in 2019, Erik ten Hag has been linked with just about every major job opening. The same couldn’t be said of David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal, Jose Mourinho or Solskjaer when they were each appointed as Manchester United’s full-time manager. In terms of who was truly available and gettable, there was no one better than the 52-year-old Dutchman.

So, with step one of the rebuild – hire a coach! – complete, we have some questions about what comes next for Ten Hag and his new club.

All right, so how far do Manchester United have to go?

The goal, of course, is to challenge for the Premier League title. As of Tuesday morning, Manchester City have 74 points, while United have 54. Given their remaining schedules, it seems likely that United finish about 30 points back of whoever wins the title, whether it be Liverpool or City.

Now, United did finish just 12 points behind City and five ahead of Liverpool last season. There were some extenuating circumstances – Liverpool’s entire team getting injured, the condensed fixture list, and the empty-to-mostly-empty stadiums – so United’s true talent level wasn’t that close to either City or Liverpool. At the same time, it’s probably not as bad as the table makes it look this year, either.

The Elo ratings at clubelo.com have a longer view of history than the Premier League table. Each team has a rating, and that rating then gets adjusted with each match based on the quality of the opponent and the result. By Elo, United currently rate as the 10th-best team in the world, between Atletico in ninth and RB Leipzig in 11th. For comparison: Arsenal sit 13th, with Tottenham a spot behind in 14th. City are first, Liverpool second and Chelsea fifth.

Slightly more complex than Elo, FiveThirtyEight’s rankings take into account a team’s underlying performance – expected goals and a number of other possession-based factors — in addition to results. By these rankings, United are the 17th-best team in the world — one spot below Red Bull Salzburg, one above Bayer Leverkusen. But their actual rating (77.2) is closer to River Plate (61.3) in 95th than to City (93.2) in first.

The reality is probably somewhere between both of those models. The reality is that they have a long way to go, and the reality is that Ten Hag is taking a step down by taking the United job. Ajax rank seventh in Elo and sixth per FiveThirtyEight.

How did Ajax play?

Think Manchester City and Liverpool – but more attacking.

“Ajax’s offensive setup is very, very, very offensive. It’s riskier than what top teams do,” said Erik Elias, a scout in the Netherlands. “When the ball reaches the final third, it’s basically two centre-backs and a defensive midfielder behind the ball, with the rest in front. And very [Louis] Van Gaal-like, Ten Hag comments after games that if the centre-backs and that midfielder are just positioned correctly and press forward if needed, Ajax should not concede any goals.”

In the Eredivisie, this past season, Ten Hag’s side is completing 31 passes into the penalty area per game – 10 more than both Liverpool and City. They’re attempting 21 shots per game – two more than Liverpool or City. Their share of the final-third passes played in their matches (76%) is higher than both Liverpool’s and City’s.

Their pressing rate – measured by PPDA, or opponent passes allowed per defensive action – would be the most aggressive (9.03) in the Premier League. They’ve won possession in the final third 7.5 times per match, which would be joint-best in the Premier League along with Liverpool. Oh, and they’ve scored 2.9 goals per game, nearly half a goal more than Liverpool’s league-best rate of 2.5 per match.

Will that work at Manchester United?

In a word: no. In four words: not yet, at least.

This season, United rate slightly above average in their share of final-third passes (56%, sixth-highest) and passes into the penalty area (14 per game, also sixth-highest). However, they’ve won possession in the attacking third less often than the average Premier League team (4.6 per game, compared with an average of 4.7) and their pressing rate by PPDA is also less aggressive than average (13.7, compared with 12.8).

To tick all of those boxes requires a ton of pressing from all of the attackers, a comfort in possession from all 11 players, and free-safety-like range from the defensive midfielder and the centre-backs.

As has been the case for the past decade-plus: Manchester United do not have a world-class defensive midfielder, while one of their centre-backs, Harry Maguire, really struggles in space. Throw in the fact that their other midfielders and non-Jadon-Sancho attackers aren’t great at keeping the ball, and that their leading scorer, Cristiano Ronaldo, presses less frequently than literally any other player in Europe at his position. Trying to immediately port this style over to Old Trafford would likely be a disaster.

Part of the reason that Ten Hag was able to play this style with Ajax, too, was that the Dutch giants had a massive talent and resource advantage over their competitors. Most teams don’t play like Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Manchester City because they can’t afford the players that would enable them to play like Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Manchester City. Compared with their domestic competitors, Ajax might have had an even bigger advantage than any of those teams do.

“People don’t realize it, even in the Netherlands,” Elias said. “Ajax pay 40-50% more than PSV. I also think that during Ten Hag’s time in the Netherlands, PSV and Feyenoord have not been particularly smart in closing this pay gap with smarter decisions than Ajax.”

While United still are one of the richest teams in the world, City reported higher revenues over the previous year and Liverpool have significantly closed the gap to second. Meanwhile, both City and Chelsea are currently paying higher wages to their players and Liverpool’s wages have risen to competitive levels, too.

While United used to have an Ajax-like lead over the Premier League from a financial perspective, the gap has totally disappeared.

So, uh, why did they hire this guy?

Based on all of the above, this seems like another example of Manchester United chasing their own tail, going after another big name with no regard for how the personnel fit together. It’s how they’ve hired coaches and signed players for the past 10-plus years, and given their financial power, it’s led to probably the most embarrassing and disappointing decade-or-so stretch for a single club in the modern history of European soccer. They’ve been as bad as a team with their resources conceivably could be.

Except, while Ten Hag might seem like another Total Football devotee, that’s just not true.

“There’s a misconception that he is some kind of [Johan] Cruyff ideologue that wants to play beautiful football,” Elias said. “If you take his coaching career, that has only been present the last four years, because he has the players for it and it is a winning style. But at Utrecht, his team sometimes didn’t press until the ball crossed the halfway line.”

To understand the importance of this clip, you need to comprehend the level of tactical orthodoxy present in Dutch soccer at the time. Every team played a 4-3-3 with the ball; then without it, they’d shift into a 4-4-2 and press the ball with a man-to-man system. Ten Hag, instead, did the opposite of what everyone else did; his Utrecht played a 4-4-2 with the ball, then transformed into a 4-3-3 without it and frequently dropped behind the halfway line. For the tactically minded, it was wild – and it worked.

In the 2014-15 season, before Ten Hag joined Utrecht, they finished 11th with 41 points on a minus-2 goal differential.

In his first season with the club, they jumped to fifth with 53 points and a plus-9 goal differential. And then in his final season, they improved even more: fourth place, 62 points, plus-16 goal differential.

Given his sort of “anti-Dutch” approach at Utrecht, it was somewhat surprising that he was hired by the club that is the apotheosis of Dutch football. And his first half-season with Ajax was similar in theme to David Moyes’ ill-fated stint with Manchester United: a manager from a smaller team playing a more reactive style struggles to implement the kind of dominant possession-based tactics that are required to win the number of games necessary for success at a super-club.

“When he started out in January 2017, the first six months were not good,” Elias said. “I and other tactics nerds were ranting that there was not a stylistic fit. The buildup looked very bad then, and I didn’t think he could fix it. Meanwhile, the media focused on his accent and the fact he couldn’t really speak well in front of a camera.”

Two years later, he had Ajax playing in the semifinals of the Champions League.

Why Tchouameni would be perfect for Erik ten Hag at Man UnitedJulien Laurens explains why Monaco’s Aurelien Tchouameni would be a good fit at Manchester United.

OK, then what will he do at United?

“The thing that is present at all his teams is that there is a clear plan and all the players know what to do,” Elias said. “He caters to the strengths of the players.”

At Ajax, a bunch of Premier League cast-offs, players with imperfect skill sets, flourished under Ten Hag. The likes of Daley Blind (Man United), Dusan Tadic (Southampton), Davy Klaassen (Everton) and Sebastien Haller (West Ham) all washed out of England in part because of clear limitations in some aspects of their games. Instead, Ten Hag built his team around all of their strengths.

Simply put, United have the worst-built squad among the top 20 teams in Europe. A team with a clear identity and top-down plan would just never purposefully acquire the collection of players you’ll see at Manchester United right now. That’s the biggest reason why this current squad is so badly underperforming its revenues, wage bill, transfer spend or any other data point that typically serves as a proxy for overall talent. Given his history, Ten Hag might be able to get more out of their collection of mismatched pieces than some other top coaches.

As for how they’ll play? One aspect of the game that all teams can emphasize — no matter the overall quality of the squad – is in transition.

The average Premier League game features 188 possessions or 94 for each side. That number varies from Leeds at the top with 103, and Manchester City at the bottom with 82. The style you play can affect how many transition opportunities there are, but even with the most controlled team the Premier League has ever seen, there are still 82 moments per match where possession switches from one team to the other. And although Ten Hag’s general approach shifted from Utrecht to Ajax, he kept an emphasis on these moments.

“The one thing that is always present is that his teams — for Dutch standards! — are very strong in moments of transition,” Elias said. “Rest defence is always very well-organized and when the ball is won he goes very direct. Ten Hag explicitly mentioned this in a mid-2017 interview: He wanted Ajax to play much more directly after winning the ball.”

By “rest defence,” he’s referring to how the team’s positioning when in possession also allows them to immediately defend when they do lose the ball. The best teams are essentially attacking and defending at the same time.

While exploiting transitions doesn’t necessarily aid Ronaldo’s game, he shouldn’t be a long-term consideration for Ten Hag. He’s just too old to realistically be a part of United’s next title challenger, which won’t exist for at least a couple of years.

As I pointed out when Mark Ogden and I looked at United’s potential managerial candidates last month, there were eight players currently on the roster who could theoretically be a part of the next great United team. Ages in parentheses: Harry Maguire (28), Raphael Varane (28), Bruno Fernandes (27), Luke Shaw (26), Marcus Rashford (24), Diogo Dalot (22), Jadon Sancho (21) and Anthony Elanga (19).

Given that he flourished under Ten Hag at Ajax, you can add on-loan Donny van de Beek (25) to that mix, too. Perhaps he’ll also figure out a role that emphasizes 24-year-old Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s 1-on-1 defending and reduces his limitations elsewhere. But regardless of who remains, almost all of these players have had their best moments when able to play in transition, rather than trying to break down settled defences with sustained possession.

Now, if United are ever going to win another title and challenge again in the Champions League, they’re going to have to do both: create value from turnovers, but also from the times when a transition doesn’t immediately lead to a shot. And to get there? Well, they’re going to have to develop a plan in concert with their new manager and then identify the right players to execute it. Many of the key contributors to the next great Manchester United team don’t currently play for Manchester United.

The job change is a massive leap for Ten Hag, going from the dominant team in the Netherlands to the most competitive and richest league in the world. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Pep Guardiola’s City, and Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea — that’s as hard as it gets. Plus, Tottenham and Arsenal are both ascendant, too. But at least we’ve already seen Ten Hag adopt his methods to his players and develop a dominant team that was competitive at the highest level.

The people we’ve never seen build something like that before? They’re the ones who just hired him.

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Note: This article is written by Ryan O’Hanlon and has been published at ESPN FC

 

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