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Erik ten Hag: First impressions

Here are some first impressions from the United boss after his first week in charge...

Manchester United Erik ten Hag Press Conference Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

We’re back in rebuild mode, and Erik ten Hag is here to get to work. He’s in early, opting not to take a vacation after ending the season with Ajax, and from his interview, press conference, and the groundwork for the Summer transfer window there are already strong indications of the kind of ship United’s new man wants to run.

Here are some first impressions from Manchester United’s new manager: Erik ten Hag.

Trust the Process

I’m not talking about the Philadelphia 76ers and their flopping superstars here.

Erik ten Hag, like many of his predecessors, said a lot of the right things. The club has great history and tradition, he’s excited to be a part of this and to work with the players, he believes there’s lots of potential, etc. We’ve seen it before and it’s not particularly thought provoking.

What is thought provoking is ten Hag’s clear intention to get to work immediately on implementing a strategy for the Summer on a fast tracked schedule. The players are expected back on June 27 (according to reports) to begin preseason training and conditioning. The style of play will no doubt be different for most of the squad, who struggled to adapt to a pressing style under Rangnick, and acclimating to ten Hag’s style early on will be crucial for the at times crowded 2022/23 season due to the 2022 World Cup. Not to mention it’ll be important for the many United players set to take part in the World Cup in November/December in the middle of the season.

This structured planning is a big part of ten Hag’s early arrival in Manchester, as he is hoping to analyze and finalize their recruitment strategy to hopefully have some new signings available to join the squad for their preseason. This might be a bit more hopeful considering the transfer history of the club, but John Murtough is in charge now and seems motivated not to make the same mistakes as his failed predecessor, Ed Woodward. How much money will be available is still up for debate, as is how much will be made available due to player sales, but it is clear that ten Hag has already identified a few suitable targets and wants to get deals done ASAP.

On Erik ten Hag Ball

What exactly Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United will look like on the pitch has been widely discussed and will likely continue to be discussed until we actually see it happen. What ten Hag himself has to say about it now at the start of the process however is far from rigid in terms of tactics and shape. We know that pressing will be important, we know that passing and fluidity in possession and attack will be important, but we also know that starting with a clean slate is impossible and each player’s individuality and style will reflect in whatever shape the team eventually takes on next season.

“You have seen Ajax, and like that,” ten Hag began in answering a question about style, “but it is always players dictating the way of play. When I have the idea I will line up my best team. I will line up my players like that to get the best out of them, so they can go to the maximum, and they feel comfortable in their role. And in the end it’s about getting the success together.”

This stuck out to me watching his press conference because it’s a side of the game that is forgotten a bit in teambuilding, and in terms of this club’s recent history was one of the positives from the best of times under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Individuality and expressiveness are important in football for a number of reasons, but namely the human aspect and the entertainment aspect, both of which were absent for most of this season. It’s genuinely exciting to see how that plays out within ten Hag’s system for players who need that kind of reset.

This is a tone that has been too often overlooked this season as well. Social media has become a hive of negativity and hostility towards the current squad, much of which is separate from criticism and no level of poor form warrants that kind of abuse from fans. We can sit around and discuss fantasy football all day about which players would make this team better, but the reality is ten Hag took this job to manage many of the same players that played this season. I say this as someone who might have gone too far criticizing players in the past as well, and there are certainly players I’d love to see replaced ASAP for various reasons, but that total rebuild isn’t possible over one Summer. Players who ten Hag has a vision for will have to work to fit that vision to keep their place, and regardless of how dreadful man of them were this season lots of them deserve that chance.

Recruitment shakeup in areas of need

Manchester United have too often gone for splashy, big impact, marketable signings when kickstarting a rebuild under new managers. Angel Di Maria, Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Harry Maguire, Bruno Fernandes. All very talented players, but their respective impacts on the club were either shortlived or undermined due to the poor recruitment in the rest of the deals United made around them. The team building process is more than making a few star signings, it takes a team in it’s own to identify strengths and weaknesses to address accordingly. That’s part of the expectation for Erik ten Hag and the retooled front office at the club.

The early signs are promising. United have been identified with a couple big/expensive signings, but for the most part it appears ten Hag is chasing after targets that can suit his team demands in positions that do the dirty work. Jurrien Timber, Nordi Mukiele, Malcolm Ebiowei, and Giorgi Mamardashvili are some of the names linked with United in the week since ten Hag took charge in Manchester. Unlike rumored target Frenkie de Jong, these targets are atypical in the kind of player we’ve seen the club chase in recent seasons. Younger, non-English players usually slip through to other Premier League clubs before breaking out as talents while United chase stars.

While big name impact players are given that status for a reason, it takes more than that, and the expansion of United’s recruitment strategy is an ideal change to be made early in the tenures of both John Murtough and ten Hag. They will have some work to do if they want players in by the June 27 Preseason training start date, but if reports are to believed they’ve already compiled a list of candidates that can be afforded within a likely limited budget.

It’s early in Erik ten Hag’s reign, but it’s nice to feel positive about something for the first time in a long time.