I watched one of Jimmy Stewart’s lesser-known Christmas films over the weekend, The Shop Around the Corner, directed by the German American filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch. It’s about two anonymous pen pals falling in love. This movie famously inspired the ‘90s rom-com You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and every other dating app movie. 20 minutes into this golden age classic, we learn that the two lovers have been exchanging letters for a while but haven’t met yet.
“I keep postponing it and postponing it. I’m scared. This girl thinks I’m the most wonderful person in the world. And after all, there is a chance she might be disappointed,” Stewart’s character reveals to his friend, Mr Pirovitch, at the shop.
This apprehension captures how I’ve been feeling about the upcoming Premier League season after Manchester United’s pre-season. It’s been fun to watch this team again — win, lose or draw — and there’s every chance we’ll all be feeling deflated after the game against Brighton. It’s happened before.
But there’s a part of me that believes we’ve seen enough to not be going from sensation to sensation as is often the case when following Manchester United — that Ten Hag really could be the one. Why do I feel that way after a pre-season?
If you have a notable interest in cinema, you’ve probably come across the term Lubitsch Touch. The term was used to describe Ernst Lubitsch’s peculiar but identifiable filmmaking style, which has been discussed in depth by many film people but hasn’t got a singular definition.
I think in the last few seasons we’re starting to give football managers the auteur treatment. That’s especially the case at the Premier League’s top clubs. Every manager has got to have this very identifiable vision that the guy at the pub or the soccer scholar can identify even if they might describe it differently.
So, if there is a Ten Hag touch, what’s it like and have we seen it so far?
Before we even get to all the fun little details, it’s important to have a happy camp. I didn’t find it hard to believe that some of the players were unhappy last season and that there were cliques in the dressing room. But I also firmly believed that this was something that could be solved if the leadership vacuum at the club was filled. We’ve touched on this in a recent piece about captaincy, which is really about leadership.
Even if you had doubts about a player’s quality or their intelligence — for the first two seasons under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, this was not a team lacking in spirit and camaraderie. Some big decisions were made last summer and others were deferred to the point where Solskajer lost some of his authority and everything started to rot. The toxicity that permeated the dressing room last season seems to have quickly faded away.
We might have a likeable team again, but it can’t be all fun and games.
Filling the leadership vacuum isn’t going to be enough. Ten Hag has got to seal it. We know he’s a disciplinarian, so this shouldn’t be an issue.
We’ve seen the clips going around where he’s barking orders in training and the dugout but this hasn’t just been demonstrated within the dressing room and during training. He also blocked his players from visiting the Neighbours set during the trip to Australia.
An iron fist was probably needed but there’s no reason to believe it’ll be an army camp. The additions of Steve McClaren and Benni McCarthy should bring some velvety softness to the group.
This has, perhaps, been the biggest surprise. The centre-forward, right-wing and right-back areas were considered by most of us as pressing first-team issues but Anthony Martial, Jadon Sancho and Diogo Dalot have arguably been the three best performers in pre-season. They’ve not just filled the gaps but really excelled in those areas during pre-season.
There’s still a need for depth in those areas and the club desperately needs to add a holding midfielder (who should come by the end of the window) but Fred has probably been just as good as the three names mentioned earlier. He’s not likely to play in the holding midfield when the season really kicks in but there’s enough in those performances to suggest that he’s an able back-up.
Manchester United have been easy to defend for the last couple of seasons because most of the plays have come from the left flank. It looks like that burden will be shared by the right flank heading into this season with Harry Maguire, Diogo Dalot and Jadon Sancho expected to play most of their minutes on that flank. All three of them have excellent progressive passing and carrying numbers. It then just leaves that central area with some work.
This won’t just help the team as a whole but should also help Marcus Rashford. The Mancunian should ideally be on the end of more moves on the left if this comes to full fruition. Rashford’s a talent but he’s not someone who can lead the playmaking in the forward areas. This was most evident in the 2020-21 Europa League final.
He can still participate in some of it because many of the attacks will run from the left, which should help him develop parts of his game like his improved passing over the years, but it’d be best if Sancho is tasked with most of the ball handling.
Movies can share similar plot lines and football teams can share formations but it’s all in the application.
In the very first pre-season game, we got a look at how Ten Hag often uses a man-oriented press in midfield and likes his sides to aggressively press one flank. These were hallmarks of his Ajax sides in the big Champions League. To minimize the risks, his centre-backs were expected to aggressively step into midfield and snuff out the attack because players can often lose their marker in this set-up and one player could go on a free run. The addition of Lisandro Martinez makes perfect sense for this reason.
The touchline press doesn’t require much analysis. It’s used by many teams because the central space is the most likely to fetch a goal and even if the opposition makes a quick switch, the players have time to regroup and protect that central space at the very least.
We’ve seen many different methods of build-up. The game against Aston Villa was particularly instructive as Villa have a narrow front-3, so the United full-backs stayed wide in the build-up phase because it was the smart thing to do, instead of building in a 3 as is quite common. We’ve also seen the full backs move into midfield when the other bombs forward to prevent counterattacks.
The team has had no trouble moving the ball quickly from back to front but reserves of patience have been shown in the final third against sides with more stubborn low blocks like Melbourne Victory. Ten Hag’s adaptability to the opposition has been quite evident and players seem to be capable of switching systems as soon as the opposition changes their approach as well.
There are many reasons to feel optimistic heading into this season. There’ll be a lot of bumps in the road but the players seem to have bought into the ideas already. There’s a lot of bickering and fighting between the two stars in the movie I watched on the weekend, but in the end, they kiss and makeup.
For what it’s worth, the movie is set in Budapest, which also happens to be the venue for next season’s Europa League final. If all goes well, a trophy might just be around the corner.