The game has secretly been the most accessible form of anthropological study that we have, but the modern reinvention as A Serious Thing means we run the risk of creating straightforward narratives about complicated situations with regard to people in the game.
This is true of footballers but nowhere is it more true than football managers. We couldn’t come up with more straightforward simplistic narratives about coaches if we tried. Good teams means good coaches, struggling teams means the coach is doing a poor job. We attribute everything to the coach. We’re obsessed with coaches, even though piles and piles of research have shown the coach matters a lot less then we’d like to think.
One man who knows this very well is Erik Ten Hag. When Manchester United hired Erik Ten Hag last spring many fans flocked to YouTube to watch this now semi-famous interview about his coaching style at Ajax. As Manchester United have enjoyed a remarkable turnaround over the past year, there’s one quote from that interview that everyone now loves to (playfully) dunk on.
The full quote is even more revealing. Ten Hag is calling out our simple mindedness.
This isn’t to say there aren’t good managers and bad ones. There are, and Erik Ten Hag is very much in the good category. Part of what makes him good is that he genuinely believes what he said to be true. He understands he can’t make magic and that’s very evident in how he’s coached this Manchester United team.
So much of coaching is about timing. Contrary to popular belief, Erik Ten Hag arrived at Old Trafford at a very good time.
Given the disaster of last season terms like ‘complete rebuild’ were often heard when discussing United. A complete rebuild would be a herculean task but was also a case of extremism.
I define a rebuild as tearing something apart and rebuilding the entire structure. In football terms that means getting rid of a bunch of pieces and replacing them. United didn’t sell anyone this summer - their biggest transfer fee was £10m for a player who last appeared for the club in 2020. They let a bunch of players go at the end of their contracts but even the one who could most be considered a first teamer played less than 50 percent of the team’s minutes in the league over the last two years.
They didn’t need a rebuild, what they needed was a restoration.
United may have been terrible in just about every area in 2021-22 but just a year prior to that this was a team that scored the second most non-penalty goals (along with the second best NPxG) and conceded the second fewest non-penalty goals (and second lowest NPxGA) in the league. After a slow start, hampered by a lack of a preseason and some player availability, that team won 18 of their next 28 games and lost only once (an 82.79 season pace) before they put a team of reserves out on the pitch. That run took them to the top of the table before they were hit by injuries while Manchester City won an unprecedented 18 of 19 matches to ensure there wasn’t even a title race. That doesn’t happen by accident.
The following summer United added a player that didn’t fit the style of any of his teammates and his teammates games’ weren’t suited to playing with him. An entire team trying to cover for all the things the striker wasn’t doing added more responsibilities to already limited players and just made everything worse.
Erik Ten Hag saw this. Move past Cristiano Ronaldo (which is far far easier said than done) and the core of a 75-80ish point team was still right there. You’d be a little short at striker but in 2020-21 Edinson Cavani and Anthony Martial combined for just 14 goals. The core of this team knew how to score without a talismanic striker. Once you replace the outgoing midfielders you were ready to make some upgrades here and there to build on what was already a good core.
Now the question is, how are you going to play?
Ten Hag arrived with a reputation for having a possession based style of play and an expectation that he’d implement it at United. There’s a few issues here. The first is the core of this team was not suited to playing possession football. They don’t have the skillset to do it. A second issue possession football means different things to different people. There’s more than one way to skin a cat and the expectations for Ten Hag could have been a bit misguided due to most British fans being unfamiliar with the Eridivisie.
Perhaps Ten Hag tried to implement these tactics in the first two matches. Perhaps he saw that building up with Fred, Scott McTominay, or Christian Eriksen coming to receive the ball wasn’t going to work. Maybe it was injuries to other players. Regardless of what happened the two matches were a disaster and the question now being asked was simple, would Ten Hag be able to adapt?
What did Ten Hag do? He was staring down the barrel of a disastrous start knowing a coach can’t perform magic.
I can’t say whether these two events are linked or how they even are but was the same time United dropped their pursuit of Frenkie de Jong and turned their attention to Casemiro, a completely different midfielder.
Ten Hag looked at what Casemiro brings to the table, but more importantly, he looked inward. He looked at his players and said what are you guys already good at? Bruno Fernandes can spray passes everywhere, Marcus Rashford is most dangerous when he’s running at or behind defenders. He saw that in the early days of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first season this team thrived off counter attacks, and he leaned into it.
United dropped DEEP against Liverpool. They put on a fantastic counter attacking performance. The notion at the time was Ten Hag was just deploying those tactics as a means to get by, and to a degree that’s true. But months later, it’s become less this is how we’ll get by and more this is where our talent is so this is how we’ll win.
Ten Hag has continued to lean heavily into United’s ability to hit opponents on the counter attack. Two thirds of the way through the campaign United have scored eight goals from counter attacks. Not only is that almost double the next best team (Brentford with five) but it’s more than United scored in any of Solskjaer’s seasons. He’s used this tactic to get simply get United back to their previous level as a baseline. From there you get to work on improving that level.
The knock on Solskjaer was he can counter attack on teams but couldn’t break down low blocks. The truth was when Solskjaer had all his players available (IE Paul Pogba and Bruno) that was never a problem, but that doesn’t mean Ten Hag wasn’t going to have to deal with the same problem.
Rather than try to solve United’s inability to break down a low block, Ten Hag has gone about this problem in a different way, don’t play against low blocks!
Huh? A coach can only control that tactics his team uses. How can he prevent his opponent from playing a certain way?
Let’s dive in.
To better understand how Erik Ten Hag prevents United’s opponents from playing low blocks we should take a look at the locations of where United are taking their touches compared to previous seasons and see the story the numbers tell.
United are playing in their own third significantly more than at any point over the last six seasons. The percentage of touches in the attacking third is down a little bit as well, but they’ve never been more efficient at turning their touches in the final third into touches in the box. This is pretty indicative of a counter attacking team, when you’re running in behind there’s more space to get the ball into the box.
United’s attackers are most dangerous when they can run at defenders, when they can isolate defenders one one one, and make the defense scamper around to cover for players who are out of position or have been beat. In order to do that, you need to be quick and you need to be direct.
Here’s where Ten Hag’s tactics come in. When teams back off you - which teams have been doing for years now - if you slowly move up the pitch and take the space they’re giving you, all you’re doing is restricting the amount of space your attackers have to operate with. Rather than taking what the opposition gives you and carrying the ball forward, United are being direct.
Opta defines a direct attack as, “the number of open play sequences that starts just inside the team’s own half and has at least 50% of movement towards the opposition’s goal and ends in a shot or a touch in the opposition box” and United’s 59 direct attacks are the most in the league.
It comes from Ten Hag’s patient slow, slow, fast buildup. If the defense is backing off, United aren’t going to take that space. They’d rather their defenders hold the ball amongst themselves in their own third until they finally have their opening, and from there they go fast and they go quick.
Take the goal they scored against Leeds a few games ago. It starts with the defenders just playing with it at the back. I fast forwarded the clip because it’s legitimately 20 seconds of them holding onto the ball.
Eventually the ball comes to Sabitzer and it’s time to go. He drives forward and everything becomes much quicker, no more than two touches as they quickly move the ball.
They get the ball into the final third out wide to Shaw and within two touches he’s got in the box creating a chance for Rashford.
Here’s another example from earlier in the year against Newcastle. United pass it around the back until finally they spot their opportunity.
Once Martinez makes the forward pass to Shaw look at how quick United have moved the ball from their end of the pitch to creating a threatening chance.
We can also go a bit earlier in the season.
Again, look at how quickly United go from their own half of the pitch to big goal scoring opportunity.
The slow-slow-fast buildup helps draw defenders out and get your attackers in 1v1 situations rather than facing a set defense. But you can’t solely rely on defenses (eventually) stepping out to engage your backline. If they stay home you need other ways of attacking.
United’s £60m Brazilian signing is, quite simply, a defensive cheat code. His ability to cover large swaths of ground, win the ball back, and protect the back four allow Ten Hag to deploy tactics that most others can’t.
One of those has been the use of Fred. Fred has never been good in buildup so he pushes him higher up the pitch. As soon as United gain possession Fred will often push up next to Bruno, leaving Casemiro with a lot of space to cover.
Out of possession, Ten Hag often has his midfielders man mark the opposition midfielders. This has the effect of turning United’s base 4-2-3-1 formation into more of a 4-1-4-1.
With that front five, United are a relentless counter pressing team. When they lose the ball they immediately begin hounding their opponents in order to win it back.
There’s a bit of a misconception about United’s press this season. United are not a good high pressing team. Their 197 high turnovers (per Opta) is 9th most in the league, as average as they come. However, United’s 39 high turnovers that end in a shot is tied for the most in the league, indicating an elite counter pressing side.
But what happens when they don’t win the ball back? Let’s look back at the numbers of where on the pitch United’s touches are coming from, only this time let’s add in their opponents touches as well, giving us a better picture of where the entire game is being played.
The number that should jump off the page is that there’s significantly less going on in the middle of the park than ever before. Ten Hag removed the Cristiano Ronaldo, who slowed things down, and reverted to a counter attacking style that was proven to fit these players. That helped them get back to their previous levels of form and confidence before he added another level to their game.
Here are some more numbers that’ll really highlight the difference between Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s “counter attacking” sides and Ten Hag’s current side.
If we look at the 2019-20 and 2020-21 numbers above (along with the touch locations) and compare them to this season we can see a clear difference in how each team chooses to defend.
Solskjaer’s sides were about prevention. They played higher up the pitch, they were compact in the middle to prevent you from going through them. They guarded their box and didn’t let you make any passes near it. If you don’t come near our goal you won’t be able to score. It was an effective use of the talent available to them but could also be dull and didn’t always put the attackers in favorable positions.
Ten Hag’s version of United is far more active defensively. They sit deeper, they allow you to get closer to the goal, they make more tackles, and block more shots. They push their forwards higher but the defenders don’t follow suit. The defense not playing a high line can often turn their 4-1-4-1 into a bit of a front five and a back five dynamic with hardly anything linking the two.
That leaves a lot of open space in midfield and if United’s first wave of counter pressing doesn’t win the ball back, they can be passed through quite easily. Once possession is settled the lack of compactness contributes to United’s poor pressing game. If you get by the first level of the press, it’s not too hard to go directly up the pitch.
Typically this would be something you would expect a manager to try and fix, but with this version of United Ten Hag isn’t just ok with it, he’s inviting it. Go ahead, come attack us up the middle, we have Casemiro, Raphael Varane, and Lisandro Martinez. I like my chances that my guys are going to snuff out your attack. All the while because it looks like you’re in an advantageous situation, you’re throwing more men forward, which just means when we win the ball back we’re going to be able to hit you on the break.
The current iteration of Ten Hag’s Manchester United should come with a “don’t try this at home” warning label. As in, if you don’t have the talents of Casemiro, Varane, and Martinez, this likely won’t work for you. And to that end United themselves run into trouble when Casemiro isn’t available. In matches without Casemiro in the starting XI United have about seven percent less possession, they make fewer tackles, they concede seven and a half more shots, allow about 10 more box entires into their penalty area and their expected goals against rises by 0.9.
It can be argued that this could lead to an over-reliance on a single player’s talent (it does) but that’s something that can’t be addressed until the summer. For now, this is what good coaches do, leverage the talent in their team to put players in positions where they could be at their best. Last season United had the entire team doing more things they weren’t good at to cover the deficiencies of one player - lowering the overall quality of the team. This season they’re having one player do more of his strength so the rest of the team can focus more on their strengths.
The perception last summer was that Manchester United needed to gut their squad and rebuild it completely, but Erik Ten Hag didn’t see it that way. He saw a team that had the attacking ability, the defensive quality, and the mentality to always fight and come from behind. He got rid of the problem and brought back a playing style proven to work for the group and watched their confidence come right back. Once that happened, he could start making upgrades, and implementing bits and pieces of his preferred to take them to the next level.
Erik Ten Hag’s didn’t rebuild the squad. He restored it and then worked to upgrade it. Most importantly, he’s made Manchester “United” again.