Erik Ten Hag, his first window with Man United, and squad building

Half Turn
10 min readJul 16, 2022

As everyone knows, Erik Ten Hag was appointed by Manchester United to quench what feels like an everlasting thirst of theirs for a quality long-term manager.

With a terrible season (for their standards) behind them and without a clear path to success before them, what Manchester United currently needs is a rebuild. And, luckily for them (but maybe not as much as most think), Erik Ten Hag has been through a rebuild with Ajax. Ajax appointed ETH after coming just short of the Eredivisie title three years in a row.

ETH didn’t rely on big money moves to turn the tide around with Ajax. His net spent was a whopping -254.3m euros according to Transfermarkt (-82.8m even without the MdL and FdJ sales). And, he won the Eredivise title in the last 4 seasons of his 5 year tenure.

ETH also showed variety in his movement in the market. Bought some PL “flops” and rejuvenated their career in Tadic, Blind, and Haller. And, also found some gems and took them to the next level in Lisandro, Edson Alvarez, and Antony.

The need for familiar faces

Upon his appointment, there have been a lot of talks regarding ETH’s tactics. The widely used, and much less often understood term, “Juego de Posición” was enough to excite Manchester United fans. Starting from Guardiola’s Barcelona days, the term and the footballing style has been getting more and more popular. With Guardiola’s domestic domination in England with Man City, it even managed to gain a cult-like following.

I’m not going to go into what JdP is because there have been many articles about it (like this one if you want to read about it). But, I mentioned it to segue into Ten Hag’s preference for different roles in his team. All you need to know about JdP for this article is that it is about having a more strict approach to movements in possession. Players mostly hold a certain position though interchangeably, meaning one player can hold different positions in different moments. But, the zones that should be occupied are (mostly) the same. The goal is to maximize space by occupying certain zones on the pitch to then use that meticulously created space to create chances.

This detailed and controlled approach to the tactics make the needed profiles to effectively apply it, more detailed and controlled as well. So, the wiggle room on the market becomes more limited because of the on-pitch tactics. This is probably a big reason for Ten Hag favoring players that he worked with before in the market. If you’ve worked with a player before, you know what that player can bring much better than any new incomers. And, also the player knows what the manager wants from him better.

Accordingly, Ten Hag’s approach to his first transfer window with Man United has been one that is obsessed with familiarity. From the start of the window, Man United has been linked with former players of ETH like Timber, Antony, Lisandro, Frenkie De Jong. There have only been 3 successful deals for Man United for now with Lisandro, Malacia, and Eriksen coming in.

Lisandro Martinez

Man United payed premium money, €64m to be exact, for a 5'8" defender to get Lisandro Martinez whose defensive limitations don’t end with his height. Whereas Arsenal who were also in for him decided to not go over a certain amount.

The reason Ten Hag was willing to go that far to get Lisandro into his Man United team wasn’t for his defensive abilities though. Rather, he payed that premium money for a player who knows his system, a player that he knows what to expect from. Lisandro’s technical abilities for a defender are also top, top notch. He even got deployed as a dm under Ten Hag 22 times in his 120 games under him. And, he profiled statistically very close to Thiago, which shows at least good ability on the ball for Lisandro though his stats did get exaggerated as he plays for the most dominant team in Eredivisie by far.

This statistical exaggeration does not mean that Lisandro isn’t great on the ball though. You can easily see that he has passes in his locker that most defenders can’t even imagine. His passing statistics may (probably will) look less impressive with Man United but that won’t show a decrease in ability either. It will just be another proof that statistics do not equal ability.

This Ajax domination is also very relevant when judging the Lisandro deal in general too. Erik Ten Hag trusts that he can hide Lisandro’s weaknesses and accentuate his strengths at Manchester as he did so well at Ajax.

The problem with this notion is the difference between the relative quality of Ajax in Eredivisie and that of Man United in the PL. Meaning that Ajax play the vast majority of their games in the opponent’s half, dominating the possession. Moreover, the general physicality of Eredivisie is another limiting factor for opponent’s attacking threat as counter attacks become much less dangerous with less physicality.

When you consider Man United’s situation in the league, you can easily observe that Man United aren’t going to dominate possession in a lot of their games. The rest of the top 6 is a given but teams like Brighton, Crystal Palace, Leeds, and Leicester are also not teams that easily get into their low blocks and only try to create through counter attacks.

And, the teams that rely on counter attacks have players like Bowen, Mbeumo, Neto, and Brennan Johnson running off of Antonio, Toney, Jimenez, and Awoniyi. The threat that these teams offer on the counter attack can not even be compared to what midtable Eredivise teams did.

For the height discussion that’s been going on twitter lately. I don’t think height isn’t end all be all for aerial success, as nothing is. But, I also recognize that height is a natural limiting factor. And, those limits have a much higher chance to surface in the PL than Eredivisie. For comparison, Haller dominated Eredivisie physically. Newly promoted Fulham and Forest have Mitrovic and Awoniyi respectively.

Also, the situations that Lisandro will find himself in, will be more varied with United’s lack of complete domination compared to Ajax in Eredivisie as I discussed earlier. Meaning that Lisandro will have to defend in deeper areas by average, and he will also have to deal with settled attacks more often.

Height doesn’t only affect players aerially either as leg reach and ability to cover distance are also very much related to players’ heights. And the leg reach part is especially important for Lisandro as he is a front-foot defender who likes to be aggressive and proactive. The leg reach basically determines how effective you can be with denying forwards a touch.

A pic from a former thread of mine on twitter. Solet denying Lewa a touch in the CL game that they faced.

Here Solet uses his big frame to get close to Lewa and basically wraps around him using his long legs to stop that pass before Lewa could even get a touch. This is what Lisandro very much likes to do as well, but his physical profile will be a limiting factor in the PL where he will face strikers like Haaland, Nunez, Jimenez, Antonio, Toney, Awoniyi, Watkins and many more athletic freaks.

Antony

Manchester United has also been linked with Antony for many weeks now. And, it was last reported that they had a €50m+ offer rejected by Ajax.

Antony played as a RW under Ten Hag for Ajax. He has proved as a success as his 16m move two years ago looks like a bargain as they can reject a 50m+ offer. He also recorded 42 G/A in 5400 minutes with Ajax in his two seasons.

When watching Antony, the first thing you notice is probably how skillful he is. He does have many tricks in his bag, and he is not shy when using them. You also see a lot of creative plays where he cuts in and creates good chances using through balls and inswinging crosses with his left foot. He also has a decent curler from the zones that Robben used to dominate.

But, when you analyse a bit deeper, his deficiencies like his angles, dynamism, and intensity are also quite obvious.

Antony likes to hold width on the right and receive to foot rather than on the move. After receiving statically, he likes to cut in to his strong side and create or shoot at similar angles (think of those Robben zones). This is even observable in comps of Antony, the goals and the assists generally come from very similar zones as he can use his left foot very effectively in those areas.

But, the lack of a good weak foot and the lack of top level athleticism limits Antony’s game quite a bit. He can’t quite reliably goes to his right and he can’t reliably receive on the move. What makes players like Salah, Saka, Sterling, even Mahrez to some extent are their ability to both attack cutting in or towards the touchline and their ability to receive both to feet and on the move.

Another problem I have with Antony is that he can sometimes be reluctant to attack. This is probably a result of both his limitations and also Ten Hag’s instructions. His instinct is generally to slow down the game and recycle the ball, which is very important aspects of football these days especially in systems like Ten Hag’s but the reluctance to attack can be frustrating at times.

But, as we talked about, Ten Hag and his JdP oriented system uses players in less varied angles at a higher volume. So, the effectiveness that Antony has in the limited angles that he operates in, is enough to persuade ETH to drop premium money for a winger that has obvious deficiencies.

The discussion is once again about can he be as effective in the PL as he was in Eredivisie. As the opponents play more expansively in the PL, ETH will face more uncertainty and chaos with Man United. Also, the managerial level in the PL has reached incredible levels the last few years. Resourceful managers like Potter, Vieira, Frank, and Lage manage relatively smaller clubs these days. And, all four are great at adapting from match to match, reacting to different setups they face in different games. The combination of chaos and adaptive managers might force Ten Hag to look for more variety in his answers with United compared to Ajax where he could abuse the same patterns over and over again against lesser competition.

Frenkie De Jong

FdJ is another player that Ten Hag is chasing in his first window with ManU. They have agreed to a €85m fee with Barcelona but they are yet to convince the player himself.

This is another interesting go for Man United in my opinion. When you look at the players that they already possess, you see box to box midfielders and no 10s all over. None of McTominay, Fred, Bruno, and VdB can play as a single dm. Even in a double pivot, McT and Fred are both players that are better when utilized as a vertical player that runs with and without the ball more vertically.

And, Frenkie is no different than them profile wise. He is a midfielder that is better at carrying than passing, that needs verticality to be at his best, and most importantly that needs a sitter with him to flourish without majorly diminishing the general quality of the team.

Man United has yet to sign or even seriously chase a sitter in the midfield. A horizontal midfielder that has passing range and can be effective without making forward runs (like a Thiago or a Busquets, even Schone at Ajax).

De Jong is definitely an upgrade over what Man United currently have in his true role. But, the more needed role for the team has yet be taken care of which is worrying. And, to go for a less needed role with that huge of a price tag is very risky. If no sitters were bought, I unfortunately envision another Pogba story with FdJ where the player is not used at his best role and turns into a huge disappointment because of his big price tag.

Few more words on squad building

Though familiarity and specificity are a huge part of strictly structured systems like Ten Hag’s, there will always be major problems if a balance can’t be found between fundamentals and the specific requirements of a certain manager.

The seemingly constant CL problems that Man City have, can also be attributed to this. Considering that Pep is one of the best managers of all time and that he also has quite the large budget in his service, it wouldn’t be unfair to assume that Man United and Ten Hag will have more problems than their local rivals if they go with the same route.

This is also why most successful teams do not give their managers full control over transfers. Even Klopp has many transfer requests turned down by the recruitment team of Liverpool in his tenure. A full control also means that the life after the current manager will be harder as the new manager might not adhere to every principle of his predecessor.

Although I have some concerns over Ten Hag’s initial movements in the market, Man United finally have something to look for in a manager that has a certain outlook of football. United fans can at least expect a club that works in harmony. Consistent intentions on the pitch and on the market. The glory chasing days, when they tried to emulate the past, are most likely behind them. The Ten Hag project is underway, even if the near future might be full of ups and downs.

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