It hasn’t been an easy start to life at Manchester United for Erik ten Hag. Actually, it’s been f***ing miserable.
Already it is clear that the new manager is struggling to imprint his philosophy on this United squad. We know from his time at Ajax that he likes to play on-the-front-foot, attacking football, collectively pressing from the front, with a high defensive line.
“We want to play a proactive style of football, on the ball and off the ball,” Ten Hag said in an interview with United’s website shortly after taking over. “Trying to do that has to be our intention. The coaches bring it over to the team that we are, in every situation, proactive. We are brave and willing to have the ball, to give each other options. But also off the ball, to get the pressing style is what we’re working for together.”
The evidence of the first two games highlights just how much work the manager has to do. Is it an impossible job? We’ve picked out five – for now – barriers between Ten Hag and the vision he has for United.
We’ll start at the back and work forward…
1) David De Gea is a reactive, not a proactive, goalkeeper
It’s been a wretched start to the season for the United stopper, but his most glaring errors have been technical – it doesn’t matter what style of goalkeeper you prefer, they all have to be able to stop Brentford’s opener on Saturday.
The second goal was more of a worry for Ten Hag. The manager wants his team to play out from the back, which relies on the goalkeeper not only possessing an expansive range of passing but also making sound decisions. The outfield players can make all their prescribed moves but De Gea must be responsible for his choices. Christian Eriksen was clearly in no position to receive it and the obvious pass was a longer one into an attacker while the full-backs were pushed on, having taken out the first line of the Brentford press.
Maybe it’s understandable, if not acceptable, that De Gea’s head was a mess at that moment, coming so soon after his horrible error for the opener. The way he set a wall for a free-kick shortly afterwards suggested his confidence was in tatters.
It’s been 10 years since United hand-picked De Gea when a large part of the attraction to a waifish teenager was his ability in possession. But in the decade that has followed, other goalkeepers have surpassed De Gea in that aspect of his play to the point that the Spaniard almost looks uncomfortable.
When it comes to the main part of his job – keeping the ball out of the net – De Gea’s style also contrasts with what Ten Hag needs. While United have been a counter-attacking side with a deeper defence, it’s okay for De Gea to be pinned to his line, even if his defence might prefer for him to come for the odd cross now and again. But De Gea also plays deep when United attack, which leaves a huge gap between his natural habitat and where Ten Hag wants his defensive line.
2) Ten Hag hasn’t a centre-back pairing to play high
De Gea is not the only individual in United’s back line who might struggle in a high defensive line; the skipper isn’t accustomed to it either.
Harry Maguire is very good defender, despite what the last season or two might have you believe. Ten Hag’s hope is that the captain will be one of a few players to be rehabilitated amid a change of leadership and allowing Maguire to keep the armband was a big show of faith in the centre-back.
The concern, though, is whether Maguire is comfortable defending closer to the halfway line. If his keeper isn’t a willing sweeper, it leaves a lot of ground to cover behind the centre-backs.
Raphael Varane hasn’t demonstrated that he can play that way in the Premier League either. In fact he hasn’t demonstrated much at all aside from fragility. Lisandro Martinez is obviously rather happier to play high, but there is a pay-off in putting so much faith in the new boy.
The way Martinez’s height has been discussed and ridiculed, you’d think he was a certified midget. But if Ten Hag, because of his keeper and Maguire, feels he has no choice but to compromise and play deeper, it does become a concern because teams will target the new boy, just as Brentford did. Martinez has to be ready for that.
As it stands, even with the unfamiliarity between Martinez and the other defenders, Ten Hag is probably feeling he hasn’t a suitable pairing between the dozens of centre-backs on United’s books.
Every conceivable attempt to target United's left hand side in the air in buildup against Brentford pic.twitter.com/l6ojzAMdnH
— My video editing is bad but your takes are worse (@JamesWe60064689) August 16, 2022
3) Even with De Jong, his midfield might still be short. Without him…
Ten Hag certainly lacks a suitable midfield pairing. He probably pines for just one suitable player to man his engine room.
The idea of sticking with McFred was blown out of the water on the opening day, while Eriksen is certainly no holding midfielder unless he has a partner of the ilk of peak N’Golo Kante. That’s not Fred.
The player we all know he wants is Frenkie De Jong. Ten Hag wants the Holland star, his former charge at Ajax, to pull United’s strings. De Jong, as the manager has said, is not the player who scores the goals or even offers the assists, but his range of passing assists the assisters.
But let’s say that Ten Hag finally gets his man in the next fortnight – he almost certainly won’t, but come with me – who does he play with? Almost certainly one half of McFred. Which still leaves United short of a screener. Whatever happens in the next couple of weeks, unless United surprise Ten Hag with a top-class defensive midfielder, his midfield will still require improvement.
More realistically, it will be McFred at the base with Bruno Fernandes and Adrien Rabiot as No.8s.
4) United’s forwards are better on the break too
We’ve established that United’s current players, though their goalkeepers, defenders and midfielders, are more comfortable sitting off. The same goes for the forwards.
As things stand, Ten Hag’s front three will be Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, with either Cristiano Ronaldo or Anthony Martial through the middle. One who wants to leave and another they wanted rid of six months ago. But that’s beside this particular point.
Any combination of that quartet can fly out of the traps on transitions but against teams who invite United on to them, Ten Hag needs more ingenuity than just raw pace.
Fernandes and Eriksen can pick locks but we’ve seen little consistent evidence that United’s forwards even know where the doors are when defences are compact and in position.
Out of possession, United are terrible at pressing from the front – Ralf Rangnick sussed that inside one-and-a-half games. Ronaldo isn’t interested, while Rashford, Sancho and Martial are masters of the pretend press, offering the illusion of intent while closing down with little conviction or cohesion as a unit.
5) United aren’t capable of overhauling their squad
So, to play the way Ten Hag wishes to, he perhaps needs a new goalkeeper, another centre-back, perhaps two midfielders and at least one forward.
That’s a huge overhaul for one window even for a club which dabbles only occasionally in competency. For United, it’s an impossible job.
It requires time and planning to source half-a-dozen preferred targets and pursue them until they sign. Instead, United seemed to identify De Jong and decide they’d get around to everything else when the priority was achieved. Obviously, here in week 427 of the De Jong saga, it’s proven to be a plan with some very obvious flaws.
With a fortnight to go, there’s a very good chance that Ten Hag will end the summer with one of the priority targets he wanted.
Quite simply, the inadequacy of those above and behind him is perhaps the biggest barrier between Ten Hag and his vision of his United.
Even more simply: Ten Hag is f***ed.