It is a common fallacy that Sir Alex Ferguson played fast, attacking football as Manchester United manager.
During the first decade of Fergie’s reign the Premier League was not a place for intricate tactical models, for possession domination or for the kind of slick fast-tempo attacking moves we see in the modern game. Even by standards of the time English football was far behind mainland Europe and matches were defined mostly by winning individual battles and waiting for the right moments to strike. It was about psychological and technical power above anything else.
In the 2000s English football started to catch up and Ferguson adapted to the cautious defensive game that Jose Mourinho helped introduce, and although his final act in the 2010s is remembered for the attacking pace of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, and Carlos Tevez their partnership has been romanticised by highlights reels and nostalgia. It was, after all, a team coached predominantly by Carlos Queiroz.
This is by no means meant to disrespect the extraordinary achievements of Ferguson but rather to suggest that returning Manchester United to their former glory does not necessarily require bold attacking tactics – and to suggest that Erik ten Hag is embodying the Ferguson principles more than you might think.
In fact, the basic ideas of Ferguson seem to have informed Ten Hag’s first year in charge.
Leadership and individual coaching
Although difficult to quantify, Ten Hag’s greatest asset to Man Utd has been his quiet charisma and his man-management. To move on Cristiano Ronaldo and enliven the United dressing room after years of under-achievement has required a gravitas and acute ability to handle individual players that Ten Hag has made look easy. The treatment and reintegration of Jadon Sancho has been the perfect example of this.
Ferguson similarly had the knack for looking after his players and motivating them to work for the collective, as well as possessing a talented coaching staff to improve individual components. Before we get onto the tactical side of things, the progress in David de Gea, Luke Shaw, Fred, and Marcus Rashford in particular is testament to the detailed coaching provided by Ten Hag’s team.
🗣️ “The process is still on and it’s still a long way for us because we want to achieve much bigger things. He has brought that culture that we can’t be happy to be behind anyone.”
Bruno Fernandes on Erik ten Hag changing the mentality at Manchester United. 💪 pic.twitter.com/2M25srUjJP
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) February 24, 2023
The summation of this work is United having a leader in whom they trust and from whom they can learn; who creates a new positive mentality and sets the bar for those arriving at the club.
He is helped, of course, by the on-field embodiment of those ideas: Casemiro.
Casemiro-led base and moments of quality
Tactically, Ten Hag has kept things surprisingly simple in his first year, implementing a more cautious pressing style than anticipated, seemingly teaching fewer automatisms (pre-set moves to act out in open play), and allowing his players to conservatively feel out a contest before using their judgement to strike at the right moment.
This latter quality is most notable in Casemiro, United’s linchpin in 2022-23 whose intelligence and ability to speed up and slow down a contest from the centre has given Ten Hag’s team the same qualities as Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid.
To put it another way, Casemiro – along with Christian Eriksen – have injected enough individual quality into the first 11 to radically alter the outcome of matches without any great tactical philosophy having been imparted. United do not stand out on any statistics this season; from chance creation to defensive style, the advanced metrics don’t throw up anything to suggest the eye test has missed something. And what we see is a fairly simplistic style of football that has led to narrow victories courtesy of a Zidane-like tendency to ‘win the moments’.
To illustrate that point, nine of United’s 15 league wins this season (60%) have been by a single goal and their +13 goal difference is a third the size of Manchester City’s despite United only being six points behind them in the table. In fact, Leicester City in 14th have only scored five fewer than United while Crystal Palace in 12th have only conceded three more, and United’s xG and xG against align with their actual totals. There is nothing spectacular, nothing particularly out of the ordinary: just ruthlessly efficient match-winning from talented players coached to press home an advantage.
Again, this is not dissimilar from the way Ferguson focused on individual coaching and the tactical basics to provide a platform for his more talented forwards. But whereas Fergie had the genius eye for relationships across the 11 – and won titles doing so – Ten Hag knows that the modern game requires more.
He knows he will eventually need to turn the dial towards the tactical philosophy that brought him so much success at Ajax.
Sparks of Ajax football emerging
That process has certainly begun, and here is where we start to find out what the future holds for Man Utd.
Ten Hag’s Ajax held many of the principles we expect from the Dutch club’s history with Total Football – notably possession domination, lots of positional rotation, and pressing hard from the front – but what marked out Ten Hag was the verticality of his attacking play. He leant in to moments of transition (when possession changes hands) to attack quickly and directly, much in the way managers of the German school (Jurgen Klopp, for example) have done in recent years.
With this in mind, it is notable how Rashford has become lethal making diagonal runs off the flanks or starting through the middle. Accompanied by Anthony and, before his injury, Anthony Martial, Ten Hag has prioritised speed in the front line. To continue the Ferguson comparison, in time the new United might resemble a modern version of the Tevez-Ronaldo-Rooney years.
But the verticality starts lower down the pitch and a desire for possession with purpose. Note how often Eriksen plays longer ground passes through the lines to find Bruno Fernandes, who is often lurking out towards the right half-space in order to quickly play a through ball in behind the defence. So far these actions are relatively infrequent, but we are clearly seeing the beginning of something.
Another transfer window is needed for Ten Hag to complete the puzzle, and another summer on the training field for more of the complicated tactical nuggets to be implemented, but next year we can anticipate more hybrid formations and position swapping, as well as clearer evidence of automatisms beginning to take shape.
For a rough equivalent, think back on Mikel Arteta’s first year at Arsenal. The football wasn’t as intricate or fluid as it is now because Arteta was laying the groundwork with a more rigid formation and cleaner, less idealistic forms of pressing and passing.
The difference between Arteta and Ten Hag – and between Ten Hag and Ferguson, for that matter – is that the current Manchester United manager has hit the ground running. The best is yet to come.
By Alex Keble