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How has Erik ten Hag transformed Manchester United into a major force?

The Red Devils were impressive during the 2-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur, which many described as United’s most complete performance under ten Hag.

Manchester United appointed Erik ten Hag as their manager in the summer; Credit: [email protected]
By Karthik Raman | Oct 28, 2022 | 8 Min Read follow icon Follow Us

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After a torrid 12 months and a disastrous start to the current campaign, Manchester United seemed to have finally found their feet under Erik ten Hag’s management. The Red Devils are slowly but steadily buying into the Dutchman’s methods. It is beginning to reflect on the pitch, with United making life extremely difficult for their opponents. Man United are not only playing well against teams that they are supposed to beat but are also giving a good account for themselves against the big shots in the country. 

It might still be early in ten Hag’s reign but the positives are clearly visible for everyone to see. Manchester United are not only grinding out results but are also starting to play a good brand of football. Signs of this progress were evident at the beginning of the season, however, they can be clearly seen more frequently in recent matches against Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. United got four points from them but it was more about the performances than the results which pleased many supporters.

It is not easy to play against these two sides yet Manchester United have done well to dominate them in patches or at the very least take them on toe to toe. The Red Devils were particularly impressive during the 2-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur, which many described as United’s most complete performance under ten Hag. Man United were dominant from start to finish and were full value for the three points. The mood around Old Trafford is extremely positive and ten Hag must be given the credit for changing the atmosphere.

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A look back at Erik ten Hag’s career

The 52-year-old Dutchman was not a prolific player during his playing days but still managed to have a decent career. Erik ten Hag was a defender who excelled at passing the ball. He played for the Dutch team FC Twente for the majority of his career. He played for the team in three stints and also won the KNVB Cup during the 2000-2001 season. Ten Hag has also represented FC Utrecht, RKC Waalwijk, and De Graafschap. Additionally, during the 1990-91 season, he won the Eerste Divisie with De Graafschap. 

Ten Hag, while playing for FC Twente, announced his retirement after the conclusion of the 2001-2002 Eredivisie season. He was 32 years old. It was during his coaching days, the Dutchman really started to make a name for himself. The year 2012 saw Ten Hag enter the management ranks with second-tier Go Ahead Eagles. In just one season, he helped Go Ahead Eagles win their first promotion in 17 years.

ClubDurationMatchesWinDrawLoss
Go Ahead EaglesJuly 2012-June 201339181110
Bayern Munich IIJune 2013-May 201572481014
FC UtrechtMay 2015-December 2017111562629
AFC AjaxDecember 2017-May 20222151582829
Total4372807582

After that, he became the manager of Bayern Munich II, the German powerhouse’s reserve squad. Ten Hag met Pep Guardiola, the manager of Bayern Munich at the time, during his stay in Germany. Erik ten Hag has discussed many times in the past how much of an influence Guardiola has had on him during his time with the German club. He then returned to FC Utrecht in the Eredivisie after two years. In the 2016–17 season, he guided the team to a fourth-place finish, which earned them a spot in the Europa League qualifying round.

Erik ten Hag in a file photo; Credit: Twitter@AFCAjax
Erik ten Hag in a file photo; Credit: [email protected]

How has Erik ten Hag transformed Manchester United?

Before ten Hag took over Manchester United, there was predictability in the team’s gameplay. From the formation to the players’ positions, movement and style of play, United looked a lot more predictable on the pitch. It made things easy for the opposition coaches to figure out the tactics and were able to set their teams accordingly to nullify United’s threat. This was clearly evident in several games last season, as the Red Devils kept moving the ball sidewards or backwards without threatening the opposition defence enough.

This made Manchester United easy to play against at Old Trafford or away from home. All that the opposition had to do was sit deep and maintain a solid defensive shape. Even though Man United had the majority of possession, they struggled to break down compact defences. And when United lost the ball, the opposition teams had their players ready to swiftly charge at United’s goalpost and hit them on the counterattack. The leaky nature of Manchester United’s defending meant the opposition teams always had a chance to score against them. It was evident from the whopping 57 goals United conceded in the league last season. 

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Hence, Erik ten Hag had a lot to do when he took charge of the club. From defence to attack, the team required a tactical overhaul. Add to it, they also seemed to lack self-belief and confidence, as United ended last season with a poor run of results. To the Dutchman’s annoyance, United started the current campaign in the same jittery fashion. The Red Devils lost their opening two Premier League games, which included an embarrassing 4-0 defeat at Brentford. Ten Hag was already feeling the heat, however, the 52-year-old did not let the pressure weigh him down.

Manchester United players celebrate a goal against Liverpool; Credit: Twitter@ManUtd
Manchester United players in a file photo; Credit: [email protected]

Erik ten Hag swiftly adapts to the Premier League

Rather than sticking with his tried and tested philosophy, ten Hag was prepared to abandon some aspects of his game. Manchester United – temporarily – stopped playing from the back. Instead of passing the ball to Lisandro Martinez, David de Gea was hitting his goal kicks long. It was a welcome move after what had transpired a week earlier at Brentford. United had invited trouble on numerous occasions after unsuccessfully playing the ball from the back. Ten Hag was not ready to take the chance again. 

He also made a few eyebrow-raising decisions with his squad selection. The Dutchman dropped skipper Harry Maguire and the prolific forward Cristiano Ronaldo to the bench. A bold move intended to provide the team with a lot of pace in the defensive and final thirds. Ten Hag’s gamble paid off! First off Manchester United got the better of old-foes Liverpool. They followed it up with three more wins on the bounce, including one against league leaders Arsenal. It was the only match the Gunners have lost till now in the league this season.

What is Manchester United’s style of play?

As expected United were not able to maintain the winning run going for long, with the team having a few hiccups along the way. However, the overall progress has been positive. In recent games, Manchester United are no longer just getting the results but are also starting to play their own brand of football. They are beginning to dominate teams with and without the ball. De Gea is more comfortable in passing the ball from the back rather than always going long with his goal kicks.

Erik ten Hag’s side is often known for their work rate with and without the ball. They have a fluid system with players interchanging positions as they keep the ball in the middle third but move it quickly in the final third. Once the opposition wins the ball, they will press them intensely as a unit to win the ball back quickly. A lot of these tactics are starting to reflect in Manchester United’s gameplay.

File photo of Manchester United's training session; Credit: Twitter/@ManUtd
File photo of Manchester United’s training session; Credit: Twitter/@ManUtd

The Red Devils are starting the matches strongly by pressing the opposition teams higher up the pitch. It was clearly evident in the games against Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. This approach unsettles the opposition and helps give Manchester United an early advantage. Besides, United are not only making sideways passes but are also threading a lot of quick forward passes, which has become possible through their excellent movements without the ball. Overall, as a defensive unit, Man United have a better shape about them, making it difficult for opposition attackers to create chances or score against them.

How has Manchester United performed in big matches?

The best thing about the changes ten Hag brought to the team is that Manchester United are not only playing well but are also competing against the big clubs on equal footing. It all started with the inspiring 2-1 victory over Liverpool at Old Trafford. United were expected to lose the match badly at home but the spirit, determination and grit shown by the players to follow their manager’s instructions to the letter and also give their all on the pitch was lauded by many after the match. 

It was not the only big result United had produced this season. They defeated Arsenal 3-1 at home to end their winning start to the campaign. Then they suffered a massive reality check during a 6-3 drubbing by Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. However, United bounced back from that setback in style to go on a seven-match unbeaten run. During this period, they impressively defeated Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 at home and provided a late fightback to hold Chelsea to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.

Manchester United’s oppositionResults (2021-22) Results (2022-23)
Liverpool (H)0-5 (L)2-1 (W)
Tottenham Hotspur (H)3-2 (W)2-0 (W)
Arsenal (H)3-2 (W)3-1 (W)
Chelsea (A)1-11-1
Manchester City (A)1-4 (L)3-6 (L)
Total points from these matches710

Comparing with last season…

In the same fixtures last season, Manchester United did beat Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford. But on both occasions, they needed the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo to get the maximum points. Ronaldo scored a double against the Gunners and a hat-trick over Spurs. Meanwhile, they were lucky to walk away with a 1-1 draw from Stamford Bridge last season. That performance was nothing compared to how United played there this season. This time though the Red Devils can consider themselves unlucky to not get all three points, illustrating the improvement in the team’s performance level.

Even the two victories came due to individual brilliance rather than the overall team performances. But the biggest difference was in the manner in which they performed against Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp’s side had destroyed Manchester United 5-0 at Old Trafford last season – a result that signaled the beginning of the end for former manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. In contrast, the 2-1 win over Liverpool this August paved the way for Erik ten Hag to announce his arrival in England. Since then, neither he nor the team has looked back, as Manchester United are on the correct track to the glorious future.



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