Erik Ten Hag – Manchester United – Tactical Analysis

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After a rocky start to life at Manchester, Erik Ten Hag has quickly become one of the only managers since Sir Alex Ferguson to restore faith in the fans, and restore equilibrium back into the eleven. United might only be fifth in the table, but continue to grow in confidence under the influence of the Dutchman, and look destined for a top four finish on current form. With that, here is our tactical analysis of Erik Ten Hag’s Manchester United since the Dutch manager took over.

SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-2-3-1

Erik Ten Hag has been quite rigid in deploying a 4-2-3-1 formation, ensuring he can get the best out of Bruno Fernandes as a true ’10’. Some matches may require adjustment against certain opposition, but Ten Hag has rebuilt his team around the Portuguese starlet, and is reaping the rewards. But to say it’s a one man show would be ludicrous, and Fernandes himself would agree with that sentiment.

Positively from a United perspective, Ten Hag has improved just about every single player inside the eleven from last season. We’ve seen a rapid rise in the clever, attacking intensity of Diogo Dalot; a Scott McTominay that looks revitalized under the pressure of Casemiro hanging over his head, and the likes of Marcus Rashford back to their best. The new signings have also been integrated well (and immediately), with Tyrell Malacia, Antony and Lisandro Martinez all playing a vital role to start the campaign. Casemiro has grown into his ‘Midfield Destroyer’ role at the club after adjusting to life in the league, and has been everything we could have bargained for – that missing piece to the puzzle in the Fred-McTominay era.

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But along the way, the Dutch manager has never waivered away from those that bring experience and a touch of class to the side, including Raphaël Varane at the back, Christian Eriksen at the centre of the park, and David De Gea in goal. Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw have needed to be more patient with their minutes under the pressure of solid new faces, but have both performed well when called upon. Ten Hag already has a better balance to his side than Ralf Rangnick ever managed, and the signs suggest that the likes of Shaw and Maguire could see their form take off back to what we expect under Ten Hag’s style of play, particularly given how he’s now built a better base in front of them.

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While different pressing variations may emerge (such as 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-2), Ten Hag’s been consistent in deploying a lone centre-forward in every match so far this campaign. Anthony Martial’s slowly starting to regain confidence under Ten Hag’s trust in his ability, but we can also expect Marcus Rashford to continue operating up front to get the best out of the team’s quick attacking transitions. That may mean 18-year-old Alejandro Garnacho grows into the team in the second half of the campaign, or that Jadon Sancho could come back into the fold after being frozen out by the manager in recent matches.

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The best part about Ten Hag since the start of his reign has been his unwavering attitude toward making the big calls. He squashed the Cristiano Ronaldo debate after the Portuguese legend lambasted his own team. He stuck to his guns in playing Lisandro Martinez ahead of the team captain – a captain who experienced a tumultuous 2021-22 campaign under Rangnick. He eased the world’s best defensive midfielder into the team despite the need for a world class defensive midfielder since the days of Michael Carrick, whilst trusting Scott McTominay to carry out the job as the Brazilian adjusted. He dropped Luke Shaw and Aaron-Wan Bissaka for younger fullbacks learning their trade, and he even trusted Anthony Martial when no one else would.

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It’s been obvious to all watching that many of these decisions should have been made years ago. But Ten Hag’s actually had the fortitude to make it happen. So while this wouldn’t be much of a tactical analysis without moving into the deeper minutiae as to how the puzzle works so well together, it’s important to note that Ten Hag is the first manager to properly manage all of these complex pieces that previously didn’t fit all that well together.

ATTACKING PRINCIPLES

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Manchester United build out from the back in what usually forms into something of a 2-5-3 shape, with Bruno Fernandes floating low and looking to get on the ball in any openings of space he can locate. That usually manifests in picking the ball up in the wide areas to half-spaces, pushing a full-back higher up the pitch in the process. Christian Eriksen will similarly drift to the left of the centre-backs to pick up possession, as the left-back pushes up the pitch.

Other times we get more of a 2+2 box quartet dictating the tempo and flow of the match, as Varane, Martinez, Casemiro and Eriksen bounce passes back and forth to one another until the right opening. Instead of Eriksen, the extra member of this build might even be an ‘Inverted Fullback’, as Malacia or Shaw drift in-field to open more space for Rashford to receive down the left wing.

Under this approach, it’s been far more intentional and free-flowing than under previous managers, and generally less patient out from the back. Part of that has been the wonderful introduction of Christian Eriksen as the team’s ‘Tempo Setter’ in the centre of the park. The Dane remains unafraid to play the risky pass over the top, can switch play at the drop of a dime, and importantly, has afforded Bruno Fernandes with less of a need to drift deep to pick up possession. Fernandes loves to float toward the ball, get on the half-turn and then slice the opposition’s defense open with a beauty long pass.

But now he can instead hang higher and selectively pick those moments to drift deeper, as Eriksen plays that deeper-lying role. This then means Bruno is more likely to be in the right areas of the pitch when the team quickly advance into the final third, and can pull the strings closer to goal.

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Aiding in that approach has been Brazilian midfielder Casemiro, who’s played more progressive passes (4.94 per 90) than Fernandes and Eriksen, and always presents a calming presence whenever he’s on the ball. The Red Devil front-four can then explode their fire on the break with the solidity of Casemiro in behind, maintaining the one net-positive feature of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team.

Many of United’s goals have been scored through their explosiveness on the break, where Bruno Fernandes’ imagination can thrive, and Rashford’s willing running power completely undoes any opposition defense.

Beyond the Eriksen-Bruno dynamic, the other incredibly fun duo in the Ten Hag era has been the introduction of left-footed wing wizard Antony into the team. This has seen remarkable results in allowing Diogo Dalot to push all the way up the pitch and get on his right-foot down the by-line, not to mention a wide variety for attacking moves as they work overloads down the right.

Antony is fantastic at working the ball onto his left-foot and opening up shooting angles, and is completely unwavering in his approach. He’ll shoot from any distance at any moment, but not before shifting and shimmying the ball around to kerfuffle the defender.

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Rashford has made for an excellent foil down the other wing (or even up front), for his destructive out-and-out speed in behind. The British forward remains the first outlet in transition regardless of position (often from a piece of Fernandes incisiveness), and will run the channels to encourage looping passes over the top. This means that he will likely grow into a creative role as the season unwinds, as other players finish off the chances he creates from galloping up the wing. This could be excellent in allowing Bruno to up his scoring tally this season, as he often ghosts into the penalty area unmarked.

As another type of foil, Alejandro Garnacho offers a mix of both the strong dribbling power of Antony and the dynamic speed of Rashford, making for more headaches as a late game substitute.

Luke Shaw himself has long been a powerful carrier of the ball, and will join attacks for fun to compound matters down that side. Malacia’s generally remained more defensive in his stance and approach, and we might expect to see Shaw come back into his top-tier form again now with the added pressure of the Dutch defender breathing down his neck.

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With so many talented players in the side, Manchester United have often had a problem of too many cooks trying to brew up a storm in the kitchen. Ten Hag’s managed to get all those pieces together on-side, and concoct a wonderfully balanced eleven that plays to the strengths of his players, rather than prioritizing previously held ideologies from his days at Ajax.

DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLES

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Manchester United typically defend from the front in a 4-2-3-1 shape, with relative vigour and intensity in forcing their opposition into errors. The mid-block may shift into more of a 4-1-4-1 as one central midfielder steps up on a double-pivot, or even a 4-3-3 as Bruno gallivants back in the team’s low-block. But a compact 4-2-3-1 remains the dominating approach throughout all three defensive phases.

Importantly, Ten Hag has nicely adjusted the high-line utilized under previous managers, now seeing bigger gaps in between the front four and the second two lines in their system. We’ve spoken about teams like Brighton that adopt this kind of pressing approach in the past, and how it naturally incentives the opposition to play less dangerous, shorter passes in connecting through the thirds; while simultaneously setting up nicely to deal with long passes over the top. The introductions of Casemiro and Martinez have simultaneously helped with their speed and aerial presence in dealing with those longer passes. Both are adept at using their body to win aerial duels, and positionally savvy enough to know how and where to cover space.

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Martinez has been so exceptional that he’s won close to 80% of his tackles and 70% of his defensive duels. Casemiro’s also won 70% of his tackles, despite attempting more than double (3.48 to 1.78) than the next highest player in the eleven (Diogo Dalot).

The duo have also helped to drastically improve the team in transition for the exact same reasons. Martinez will often give himself a bit of a gap away from the nearest player to ensure he wins the foot race, while Casemiro will nicely cover for out of position fullbacks and shift wide at the right moments. Combine that with the experience and tactical acumen of Eriksen and Varane, and you suddenly have a Premier League title challenging quartet along the central spine of the team.

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This means that even if Diogo Dalot finds himself well advanced up the pitch, Casemiro and Varane are usually able to cover the necessary gaps. When Scott McTominay plays, he’s completely willing to even drop into the box like a third centre-back and clear the ball away. Whether it’s Casemiro or McTominay in the eleven, this sense of solidity will need to continue, ensuring Ten Hag can get the best out of Diogo Dalot’s attacking overloads going the other way.

But not only do you have a clever defense within Ten Hag’s ranks, you also have an increased sense of intensity within that warrior mentality that he’s deployed. The Red Devils were often criticized for lacking a backbone, genuine heart, and leadership in recent years. Those kinds of comments have completely disappeared since a torrid defeat to Brentford early on in the season. The likes of Martinez, Antony and Casemiro just want the ball more than others from seasons gone by, and United are now so quick to get numbers around the ball in their low-block, when it so often matters most.

Ten Hag’s just gone about his defensive structures in such a smart way, even at times adopting the more defensive approach to ensure he wins the match, going against his own tactical inclinations to dominate possession. This has been impressive for a man who revolutionized positional rotations inside a possession-heavy Ajax side, and has paid off in the form of six clean sheets so far.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

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They might only sit in fifth place at the moment, but Erik Ten Hag has gotten so much right since he joined Manchester United, making all the big calls that United fans have been crying out for in recent years. He’s improved the team’s tactical structures in defensive phases through not only tactics but balance of personnel, whilst adjusting his own tactical inclinations to serve the counter-attacking brilliance of the likes of Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes. The Red Devils are even the only team to beat Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal in the league this season, proving that Ten Hag has remained smart in his adjustments by the match. No manager has achieved this level of balance at Old Trafford since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson, and this is an incredibly encouraging sign of what could be to come as Erik Ten Hag’s reign continues.


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So there it is! A tactical analysis of Ten Hag’s brilliance so far at Manchester United in 2022-23. Be sure to check out more of our Team Analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite and @desmondrhys. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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