After 10 whirlwind Premier League games, Manchester United sat in fifth. But in typical Manchester United fashion, this was done in the most dramatic way possible.
Erik ten Hag’s takeover has seen Manchester United enter into another new era, and his first 10 league games were not without drama. But United fans will be feeling very confident that he is the right man to take the club forwards.
Ten Hag had a big summer, with some eyebrow raising decisions being made. This boldness continued into the season, and yet for all the criticism so far he has backed himself up on absolutely everything.
When he took over and was asked about rival managers Guardiola and Klopp, Ten Hag famously stated that “eras come to an end”. So after 10 games, let’s look inside how the Erik ten Hag era at Manchester United is shaping up.
Tyrell Malacia (£15m from Feyenoord)
Christian Eriksen (Free agent)
Lisandro Martínez (£55m from Ajax)
Casemiro (£60m from Real Madrid)
Antony (£85m from Ajax)
Martin Dúbravka (Loan from Newcastle)
2-1 defeat vs Brighton & Hove Albion (home)
4-0 defeat vs Brentford (away)
2-1 victory vs Liverpool (home)
1-0 victory vs Southampton (away)
1-0 victory vs Leicester City (away)
3-1 victory vs Arsenal (home)
6-3 defeat vs Manchester City (away)
2-1 victory vs Everton (away)
0-0 draw vs Newcastle United (home)
2-0 victory vs Tottenham Hotspur (home)
Marcus Rashford: 4 goals
Antony: 3 goals
Anthony Martial, Bruno Fernandes & Jadon Sancho: 2 goals
Erik ten Hag's Manchester United line up in a nominal 4-2-3-1 shape, with the idea being to dominate possession and to press high out of it. The Red Devils began the season playing the way Erik ten Hag would like to see his side play, building out from the back. But it was clear after these two games that both personnel changes and more time on the training ground were needed in order for Ten Hag to fully implement his philosophy.
United were humbled on the opening day by Graham Potter’s Brighton, who set his side up to counter United playing out from the back leaving them with few solutions a lot of the time. Against Brentford the following weekend, United were hammered 4-0 with Brentford’s high press killing United’s efforts to play out. Ten Hag actually said after the game he had wanted his players to draw Brentford in and play over them, baiting their press, but his players had failed to do so.
After this, Ten Hag changed things around completely. Dropping Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw for more intense defensive players in Raphaël Varane and Tyrell Malacia, as well as Cristiano Ronaldo in attack for Anthony Elanga, United hosted Liverpool and earned a momentum-shifting 2-1 win. Through the game United generally sat deeper and absorbed pressure whilst looking to orchestrate transitions, but also had periods of sustained pressure - from the start especially. This brought about United’s opening goal.
Tyrell Malacia and Diogo Dalot playing in more ‘inverted’ roles (BT Sport)
This tactical pattern followed through their next few games. Ten Hag struck a perfect balance between wanting to win games whilst also implementing his ideas, and even with a more pragmatic approach it was clear that they were coming through. The full backs were adjusting to their more inverted roles and learning to support the offence better, the team were pressing better and making better, smarter decisions in possession. Bit by bit it was coming together. The players were forming partnerships too, amongst the back four especially. Dalot, Varane, Martínez and Malacia all seemed to genuinely love playing together, and were seen celebrating together not just for goals but for big defensive interventions too.
The addition of left footer Antony to the side catalysed this tactical transition. Fitting the exact profile Ten Hag wanted in his right winger, having been signed by the Dutchman at previous club Ajax too, Antony has helped United to stretch play laterally, progress the ball down the right and added intensity to the side. His understanding of the system also helped fellow Portuguese speaker Diogo Dalot to get to grips with his role, and the two have struck up a very good partnership.
Manchester United’s 3-1-6 against Everton, Antony out of picture bottom right (BT Sport)
But it was clear that United could not keep the pragmatic approach going forever, and a 6-3 thrashing at the hands of Manchester City showed that change was needed. Ten Hag responded by bringing summer signing Casemiro into the lineup against Everton, after he had a short adaptation period at the start of the season, alongside Luke Shaw who is superior to Tyrell Malacia in possession. Casemiro’s defensive prowess and superior quality in possession to Scott Mctominay allowed United to switch to using a 3-1-6 in possession from a 3-2-5 with Casemiro as the single pivot. This brought an instant improvement in United’s play, with the team having played some of their most dominant football in years since. A 2-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur, in which the visitors were barely able to even get a sniff, felt like a huge statement win for United.
Against Newcastle and Spurs, with Christian Eriksen ill, Fred started both games. Despite being a very different profile to the Dane, Casemiro’s presence still hugely benefitted Fred and allowed United to sustain pressure in the 3-1-6. The players trust him to sweep up behind them, and because of this they press higher. Casemiro might not be Frenkie de Jong, who United so desperately wanted this summer, but the qualities he offers have helped United become better at sustaining pressure. On the ball too, he has shown great quality and also a willingness to take charge of possession, in Madrid he would often delegate to superior midfielders in Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić but that habit has not carried over. Casemiro’s relationship with Raphaël Varane, who he three-peated the Champions League with in Madrid, has boosted United defensively too. He has also quickly struck up a good relationship with Lisandro Martínez, another Spanish speaker. Those three, goalkeeper David De Gea and Diogo Dalot all speaking either Spanish or Portuguese (or both) has helped them to form relationships rapidly.
Manchester United cut through Arsenal (Sky Sports YouTube)
United’s possession numbers fairly sum up what Ten Hag has done with them this season. As per Opta, they are in the top six sides for both build up attacks and direct attacks. Just three teams have a slower direct speed and six average more passes per possession sequence. United have utilised these direct attacks, well-orchestrated transitions of sorts, whilst also building towards being a more patient side in possession. Antony’s goal against Arsenal is a good example of this, with United patiently holding onto the ball before quickly accelerating play and cutting through Arsenal in a few passes.
Players to watch
After three years of chasing him, last season Manchester United finally got their man in Jadon Sancho. His first season in Manchester was not what fans had hoped for, with the player having issues settling into what was a completely dysfunctional environment. This season, after the horror show from everyone at the start, he picked up his form with key goals against Liverpool and Leicester. But since football the international break, he has completely regressed and looks a shell of the player he was even earlier in the season, much less his Dortmund version where he hit world class levels at just 19. Erik ten Hag will have a plan for the player, and fans need to trust him, but Sancho has a lot of work to do especially as he will not be picked for the World Cup. He is immensely talented, but the responsibility is now on him to turn his form around.
Anthony Martial's Manchester United career looked all but dead not even six months ago. Part of it down to him, part of it down to horrendous management of the player but it looked like he'd never realise even close to his potential. Cue the entry of Erik ten Hag, a manager who sees the value in him and when Martial has played this season he has looked better and hungrier than maybe at any other point in his career. The issue is when he has played. Poor load management has seen Martial become very injury-prone. Such a wonderfully talented player, it would be a pain to see injuries kick him down just as he looks like he's ready to truly explode. United will need another striker, but they will also hope that Martial's fitness can turn around because there are few better than him when he is fit and firing.
One player who might seem an unorthodox shout but actually might be the most worth looking at is Bruno Fernandes. His impact after joining Manchester United in January 2020 cannot be argued against. But alongside his brilliance has been glaring flaws in his game, which in an environment built fully to his strengths before were fine. But the environment will be different under Erik ten Hag. If Bruno Fernandes can adapt, then United could maybe even see his best version yet - a scary thought. But if he can't successfully adapt, then United should look to replace him with someone more suited to Ten Hag's style or he will become a problem as quickly as he became a talisman. As Harvey Dent said, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
What needs to happen next and what to look out for
First things first, United need to sort out the Cristiano Ronaldo situation. To do this they simply just need to let him go in January. Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the game's greatest ever players, and one of the club's greatest. But his current level does not match up to the greatness of his career, and he has become more of a problem for United than he is a help. United have made huge progress, and they cannot allow the constant Ronaldo talk in the media to overshadow this. Let him go.
Next, Manchester United need a new goalkeeper. David de Gea has improved, but he is still not the goalkeeper United need and likely will not ever be. His £375,000 a week wages are also a huge part of an issue that has plagued the club in recent years. Goalkeepers like Diogo Costa, David Raya and Mads Hermansen are all younger and better suit what Ten Hag wants in a goalkeeper. United do not have room for sentimentality in this rebuild.
Finally, Manchester United simply just need to continue to back Erik ten Hag in every possible way they can. After four months, the club is unrecognisable compared to any point since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Ten Hag is one of the finest coaches in world football and if anyone can take the club back to the pinnacle of football, it is him. There will be bumps in the road but the Old Trafford higher ups need to trust that he is the right man to guide them through these periods and give him what he needs to succeed.