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Erik Ten Hag should be Manchester United’s manager of the future

Erik Ten Hag could be the perfect solution to United’s managerial question-mark. Maurice Van Steen/EPA.

Manchester United have have three months, maybe less, to work out the shape they want their future to take. The Old Trafford club took the decision to fire Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as manager in November, but kicked the can down the road when it came to hiring his replacement, appointing an interim boss instead. Soon enough, though, they will run out of road.

Ralf Rangnick was hired to give United more time. More time to straighten out what went wrong under Solskjaer and how to avoid making the same mistakes again. Key to that process of self-examination will be the appointment of a new permanent manager this summer with two candidates reported to have emerged as frontrunners – Mauricio Pochettino and Erik Ten Hag.

Pochettino’s appeal is obvious. The Argentine might be on his way out at Paris Saint-Germain, but achieved great things at Tottenham Hotspur. Pochettino knows how to establish a connection between the team on the pitch and the fans in the stand – something Manchester United could certainly use right now.

Ten Hag, though, is widely expected to be the next manager to make the leap to the elite level. Soccer moves in cycles and the Dutchman has ideas and methods that could help set the zeitgeist for the next generation. As he has shown over five years as Ajax manager, he is a tactical pioneer. That could be more valuable to United than anything Pochettino, or any other candidate, can offer.

Under Ten Hag, Ajax have become renowned for their dynamic and energetic brand of soccer. Of course, much of this is rooted in the identity of the Amsterdam club, but Ten Hag took the principles of Johan Cruyff and adapted them for the modern age. This has manifested itself in strong results on the pitch.

Ajax play in a 4-2-3-1 shape that demands a lot of their central midfielders and wide forwards. Ten Hag asks his team to press aggressively and win the ball back quickly. His players need to be both physically capable enough to cover a lot of ground and technically able enough to control the ball.

“It’s not even about systems,” Ten Hag explained in an interview when asked to describe his style of soccer. “It’s about what you do in possession, when you lose possession and in those turn around moments. And you need to be able to change that up. The players’ qualities determine how you play.”

That Ten Hag has built two different teams in his five years in charge at Ajax underlines his point. The first side played a more possession-based game due to the quality of Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek in midfield. His second side, however, move the ball into high quality attacking areas as quickly as possible.

With Ryan Gravenberch as an irrepressible force, Ten Hag asks for underlapping runs from his central midfielder with the 19-year-old quick to move inside Dusan Tadic. Gravenberch is also asked to play as a number eight-number 10 hybrid with his driving movements crucial to linking Sebastien Haller, Ajax’s centre forward, with the rest of the team.

In many ways, the Manchester United squad would be well-suited to Ten Hag. After all, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho are on the books as top quality wide forwards with Anthony Martial set to return from a loan spell at Sevilla this summer. United’s midfield might require some remoulding, but Fred and Bruno Fernandes could work in his system.

Some point out how Ten Hag operates as part of a bigger system at Ajax and that he wouldn’t have the same support at Manchester United, where the front office lags behind the standard set by other clubs of their stature. Other doubters claim the Dutchman’s appointment would be a risk due to his lack of Premier League or ‘Big Five’ league experience. 

In the post-Sir Alex Ferguson age, though, Manchester United have paid the price for being reactive with their managerial appointments. In Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, they hired coaches out-of-touch with the evolution of the game and the personnel management, while David Moyes and Solskjaer were too limited as tacticians.

By appointing Ten Hag, Manchester United would for once take a shot at predicting where elite level soccer is heading rather than reacting on the basis of where it has already been. If the Old Trafford club want to ensure a more successful future, they need the manager of the future. That could be Ten Hag.

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