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Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag is at risk of abandoning his long-established principles ahead of Sunday’s Manchester derby. Ten Hag, a disciple of the possession-based Ajax style, is moulding a Red Devils team that is far dissimilar to the ones he has built at his former clubs.
The Dutchman will come up against Pep Guardiola in a battle of two coaches who have adapted their styles based on the ideals of Johan Cruyff. But United’s clash with rivals Manchester City will certainly not be a fight to keep the most possession.
Ten Hag is building a United team far happier to cede the ball, knowing a counter-attacking situation could lead to one of Marcus Rashford, Antony or Rasmus Hojlund bursting forwards and creating a chance. In a sense, the 54-year-old can be accused of reverting to the style that his predecessor Ole Gunnar Soslkjaer adopted during his ill-fated tenure at Old Trafford.
That is not to say that Ten Hag will be a failure, too. Sir Alex Ferguson’s unrivalled success was built on counter-attacking football, albeit in a far different era. But it is evidence of an individual who has conceded that his own principles may not be suited to a club who identified him as their No 1 target a little over 12 months ago.
In a lengthy search for a new manager in the opening months of 2022, Mauricio Pochettino was snubbed in favour of Ten Hag. It is ironic that the Argentine’s style of football, played in particular by his Tottenham team who enjoyed some success, is much better suited to the counter-attacking football United currently play.
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Ten Hag’s United have not looked like a side who care about retaining possession. Midfielders such as Casemiro, Sofyan Amrabat and Mason Mount, players who are far more effective off the ball than on it, make playing that way much easier.
Back in July, Ten Hag pointed out that United’s style should depend on the profile of players available. He claimed to want to make his side the best in transition in world football, hinting at an approach that would focus on counter-attacking.
Adapting your principles to your surroundings deserves praise, but that naturally comes with a level of scrutiny over how successful the appointment of a manager with a very specific idea of how football should be played has been.
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“We really looked into the history of Manchester United and we really looked also into the qualities of our players,” Ten Hag said. “And then you can say, so what do we want to be? That is, we want to be the best transition team in the world. We want to surprise.”
That plan has been put in place this season. In four of their Premier League matches, they have seen less of the ball than their opponent. Against Wolves on the opening day, Ten Hag’s players enjoyed just two per cent more possession than Gary O’Neil’s side.
A meeting with possession-centric City will be the perfect litmus test as to whether Ten Hag’s renewed approach will work in the biggest games. A fourth consecutive victory would certainly give credence to the United boss abandoning his principles.
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