Yet another ‘mercato’ is underway and this is a period where teams either go full throttle with due diligence and planning or go full throttle with nitro boosters without any succession plan. Manchester United have been on the latter side for quite a few years but for once, there is a feeling that even a rigid institution like them is trying to be more flexible in their approach towards the transfer market. Only time will tell if they have actually learned from their past mistakes or are they just their usual self. Erik ten Hag has officially taken over the reins of the team with his first ever training session at the club taking place on 27th June. The current squad is far, far away from the ideal Ten Hag one and some massive gaping holes are needed to be fixed, especially in the areas from where his playing XI likes to build up the game.
Fullback department is one such place, Ten Hag or not, where the club needed a massive investment (and the right kind of investment). One player which the club is actively pursuing is Tyrell Malacia of Feyenoord. In this scout report, I will try to analyze the strengths, weaknesses of the player and how those will be affected if he chooses Manchester United over Lyon.
Born and brought up in Rotterdam, Tyrell joined the famed Varkenoord academy of his boyhood club Feyenoord in 2008 as a 9 year old kid with the ambitions of making it big with his hometown club. Malacia rose through the ranks of the academy over the years, eventually signing his first ever professional contract with the club in 2015. Tyrell impressed in his short stay at Jong Feyenoord, the reserves side of Feyenoord and was promoted to the senior side at the start of 2017-18 season. He made his debut in the Champions League in a famous 2-1 victory against Napoli where he played the entirety of 90 minutes. A week later, he made his Eredivisie debut in a 1-1 draw against SC Heerenveen.
He has become a regular for the team over the years while representing the Oranje at every youth level. He was also eligible to play for Curacao and Suriname due to his parents and also got a call up to the Curacao national team for 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup, making the preliminary squad but the Oranje eventually capped him, picking him to play 2022 World Cup qualifiers against Norway, Turkey and Montenegro.
Malacia has enjoyed moderate success with his hometown club, winning the KNVB Cup in his first ever season as a senior player, also winning the Johan Cryuff Schaal (the Dutch version of Community Shield: league winners vs domestic cup winners). But his best season came under Arne Slot who took a Feyenoord side to the finals of the inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League, eventually bowing down to the AS Roma side led by Jose Mourinho. But this younger Feyenoord side went down fighting till the very end, the same mentality shown by Malacia over the years as a professional. He was selected in the team of the tournament as a result of his stellar performances.
For a fullback, being athletic and having brilliant stamina is a plus in the modern game because of the way the game has evolved for good (or worse?). You can’t be just ‘failed Centre Backs’ and protect the wide areas and let the winger ahead of you do his thing. Modern football requires the fullbacks to be involved on the entire flank, right from the start till the very end; the entirety of 105 meters. For a young player like Malacia, this stamina and athleticism was present right from the start which made his transition to the senior side very easy. This athleticism feeds into his defensive strengths as well: a brilliant recovery pace and the understanding of the situation which makes him a menace in one vs one situations. When you have the combination of not just the brute strength but the brains and the mental condition to make these skills work, you have a brilliant fullback on your hands.
Malacia has good anticipation skills but often he gets caught out of position during transitions. He will avoid the opposition’s wingers to get into their preferred areas of the pitch pro-actively but get caught lacking, which somewhat is a concentration issue and can be fixed with experience.
In terms of attacking game, he has that burst of pace and acceleration to beat his man and a good control on the ball to make dribbles down that left flank. His athletic build and good ball control makes him a brilliant ball carrier. He likes to stay wide and use the width of the pitch, sitting deep into the opposition half to receive the ball wide, allowing the winger on the same flank to keep the fullback of opposition busy and narrow and Malacia using this created space to exploit in order to gain advantage. Crossing is one of his decent facets of the attacking game, knowing when to cross, where to cross. With a competent pair of wingers and a striker who has brilliant off the ball movement, Malacia’s deliveries into the box can yield him a lot of assists.
In terms of progressive passing, Malacia was lacking but the past season has seen him improve a lot in terms of progressive passing and it is down to the coaching under Arne Slot. Earlier, Malacia at times used either under-hit a pass or over-complicate a simple pass when bombing forward but this season has seen him fix this glaring issue in his game and completely take a U-turn in the possession phase of the game. There was also a reason for this part of his game being under-developed. Malacia made his debut under Giovanni van Bronckhorst but his stay was short when he jumped onto the scene, after that he has went on from Jaap Stam to Dick Advocaat who didn’t emphasize a lot on possession phase of the game but with the introduction of Arne Slot on the sidelines, it’s not just Tyrell Malacia who has seen massive improvement in his overall game, his team-mate Lutsharel Geertruida has also improved his overall gameplay.
If we compare Malacia’s expected threat with fullbacks from the top 7 leagues, he doesn’t look bad at all. While league differences play a part, and in the Premier League, this could reduce, Malacia still looks good in the top-right quadrant of the above visualization, being strong at creating threat both from carries and passes. Within the Under-24 age bracket, keeping aside the 2 ground-breaking wonderkids, Alexander-Arnold and Alphonse Davies, Malacia looks the next best. All indications are that he will become a well-balanced fullback who offers good attacking threat at his peak for a top team.
Another facet of his game which he requires attention is the positions where he should receive the ball. Malacia has always been instructed to stay wide and receive the ball deep into the opposition’s final third. But for Oranje and bigger teams where he will need to see more of the ball, he will need to learn when to invert in-field while receiving the pass. Some improvement has been made in this aspect under Arne Slot last season but there is still some way to go.
A brilliant 2021-22 campaign has seen him win plaudits from a lot of his critics and has attracted the attention of teams from abroad. Lyon have already made an agreement with Feyenoord for a transfer worth 15 million euros but Manchester United have now tried to hijack the deal. Malacia is himself in a similar situation to his Oranje teammate Jurrien Timber. Both players are rated a lot by Louis van Gaal and are preferred in their respective roles as well. A move to a big club just months before the World Cup can dampen the chances if playing time isn’t managed well at new clubs. At Lyon, Malacia will be guaranteed playing time given Malacia is rated highly by their head coach and fellow country man, Peter Bosz.
But at Manchester United, there will be a fight for a place with Luke Shaw being a senior player and Brandon Williams and Alex Telles also there at the club. Malacia’s skillset is scalable to both Lyon and even Manchester United but the settling period at Manchester United will be more given the jump from Eredivisie to Premier League is very challenging in comparison to the jump from Eredivisie to Ligue 1. At both clubs, Malacia has managers who rate him very well and know very well about his playing style, but at Lyon, Malacia has a shot at the starting XI from day 1, which isn’t the case at Manchester United.
A sensible decision will be needed from the player’s camp, who has the same agent as Frenkie de Jong, another player who Erik ten Hag and Manchester United are pursuing. Whatever club Tyrell Malacia may choose, this is a player who has the tools to become a well-rounded fullback/wingback and play at the top level at both club and international level for years to come.
Since many users had found out that there is an issue with the original scout report of Boubacar Kamara, I have fixed the issue (you can read the original report here- Scout Report: Boubacar Kamara). But again, due to another technical glitch, I couldn’t merge the changes I had made in the article (had updated the visualizations and added extra content since I wrote this article back in January).
So, I thought; why not make this into an extended article and provide my 2 cents on how he can be used by Steven Gerrard at Aston Villa.
Boubacar Kamara at Aston Villa: a tactical analysis
Aston Villa have it all at this time; an ambitious owner who is ready to pump cash in the team- a progressive, proactive up and coming manager at the helm, a revamped youth system which taps into the local and diverse community of Birmingham and nearby areas. Advantage of staying in Premier League means healthy amount of cash coming in all thanks to the lucrative financial deals of the original Super League which is running since 1990s and the record sale of Jack Grealish last season meant that club can easily spend good amount of money for few years and some sales here and there to balance the books without any issues. This summer they have already got Diego Carlos and Boubacar Kamara and are in the market for few other players as well (depending on outgoings)- along with some high-quality youth prospects already coming from the ranks and knocking on the doors of the senior team.
Diego Carlos is an aggressive centre back who likes to play as a ‘dog’ (basically a stopper CB). Tyrone Mings being error prone, Kourtney Hause being injury prone and backup player at best (same case with Chambers whose versatility means that he will be a good rotational cover at RCB slot and RB) and a long-term injury to Villa’s best CB: Ezri Konsa can see Kamara play at CB as well, instead of playing in his preferred role in the midfield; as the deepest midfielder.
In midfield, Kamara’s competition will be with Douglas Luiz who is the out-right starter at defensive midfielder position for the club (but an expiring contract and interest from a host of Premier League clubs including the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City who have the right to refusal option on him can see the Villans cash out on him). Marvellous Nakamba is another option for that slot. Meanwhile for that 2nd midfield slot (Gerrard mostly lined up with 4-2-3-1, but also switched to 4-3-3 depending on the situation at Rangers; at Villa he has gone for a 4-3-1-2, 4-3-2-1 as well), Villa usually have midfielders who are comfortable playing a box to box midfielder profile: hence the likes of John McGinn and Morgan Sanson (all thanks to Andre Villas Boas who converted him from a deep lying playmaker and orchestrator into a combustive, tenacious, all-rounder box to box midfielder at Marseille) are available at the club. The third midfield slot belongs to their new recruit, Phillipe Coutinho (along with Emi Buendia who ended up playing as attacking midfielder when Gerrard switched to 4312/4321) and last midfield slot is a toss-up between the up-and-coming Jacob Ramsey and Carney Chukwuemeka (who is also adept at playing as a box to box mid and as a defensive midfielder: most of his time in youth ranks saw him playing as a #6). Tim Iroegbunam is another youth prospect in midfield who has risen up the ranks, already making his debut for senior team under Steven Gerrard and regularly training with the senior side as well.
John McGinn’s tenacity and high defensive output can provide an extra layer of security during transitions where Kamara can end up being isolated at times.
Aston Villa have more than decent depth and quality in midfield and with the addition of Boubacar Kamara means that they can line up with a brilliant midfield (on paper as of now, cannot comment about future in the present because I’m not Doctor Who) and have quality options as rotation/back up. Plus, many players in that midfield are flexible and malleable, something which Steven Gerrard likes a lot as well in his players; especially in midfield. In case, Douglas Luiz ends up getting sold (will fetch a good profit in the end), Kamara will be the #1 option as defensive midfielder, ideally slotting in straight away and being comfortable playing in a possession-based system. The Zimbabwe international, Marvellous Nakamba will act as a decent backup in either case.
While in defence, Kamara can also slot in as an able partner to Diego Carlos at times. Carlos as a stopper CB with Kamara as cover CB in an ideal scenario (because in reality, Kamara is very aggressive in terms of duelling; a Diego Carlos, Boubacar Kamara, Douglas Luiz and Matty Cash will make a brilliant rest defence which can allow Aston Villa to play higher up the pitch and win back the ball again higher up the pitch.). Carlos has decent-ish ball progression ability but Kamara is notches above in that aspect in comparison to Carlos and can provide a decent outlet of ball progression from the back along with their fullbacks: Lucas Digne and Matty Cash. Villa usually lacked this ball progression from deeper areas into the midfield. In Boubacar Kamara, this problem can be crossed out.
(for comparison, I have taken the advanced data from 2018-19 and 2019-20 season because Kamara played majority of his minutes in both seasons as a center back. While, Diego Carlos spent his 2018-19 season as a standout performer in an underwhelming FC Nantes side and 2019-20 season at Sevilla, argeubly his best season in Spain in my opinion. All thanks to fbref and statsbomb and the kind people behind the scenes who have made the availabiity of advanced data and it’s access very easy and making the work of analysts: armchair ones like me and professionals at various football clubs alike; very easy)
Now comes to biggest question, can he thrive in Premier League (the usual ‘is he ready to handle the pHySiCaLiTy and iNtEnSiTy of the eNgLiSh gAmE)
Players coming from France usually haven’t had difficulty settling in England. Kamara will have an old friend in Morgan Sanson (if he stays put) at the club along with fellow national mate in Lucas Digne. So, that question of being alone in a new club and country should be out of the question (plus he is moving to a city which has a great mix of cultures). Also, players coming from Ligue 1 usually end up adapting to the intensity, speed of the English game in lesser time and again for this, there is a brilliant track record so I don’t think that there should be any major issue as such. Plus, he is coming to a club like Aston Villa where he will have guaranteed playing time (may that be as CB or as DM) and no ‘unwanted’ pressures of big club which fights for titles and have impatient fanbases, ready to pounce on players the moment they do a mistake like hungry pack of wolves. Aston Villa, in a nutshell is an ideal club for Kamara to choose at this stage, while it will seem weird that player left Champions League football for ‘money’ but what most people don’t realize is that players don’t have a long career, one nasty injury and it’s over; and players have to end up neglecting formal education and social life at times in order to make it as a professional footballer. It makes complete sense from their point of view to chase a fat paycheck in compensation for that missing education and social skills and risk of a short span of career but in this case, it isn’t just a fat paycheck; opportunity to play in England, play in Premier League, grow as a player at a club where you will be guaranteed minutes and grow as a player without unwanted pressures of big club (no disrespect meant to Aston Villa here) and eventually move to a club which is a regular participant in UCL (in case Aston Villa project tanks).
Every revolution is born in order to change the status quo. And it is born out of a collective idea, a unique impression to unite the masses for eternity. For a revolution to become successful, you need to have not just the brains behind the idea but the brute strength to support that idea and bring everyone together. You need to have a Leader to make It possible, who knows how to connect on a mental level with the followers to put them on the same page and keep them motivated towards the fulfilment of the ultimate goal
The history will never forget the Greeks for what they achieved and their contribution to various fields will be unforgettable for time immemorial. In Sports, many thought that the Greek victory in Euros 2004 (article link) was the pinnacle. But what they didn’t know that this was just the beginning. While, the progress in football slowed down; the country progressed in other sports: especially basketball and tennis. Antentokounmpo brothers have taken the NBA by storm (the back story about their rise to the top can make even the most cold-hearted person shed a tear), Olympiakos and Panathinaikos has lit the brazier in EuroLeague. Stefanos Tsitsipas is breaking many records at a young age for a Greek tennis player. But it is the Greek export who has proved his doubters wrong (and as Jurgen Klopp once said: converted ‘doubters into believers’).
The man under the spotlight? Ange Postecoglou.
A relatively unknown football manager outside the Euro-bubble, the Australian-Greek manager has made a big name of himself in his native country and Japan over the years. Born in Athens, his family emigrated to Melbourne, Australia when the 1967 coup in Greece completely destroyed his father’s business. A move half-way around the world and the culture shock that comes with it is not easy to handle which the Postecoglou family also faced. It is these experiences which made a young Ange learn about humility and the value of hard-work (which he has shown in his entire professional career). “People say they go to another country for a better life. My parents did not have a better life, they went to Australia to provide opportunities for me to have a better life”.
Ange had a modest playing career, playing in it’s entirety in Australia for his hometown team, South Melbourne; winning 2 league titles with them while also earning 4 caps for the Socceroos. He ventured into football management; eventually becoming the manager of South Melbourne in 1996. He led them to 2 consecutive league championships in 1997-98 and 1998-99 season and also winning the 1999 version of Oceania Club Championship, thus taking a tiny team from South of Melbourne to FIFA Club World Cup. His work as manager of South Melbourne didn’t go unnoticed and the Socceroos soon came with an offer of managing the U17 Australian side, a young side with it’s high coming a year before where they reached the finals of FIFA U17 World Cup, hosted by New Zealand- only to bow down to the mighty Brazilians in the final. He achieved a total domination in the OFC Championships, winning the 2001, 2003 and 2005 versions and even reached the quarter finals of the 2003 version of FIFA U17 World Cup.
He was then promoted to the U20s setup where he managed the likes of Robbie Kruse, Adam Federici and Danny Vukovic who went on to make a decent career in Europe. A victory in OFC U20 Championships was marred by failure to qualify for FIFA U20 World Cup due to poor display in the inaugural AFC U20 Championship saw Socceroos relieve Ange of his duties.
Ange then embarked on a new adventure, returning to his roots, to Greece. He took up his first ever job in Europe, as manager of 3rd division side Panachaiki. He kept the side in contention of promotion but a falling out with the directors led to his departure inside 9 months. A short break from management did him a great deed when he came back with a renewed vigour to take reigns at Brisbane Roar. 3 Trophy laden years at Brisbane saw him move further up with Melbourne Victory. His stay at Melbourne Victory was a short one when Socceroos approached him once again, this time to appoint him the manager of senior team.
Ange took the reigns of the remnants of the Golden Generation when Australia played at 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil; pitted against the previous edition finalists: Netherlands, defending champions Spain and South American champions Chile. It was a difficult group but Australia still delivered some respectable performances.
A thrilling AFC Asian Cup campaign in 2015 saw Australia lock horns with South Korea in the final, which Australia won 2-1 after extra time. Once, qualification for 2018 FIFA World Cup was confirmed, Postecoglou resigned from his position which shocked many Socceroos fans.
(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
His next destination? Japan. Yokohama F Marinos approached him to take over as manager, a position which he did take over at the end of 2017. He guided the team to their maiden league title in 15 years once he settled down in Japan and moulded the team in the way he wanted them to play. There was an active interest from Greek national team to sway him away from his job at Marinos but he eventually signed a short-term extension to stay put in Japan.
Postecoglou’s success in the A-League with Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory led to him getting the Australia job. He took the national team to the 2014 World Cup, playing an attack first oriented 4-2-3-1. Wide forwards and full backs were the key to modest success as Socceroos boss. Mile Jedinak and his partner in the midfield stay put so that fullbacks could bomb forward and the wide forwards came in-field to play in between the lines. When the central midfielders got on the ball in deep positions, they either looked to play direct balls up to Cahill, or targeted the wide midfielders.
(Credits: The Coaches’ Voice)
He used 4-3-3 as well which provided the team with more balance and extra cover in the centre of the pitch and Postecoglou evolved to put more emphasis on keeping a structured possession system instead of just playing on transitions. Ange even used a 3-4-2-1 while keeping the tactical skeleton same, complex rotations in order to isolate the opposition in various zones on the pitch.
But it is at Yokohama F. Marinos where he perfected his system; which eventually led him to another league title in his budding career and Japanese club’s first major honour in 15 years. At Marinos, he used a 4-3-3 but instead of bombarding full backs and narrow wide forwards, he chopped the system. Instead, he used fullbacks in a more unconventional way. Instead of making just overlapping runs, Ange instructed them to make more underlapping runs into the central channels. Instead, wingers stayed wide instead of being narrow and central midfield became very fluid to accommodate the inverting full backs, with one of the #8s going wide to press back the opposition and carve out an opening using either a cut back or by pinging a pass into the opposite half space. Postecoglou selected wide forwards who could beat an opponent and could therefore occupy two defenders, which would then free up another player elsewhere.
Ange Postecoglou is very flexible when it comes to management. He puts equal emphasis on the coaching aspect and well the management aspect of dealing with the emotions. He has a set tactical philosophy and he likes the player recruitment to complement his coaching style but he is flexible in chopping up systems according to changing situations. He has always been a performance first manager. Results can be churned out but in long term, you need to prefer the performances. According to him, good performances will eventually lead to consistently good results.
He likes to integrate youth with experience, always ready to give younger players a chance; not just giving minutes to youth for the sake of it but phasing them in favourable surroundings which don’t hamper their development and destroy their confidence. These are 2 very important aspects to maximize the output from younger players.
His man-management style has been moulded from his experiences as a Greek immigrant growing up in Australia, learning the value of hard-work and humility from his family and instilling the same at the clubs where he has managed. He is very direct, honest person and has a way with his words when it comes to presenting his ideas, improving not just the playing attributes of his players but also emphasizing on the human element of his players as well, striving for them to not only become a better player but a better human being as well.
Ange was always attracted to the Australian rules football from a young age and he found his motivation to become a professional player (and afterwards) manager because of his love for the game and his father, “My motivation,” he would say when he’d become a football manager, “is always to produce teams [my] dad would enjoy watching.”
(Ange with his father)
Formed by Brother Walfrid as a means to help curb the poverty among the Irish immigrants living in East End of Glasgow, Celtic Football Club was eventually set up as a private limited company with a select few families seeing their descendants taking their place in the board of directors. Even after seeing success come their way over the years, this family dynasty at the club was making it run on fumes. Jock Stein and his ‘Lisbon Lions’ made history but they were often underpaid in comparison to their counterparts at Rangers (and even the Edinburgh based clubs: Hearts and Hibernian).
(Jock Stein with his ‘Lisbon Lions’: a team built from local Glasgow players who defeated Inter Milan in Lisbon in order to win Champions League)
The club was less than 24 hours of going bankrupt in 1990s when it was sold to a Canadian-Scot businessman: Fergus McCann who bought the club for 9 million and ensured that club can ‘modernize’ with the changing times: funding the major re-development of ‘The Paradise’: Celtic Park and also re-structuring the way club was run: changing it into a public listed company and even offering the fan led coalition to become the major share-holder after 5 years of his ownership.
With this re-structuring, 90s was for Rangers to enjoy but the appointment of Martin O’Neil turned a new chapter in Celtic’s history. Led by the mercurial Henrik Larsson, a club which was looking at getting erased from history was lining up in sunny Seville for a major European final in less than 10 years. Though, McCann owned the club for just 5 years but he sold his share for a profit of 40 million to the next biggest share-holder: Dermot Desmond (ironically it was Dermot who sold his share in Manchester United which ensured that the Glazers family became the principal owners of the club in 2005).
While the family dynasty at Celtic was a thing of past but the way they ran the club, was very much evident under Desmond’s stewardship as well. In 2012, it was Rangers who faced the similar fate which was hanging on Celtic’s head in 1990s. In this case, there was no one to save their parent company from getting liquidated and the club staring at rock bottom: 4th tier of Scottish football pyramid. And there was absolutely no one to give competition to Celtic due to disparity of funds distributed in Scottish football (and football in general nowadays). Despite the mismanagement, Celtic did find success come relatively easy with Rangers out of the picture, starting in 4th tier of Scottish Football.
Neil Lennon, Ronny Delia and Brendan Rodgers brought about a domination at domestic level but Celtic was lacking success at European stage (partly due to no direction in running the club and partly due to poor distribution of funds at European level, rich becoming richer scenario).
While Rangers, starting from absolute bottom learnt from their past mistakes and came back to Premiership in 4 years, but this time they had a direction, a plan to reach the heights of the past. A direction in how they want to play, how they want to recruit, how they want to grow at European stage.
All of that happened under Steven Gerrard’s reign: deep runs into Europa League and eventually winning the Premiership, bringing in 55th Championship in club’s history (or 1st as many hardcore Bhoys will say). Not only did Rangers win the league but they stopped the dream of a 10th consecutive title for Celtic (just like they did when they stopped Jock Stein from winning a 10th league title in a row). And there are a lot of parallels in these.
A Rangers team with renewed strategy to progress as a club, Celtic marred with complacency and mismanagement, a team bereft of any direction. Disconnect between fans and club ever growing. And again, to mention: your arch rivals looking ready to dominate the domestic scene and even having the tools to have modest success at European stage.
Whoever was going to be the next Celtic manager had a MASSIVE task on his hands. And that’s where the protagonist of our article comes in.
Ange Postecoglou and Celtic: a bond meant to be
When Brendan Rodgers was poached away by Leicester City, Celtic turned their heads to then Hibernian manager Neil Lennon to once again take over as Celtic Manager. Pitting him against Steven Gerrard and first major managerial role. Gerrard used a patient possession-based system which brought the best out of the long serving full back James Tavernier. While Lennon relied on playing a transitional based brand of football with more emphasis on individual brilliance at times. This was reflected in Celtic’s recruitment as well, buying individuals for the sake of it, without any planning. While Rangers filled the holes in their squad with some thought process behind it, Celtic did the exact opposite. Not only Celtic had no clear direction in their player recruitment, they also didn’t know when to cash out on players at right time, also costing a lot of money at times after under-selling a lot of their assets by keeping them for too long. Rangers went on an upward trajectory while Celtic went on a downward trajectory, silly mistakes from everyone costing a 10th consecutive title and fans and the team growing apart day by day.
In order to select the next manager, club tried to look at various profiles: some at board level wanted to tackle this possession-based approach used by Steven Gerrard at Rangers with the anti-dote: direct and aggressive brand of transition-based football: hence looking at coaches who had experience in Germany and Austria- Jesse Marsch was one on the shortlist (but a pipe dream), Valerien Ismael was also looked at one stage but he was already employed by Barnsley- taking them very close to a promotion to Premier League. While some in the board wanted to go with more British, man-management oriented approach. Again, club started looking at almost unattainable names: Eddie Howe being one in this kind of approach.
When the board had exhumed all their possible shortlist options (almost every name in that list being unattainable in first place), Celtic turned their heads to Japan- specifically to Yokohama where Ange was managing Marinos. A completely unknown name, an ‘outsider’ taking reigns of a club as revered as Celtic in such a delicate situation, many fans were discontent with the appointment and Ange had a massive task to not only coach the team in his philosophy but also win the approval of fans and repair this breaking relationship with the fanbase.
So, he packed his bags and came to Glasgow, without any coaching staff of his own and even at one stage, UEFA making extra background checks whether his coaching badges would make him eligible to manage in Europe or not. Once, all of this bureaucratic stuff was sorted; Ange took the reigns of the club on a one year rolling contract.
The thick South Melbourne accent meets the Glaswegian accent. The ‘Straya’ meets the ‘fitbaw and patter’. A blend of 2 different worlds. A mini rebuild of sorts started at Celtic; but this time they weren’t targeting the ‘big name’ signing but signings suitable for the manager to build a team capable of challenging the rise of Rangers. A young lad from Israel by the name of Liel Abada came, Ange used his connections in Japan to bring Kyogo Furuhashi from Vissel Kobe to Celtic. He then turned his attention to Benfica to lure in once highly rated Jota to join on loan (with option to buy on a permanent basis). Celtic had been leaking a lot of goals under Lennon due to mis-profiling of centre backs Julien Stephen and Nir Bitton and also the Greek goalkeeper Vasilis Barkas. In order to fix the defensive issues on a personnel basis, Ange looked at Tottenham Hotspurs and picked up out of favour Cameron Carter Vickers (now a full time USA international) and Joe Hart. Josip Juranovic came from Polish club, Legia Warsaw. Celtic had a major gap to fill in the centre of the field with the fan favourite and a cult legend, leader and captain, Scott ‘Broony’ Brown leaving the club; creating a major leadership void to fill. Ange turned to Callum McGregor to take the arm band, fitting that a local lad from East Glasgow who has been a boyhood Celtic supporter and came from the youth ranks, also being one of the longest serving player in the current squad take up the duties of a captain.
When Ange had assembled his squad, he tried to implement his high risk-high reward approach right from scratch. It was unrealistic to completely change the squad in one window so he integrated many players from previous years, some from academy and reserves. Many players who looked underwhelming under previous manager, looked reborn; especially the fullbacks Anthony Ralston and Greg Taylor: adapting to the instructions of manager and completely taking a 180 degree from being line-hugging full-backs to inverting, underlapping full-backs; comfortable in possession. Joe Hart who was phased out of Manchester City under Pep Guardiola for not being comfortable in sweeping and distribution also looked reborn. At an age where Goalkeepers start peaking out, Joe Hart picked up these new skills with relative ease. Another player who responded well to the tactical instructions was the recent acquisition of Georgios Giakoumakis from Dutch club VVV Venlo. A typical archetype of journeyman physical centre forward, often mis-profiled as a target man due to his built. Ange identified his knack of playing of the shoulder of centre backs and breaking the offside traps. Kyogo Furuhashi was adept at dropping deep to become a +1 in possession while Giakoumakis was lethal inside the box, giving a lot of flexibility in terms of getting goals out of the strikers. The midfield was also instructed to follow the similar principles which the Australian used as a Socceroos and Marinos coach: a flexible and fluid midfield; with McGregor being the deepest among the 3 midfielders, taking extra defensive duties. David Turnbull and Tom Rogic being the ‘free no 8s’, depending on the direction from where game was being built up, one of the midfielders pressed the opposition by going into wider areas, operating in half-space in order to isolate the opposition and free up space in order to be exploited.
(Credits: The Coaches’ Voice)
Along with this, the narrow full-backs’ positions help Celtic dominate possession by overloading the centre of the pitch, while also providing the single pivot with support at defensive transitions. They will help to lock the ball in the opponent’s half and prevent counter-attacks when the number eights are beyond the ball. In terms of defending and counter-pressing, Ange has been more pro-active than before when it comes to setting up a defensive structure. They press aggressively, often high up the pitch after having lost the ball. The wingers have been instructed to press high up the pitch with centre forward, making in-ward runs in order to force the ball into centre of the pitch so that the no. 8s can also activate pressing triggers to completely choke the opposition, but this often leaves space on the flanks at times if teams know how to circumnavigate through the press.
Credits: The Coaches’ Voice)
After a very long time, it looked like there is a set direction, a plan to execute not just good performances but get good results which are sustainable in long run. But all of this didn’t happen overnight, it is quite natural and humane for anyone to take time to adapt to changing scenario and it was the exact case at Celtic as well. Squad took it’s sweet time, gelling in and getting acquainted with the manager and his tactical instructions.
Early losses to Hearts, Rangers and Livingston in the league did amplify the rusty nature of the team adapting to new set of instructions along with elimination from Champions League qualification rounds to FC Midtjylland, being forced to go through a lengthy Europa League qualification round: battling Jablonec and AZ Alkmaar to book a place in Group Stages of UEL. Europe has been an achilles heel of Celtic in last decade. It was the same case when Celtic were pitted against Real Betis, Bayer Leverkusen and Ferencvaros. Yet another difficult group.
This transition period and a tough UEL group also added to the misery of tackling many off the pitch criticism from the not only fans but from so called ‘pundits’ for not being ‘fit’ to lead such a prestigious club (because Ange was a completely unknown entity in this Euro-bubble of football).
Although, Celtic tried to play to it’s new found strengths in Europe and produced some scintillating moves in those matches, results didn’t go their way, with the weaknesses of the new system being exploited a lot. Meanwhile at domestic level, there was also a mixed bag of results in the initial months. Some commendable wins but that rustiness was still there to see. But Ange stuck to his principles and eventually results also started flooding in.
Ange’s camaraderie and his down to earth attitude eventually started winning the approval of not just the players but even the fans as well. And when results also started going their way with an up-turn in performances, even the most critical of fans swallowed the bitter pill of being ‘wrong’ and started to back the manager unconditionally.
Winter window came and in came a host of signings, with skillsets tailor made to suit the Australian’s coaching style. Reo Hatate came from Kawasaki Frontale, Daizen Maeda got reunited with Ange, playing under him at Yokohama F. Marinos and Yosuke Ideguchi came from Gamba Osaka. This was his 2nd venture into Europe. Initially picked up by Leeds United as a youngster from Gamba Osaka only but a series of underwhelming loan spells at Cultural Leonesa and Greuther Furth along with a feeling of home sickness prompted him to return back to Japan.
Reo Hatate’s versatility to play a variety of roles in centre midfield, left wing and even left back: especially in the inverted fullback role was one of the reasons why Ange wanted to go for his signature. Daizen Maeda’s off the ball ability to counter press the opposition and Celtic’s poor depth in wings was also ticked off with this signature.
Callum McGregor had been playing non-stop and there was no suitable player to play his role in the team (Ideguchi slots right in this scenario). But crème de la crème of the winter signings has to be that of English/Danish youngster Matt O’Riley from MK Dons who usurped the role of Tom Rogic and completely provided a fresh breath of air to Celtic’s midfield.
The new recruits from Japan and Ange again faced the wrath from the conservative sections of British media with some racially driven reporting being done around the new recruits. The Australian did step in to defend his players and taking a right stand, which he has done a lot of times in a short span of time in Scotland: completely aligning with the ethos on which the club was founded.
Now, with a replenished squad full of jolly good characters, Ange’s ability to attach to every player closely on a mental level and a team responding well to the manager’s instructions saw the team go on a massive 31 match unbeaten run in the league with a few upsets coming in Europe and Scottish Cup. Highlight of this unbeaten run has been the complete annihilation of their Old Firm rivals: Rangers on 2 occasions. A 3-0 drubbing at Celtic Park, preceded by one of the best atmospheres seen at Celtic Park in recent times, coming after such a difficult time when world came to it’s knees in front of the Covid pandemic and it’s effects on society and 1-2 win, away at Ibrox Stadium.
Celtic did get some help from Rangers as well in this period, who saw their manager Steven Gerrard leave his post in middle of the season to take up the vacant seat at Aston Villa. His replacement? Giovanni Van Bronckhorst. An ex-Rangers manager with a similar tactical setup to Gerrard eased the pain of losing Stevie G midway into the season. While Celtic went in a complete domination stage at domestic stage, Rangers had a memorable run in Europe; reaching the finals of UEL in a dramatic style, annihilating teams in their path.
When Ange had taken over the vacant seat at Celtic, no one could have thought that he would achieved a lot in such a short time for someone who had no experience in Europe and not only achieve great results through some exquisite performances but make the team feel connected with the fanbase again. Who would have thought that a bunch of Gaijins (a derogatory term in Japanese, meaning outsiders– also used by a certain you shall not be named newspaper in Britain in the context of Ange and the Japanese players at Celtic) will play a massive role in bringing a cultural shift at the club, which was lacking such an atmosphere in the dressing room for a long time? This world is full of talented people. If you have an open mindset, you will always find under-appreciated and under-valued gems. Ange and his Bhoys are one such example that if you want to find a niche, you have to broaden your horizon, break open from stereotypes and think out of the box in order to perfect this new found niche.
The onset of aggression from Russia on Ukraine has resulted in Russian football teams barred from playing in European competition. With Russian League out of the picture, the winner of Scottish Premiership will get a direct place in group stages of UEFA Champions League. Now, with Celtic winning the league and Rangers in the finals of UEFA Europa League, potentially we can see both the teams play against the elites in UCL next season, high time the Scottish football and arguably 2 of the best teams in terms of prestige in Europe get back to where they belong, while they usher into a new era and continue with their rivalry, free from any shoddy Sectarian elements which marred the Old Firm teams whenever they locked horns in the past
Celtic is a football club which has been deeply engrossed with it’s Irish roots and it was fitting that they needed a revolutionary character, someone who can lead them to new heights. In Ange Postecoglou, they have got the perfect character who can steer them into a new era. Long may the revolution continue. Viva la Posteglucion!
Charles Darwin put together his ‘Theory of Evolution’ in 1869. What he didn’t know is that 153 years later and 11,000 kilometres apart, another guy with the same name will be making a mark for himself in another profession, justifying the theory put forward by Charles. And this guy goes by the name of Darwin Núñez.
Before this takes a turn towards a thesis on evolution, let’s take a look at current media darling and Benfica forward Núñez’ career and how he has burst onto the scene, with the likes of PSG, Chelsea and Manchester United being frontrunners for his signature this summer.
From the likes of Luis Suarez to Diego Forlan to Edison Cavani to Enzo Francescoli to Alvaro Recoba to Gus Poyet, Darwin Núñez is in the pipeline with the potential to become not only one of the best Uruguayan forwards but one of the best forwards in the world.
Born in Artigas (named after the Liberator of Latin America: Jose Gervasio Artigas Arnal), 550 km south of Montevideo, Darwin joined the famed academy of Penarol. He suffered a couple of serious knee injuries in his development years in the academy, but still progressed through the ranks and eventually made his debut for the first team, coming on for Maxi Rodriguez in a 2-1 loss against River Plate Montevideo. Although he managed just 14 appearances for his beloved Penarol, scoring 4 goals in the process, he attracted the attention of a host of clubs in Europe. He eventually ended up in the South of Spain in the province of Andalusia. Almeria CF, who plied their trade in Segunda Division snapped him up beating a host of Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and German teams in the process thanks to their good relationship with Penarol. A modest fee of €13 million (because the club is bankrolled by the Saudi Arabian Government) was enough for Darwin to pack his bags and start his European journey, becoming the record sale for a teenager in Uruguay and the costliest transfer in the 2nd division of Spain.
A 16-goal haul in just 30 appearances was enough to earn him a move to Benfica worth €24 million, again becoming the costliest buy in Portuguese League history and biggest sale from the Spanish 2nd division, that too in a period where world was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Darwin’s start in Benfica wasn’t one he expected. A couple of injuries and getting infected by the Coronavirus kept him on the sidelines and there was no regular, consistent playing time in the first few months. But this period of transition helped him evolve and improve his physical self.
His second season in Lisbon has proven to be the breakthrough at the big stage. Consistent playing time coupled with playing in his preferred spaces on the pitch has seen him score goals consistently. He has been praised for his off the ball movement and defensive work rate: culminating the fact that he has come from the land fabled for indigenous Charrua people. Him being Uruguayan automatically means that he is the epitome of “Garra Charrua”: no matter what the odds and what adversities are existing, there is sheer tenacity to take on any obstacle head-on and come home as victors.
Darwin has evolved into a well-rounded forward, carrying the lineage of his Uruguayan ancestors and combining that mentality with the modern game. His athletic frame – upright in posture, defined in shape, rangy in length – is his distinguishing feature. Excellent acceleration and sprinting speed is the defining facet of his athletic skill set. His athleticism is a game-changer and is only enhanced by incisive movement and intelligent instincts.
I will now look more at the tactical instructions and the player’s strengths and weaknesses which has made him a hot property, combining my analysis with data and visualizations from our good friend Anuraag (Twitter: @Anuraag027. Check his work out if you haven’t).
Benfica have used a host of formations under Jorge Jesus and Nelson Verissimo – 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2, 3-4-3. Darwin has played in a number of roles – as a primary forward, with him being the focal point of the game in counter-attacking situations or on the left flank, interchanging positions with the Ukrainian Romain Yaremchuk or playing off the shoulder of talented Second-Striker/Attacking Midfielder Goncalo Ramos.
Núñez doesn’t restrict himself to remaining in the central channel. Whilst he can play in this space, working the centre-backs, and running into central channels, Núñez looks to explore wider spaces.
In doing so, he can find space to receive where he can provide a line-breaking pass option, but he can also draw the opposition defenders well out of position as he does this. Núñez doesn’t frequently use the width of the pitch to provide an option during build-up play but regularly shifts into these areas to act as a creator sometimes. Núñez shows quality in 1v1 duels as a dribbler too. This season he has averaged 6.05 dribbles per 90 and has completed 50% of these. He usually doesn’t overdo the dribble. He instead releases the ball quickly after beating an opponent.
Núñez is able to play quick touches away from defenders and can comfortably play one touch passes, however, he also shows an ability to hold up possession. He backs into defenders effectively and uses his full frame to protect the ball when doing this. Núñez has the ability to create enough space to turn in tight areas. He rolls defenders easily using the frame to get across them and allow the ball to roll past him, shielding the ball as he turns. He scans with frequency and his awareness of space for himself or the positioning of others is well beyond his young age.His natural tendency to drift leftwards which makes him more efficient as a wide forward at times. A player of his quality is a real threat on counter-attacks where his athletic frame and speed plus acceleration is a real menace to deal with on defensive transitions for the opposition’s high defensive line.
In the above visualization, it can be clearly seen that the majority of his touches are in the left half space. Neither are they deep and wide enough to be classified as a LW movement nor are they central enough to be classified as a proper Center Forward. His progressive carries also confirm this aspect. He prefers to drift to the left and take on players using the angle for his preferred right foot.
Finishing is one facet of the game which requires a lot of improvement if he is to become a lethal finisher for a top team. Despite getting into brilliant positions, thanks to his great off-the-ball movement coupled with a burst of pace, he doesn’t have the calm and composure to regularly put the ball past the keeper yet. He is a volume shooter who ends up getting into good positions, but he is yet to master his aggression where it matters the most – in front of the goal. This aggression ends up getting the better of him at times during one vs one situations.
In comparison to his single season in Spain and his first season in Portugal, Darwin has shown some signs to improve this aspect of his game with some improvement seen this season. He now takes more shots where he tries to bury the ball into the corner, may it be top one or bottom one instead of hitting straight at the keeper or taking an extra touch.
Once again, from the visualization, it can be clearly seen that his pass reception is also very left half-space dominated but the verticality and box presence should also be noted. It is much closer to a striker’s pass reception map than a winger’s, just a very left-leaning one. His shot map is a bit more well spread and 20 non-penalty goals from 71 shots is a good return for sure. He comfortably sits at the top of the Primeira Liga scoring charts with 24 goals, 9 ahead of the next best scorer. There are goals in this exciting forward, especially if he keeps improving his composure and if a team plays to his strengths like Benfica have done this year.
A failed bid of €50 million on deadline day in January 2022 by West Ham United apparently sparked something inside Darwin, who recently changed his agent, aligning with one of the agencies run by super-agent Jorge Mendes. There is a reason why Chelsea, Paris St. Germain and Manchester United are frontrunners when it comes to Darwin’s signature this summer (As per the reliable David Ornstein).
But does Manchester United need yet another left-leaning wide forward who likes to play on the break? United have been trying to align to a more structured possession-based game for a few years, and this will be even more true if the Erik Ten Hag rumours come through. The squad already has Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Anthony Elanga and Cristiano Ronaldo who all prefer the left wing or left half-space at the very least. The team badly needs a proper right winger and a Central Forward who provides central box presence and hold up, something which Ronaldo has struggled to do all year despite his intermittent goal-scoring. Núñez is neither of those and given his personality and traits, he would naturally drift to the left and utilize his pace, physicality and right-footed angle to beat defenders and take shots. It might be quite similar to Marcus Rashford when he plays striker for United.
At a reported price of a whopping €80m, when United have many glaring issues to sort, not only in the squad but in the day-to-day running of the club, it probably doesn’t make any sense to go for Darwin Núñez. This would quickly become yet another example of mis-profiling players and getting caught in the over-the-top hype created by media and fans. United should turn their efforts to scouting attackers that fit their needs instead of getting caught up in this high profile chase.
Final call: This is one transfer United should simply side step without thought. As good as Núñez is, It doesn’t make sense from a financial or tactical angle.
In summary, Núñez has the tools to grow into a brilliant striker and the mentality to adapt to new tactical setups and new cultures. He commands a big asking price given his red-hot form and potential. He now has Jorge Mendes as his agent who can broker deals for even dead players. Benfica have a healthy period of time (Darwin signed a 5-year contract with the club in 2020) to earn a hefty profit, knowing that he is attracting the interest of the elites. An absence from the Champions League may just push them to cash in on him.
Football has become very cut-throat as an industry at the top level. If you are paid top bucks, you are expected to deliver instant goods. Darwin still needs a year or two to ease into that transition to a top team as of now – time which he will not get at those top clubs if he moves straight away.
As his namesake suggests, it all comes back to “Survival of the Fittest.”
Another summer, another daily soap drama at FC Hollywood (or FC Miami Vice in this case). This time, the daily soap drama is revolving around the new manager who can start the “Rebuild”. If Netflix gets the rights to the drama going on at Manchester United, they can make a multi-million grossing series. This is an idea which the bosses at Manchester United unironically can get behind because of PR, media interactions and quick profit: the reason they leveraged a buy-out 17 years back.
With the script of Rebuild Season 5 under consideration, Manchester United is in the hunting mode to cast the lead role for the new season with famous German casting director Ralf Rangnick assisting from the outside. Argentine Mauricio Pochettino from French Drama Company Paris St. Germain and talented Erik ten Hag from leading Dutch Production House Ajax Amsterdam are seen as potential candidates to take the lead role.
Banter aside, now it’s time to do some serious talking. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sacking prompted Manchester United to move in for the German Ralf Rangnick to take over as interim manager and then take over as an “External Consultant” for two years once his stint as interim manager will be over. In the grey area role as External Consultant, Rangnick (ideally) will advise the club over player recruitment and also pitch in towards finding a suitable manager to take over from him at the end of 2021-2022 season.
It is becoming difficult for Manchester United to poach Mauricio Pochettino from PSG (apparently thanks to a higher release clause) so they have turned their eyes to Erik ten Hag. Despite majority fans not watching more than a handful of Ajax matches (courtesy of a recent poll run by one of the sanest and well-versed analysts covering Manchester United: United Arena; twitter @utdarena), they have a weird notion around him. I don’t want to generalize the perception of the entire fanbase with a twitter poll but in general people (not just Manchester United supporters) have an assumption that the Dutchman Erik ten Hag is all about possession and is like the second coming of Johan Cruyff or have labelled him as the next Louis Van Gaal due to Ajax Amsterdam roots; because their favourite “football content creators” said so who are just peddling their agendas to monetize social media interactions and have complete deficiency when it comes to the topic.
I will try my level best to break this notion about Erik ten Hag and talk about his tactics, managerial philosophy and possible (and realistic) scenarios of how he can manage Manchester United if he really is appointed as next manager. We will dive into where he can flourish, where he can falter (either due to his own shortcomings or the structural issues at United).
So, buckle up and get ready for a bumpy ride.
Erik ten Hag: Managerial Profile
The 52-year-old Dutchman has taken the footballing world by storm with his Ajax side steamrolling oppositions not only in his native Netherlands but even in Europe. Erik is himself an ex-player, having modest success as a centre back. The highlight of his playing career has to be winning the KNVB Cup with FC Twente in the 2000-01 season, his third stint with the Enschede side. Post that, the 31-year-old was considering retirement but eventually played for one more season before hanging his boots at the end of 2001-02 season.
He was immediately appointed as head of youth development at FC Twente, a position which he went on to hold for 4 years. Then, the tragedy struck. The parent company which was financing the running of the club went bankrupt. The club was facing the risk of getting liquidated. An ambitious businessman, Joop Munsterman decided to intervene and save the club. For a while, the club had to look at the academy and make shrewd signings to rebuild the squad. Erik’s work at the academy was praised by his colleagues. The highlight from his 4-year stint as HoYD, working closely with the academy was the promotion of Wout Brama to the senior team (still playing for FC Twente in present day, picking up titles with them and International appearances with Oranje). In 2006, Ten Hag was appointed as the Assistant Manager of FC Twente. In this period, the team saw an upward rise in the table. From reaching yet another KNVB Cup final in 2004, the club eventually finished at 4th place in the 2006-07 season. Yet another 4th place finish in 2007-08 followed. But this time, the club won the European place play-off against Ajax Amsterdam to pick a place in UEFA Champions League qualification rounds. Ten Hag’s work on the side lines as Assistant Manager earned him a new contract and he was then paired with the Englishman Steve McLaren for the start of 2008-09 season.
The era of late 2000s was a period of transition for the big 3 of Netherlands: Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV. Ajax was underperforming due to mismanagement of resources, PSV in turn had a free run at the top in Eredivisie but they were failing at European stage after the highs of 2005 UCL run where they were moments away from a historic final (yes THAT UCL final). Feyenoord also had underlying financial issues which escalated a few years later. It was a time where teams from outside the big 3 tried to claim bragging rights. AZ Alkmaar and FC Twente rose to the challenge with their ambitious projects. AZ had brought in Louis Van Gaal, while FC Twente continued with Steve McLaren and a budding Erik ten Hag as his assistant manager. FC Twente, unseeded in the qualification rounds, eventually navigated their way to the final qualification round. But they were pitted against Arsenal where they ended up losing 6-0 on aggregate. They earned a place in the first round of the UEFA Cup. At domestic level, they earned 2nd place – 11 points adrift of Louis Van Gaal’s AZ Alkmaar. Ten Hag’s work with Twente earned him a move to PSV Eindhoven where he was appointed as Assistant Manager.
Ten Hag decided to kick start his career as a manager when he took up a job as first team manager at Deventer based side, Go Ahead Eagles, in Eerste Divisie (Dutch 2nd division). He was persuaded to join the side by Marc Overmars, who started his management career as a Technical Director at the club. Erik’s stay at the club lasted for only 1 year but he made it a memorable one. Under him, Go Ahead Eagles earned a promotion back to Eredivisie after a wait of 17 years. Go Ahead Eagles earned praises and attracted attention not only in his native country, but even from abroad.
Matthias Sammer, then sporting director of FC Bayern Munchen, convinced the young manager to move across the border and join the reserves side as manager. With Pep Guardiola at the helm as first team manager, the plan to appoint Erik ten Hag as manager of the reserves side was to keep a continuum between the philosophy of football at all levels of the club so that youngsters who were knocking on the door of the first team shouldn’t find difficulty adapting to the tactical instructions. Ten Hag’s Bayern II competed in Regionalliga Bayern, the regional league for Bavaria, one division below the 3. Liga, the third division in the German football pyramid. Ten Hag’s side fought to win the promotion to third division but always ended up missing it with narrow margins. Ten Hag left Germany after 2 years, returning back to the Netherlands. He took up the role of first team manager cum Sporting Director at Eredivisie side FC Utrecht.
Utrecht was on the verge of bankruptcy multiple times in the 2000s and had to be saved from liquidation at the very last moment by financial injection from potential investors. Even in such conditions, Ten Hag’s side finished 5th in Eredivisie in the 2017-18 season, the club’s highest position in the table since 1981 and they also reached the final of KNVB Cup, losing 2-1 to Feyenoord Rotterdam. Next season was even better for FC Utrecht in the league, as they clinched 4th place and won the European Play off final against AZ Alkmaar in dramatic style.
Ten Hag extended his contract with the club for one more season, but Ajax paid a hefty compensation to appoint him as manager on 23th December, 2017 after sacking Marcel Keizer. Marcel had taken over from Peter Bosz after coming through the ranks at Jong Ajax but was relieved from his duties due to poor results. A penalty loss to FC Twente in the Domestic Cup prompted Ajax’s technical director, Marc Overmars, to pull the plug. It was Overmars yet again who initiated the reunification with Erik ten Hag.
What happened next is a story which everyone knows.
According to Ten Hag, Coaching is all about experience. You gain more insights if you have an open mindset. His experience as a Head of Youth Development helped him learn how to integrate youth players at senior level once they are of the right age. His experience under Steve McLaren helped him learn the art of managing emotions and delivering results with respect to raising expectations. His experience under Fred Rutten taught him about “balance”.
All of these elements which he picked up helped him mature. Erik not only learned from his colleagues but learned from his surroundings. His time in Germany was very fruitful and he learned a lot from the ‘German game’, inculcating various tactical and managerial instructions in his coaching. Now, with experience he has almost perfected himself at Utrecht and Ajax.
In the above clipping, Erik ten Hag has shed light on the realism which he expects from people and how it takes time to perfect things and that you require timing to perfect the things. The excerpt has been taken from Ajax’s Youtube video where Erik goes through 5 game play sequences under him and explains his coaching philopshy and how it is reflected in those game play sequences.
At FC Utrecht, Ten Hag used a number of formations, 3-4-3, 3-5-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 but his preferred formation was that of 4-4-2 diamond. His front line was led by a certain French-Ivorian with whom he re-united in 2021, Sebastian Haller. Haller was the primary forward and he was supported by one of Nacer Barazite or Bart Ramselaar as number 10 with Ruud Boymans, Patrick Joosten and later on Richario Zivkovic joining in as the secondary striker with Haller up top. When Barazite started as number 10, Ramselaar started as the wide midfielder in the diamond, on the right side- covering the space vacated by the marauding right back, shuttling horizontally to cover up space in the centre and right half wing. This ensured that the width was provided by fullbacks who had to be positionally aware, both in attacking and defensive phases. Ten Hag’s structure allowed for multiple rotations. The single pivot at the base of the diamond often dropped into the back line, with centre backs going wide to avoid getting pressed by opposition’s attackers, forming a back 3. This helped a lot with the build-up. It also encouraged the full-backs to push even further forward and stretch the defence of opposition. The number 10 often rotated with the number eights on either side of the diamond while the second forward dropping deep in areas to create a +1 in midfield helped to create overloads and short passing options in central areas.
In the 2015/16 season, Utrecht ranked 2nd in the Eredivisie for progressive passes. They also had the 2nd least PPDA score, which suggested that their sides pressed aggressively from the front. Ten Hag’s desire to have multiple options at 10, using rotations and movement to create passing options between the lines, was key to this. It has been a central theme throughout his coaching career. Ten Hag has always emphasized on off the ball movement of the players, trying to coach them and perfect this ability since these off the ball movements are the key to create so many passing options. Players are drilled hard to create space for others to pass. All of this has to work in tandem. You have to be technically sound on the ball and positionally aware off-the-ball. Even the Goalkeepers have to be proactive in Ten Hag’s set-up, not just rooted to the line but provide an option to start the play from the back and be positionally aware to cover the space behind the high defensive line. Ten Hag believes that you don’t have to keep possession just for the sake of it. According to him, Possession is just a means to an end. You should control the game and try to control the situation of the game in the crucial moments instead of just controlling possession of the ball. After taking the Ajax job in December 2017, Ten Hag converted the fluid 4-3-3 used by his predecessors and converted into a 4-2-3-1 with a fluid front 4. This formation allowed them to be explosive when players eventually bought the philosophy of the coach. While PSV Eindhoven won the Eredivisie, Ajax was playing the long-term game with Ten Hag. Recruitments of veteran Daley Blind and Dusan Tadic provided much needed experience and added 2 players in their peak years in a squad built with younger talents. In the 2018-19 season, Ten Hag’s Ajax steamrolled the opposition. Their run in Europe was the best club experienced in more than 20 years. From the 2nd qualification round of UEFA Champions League to semi-finals, Ajax bested teams which came in their way. Historic victories at Santiago Bernabeu and Allianz Arena, Turin followed with an away victory at newly built Tottenham Hotspurs Stadium in the semi-finals. The Amsterdam side even took a 2-0 lead at Amsterdam Arena. But a hattrick by Lucas Moura in 2nd half knocked out Ajax with Moura’s last goal coming as the last kick of the match. A historic UCL final was so close, yet so far.
The double pivot of Frenkie De Jong and veteran Lasse Schone sat in front of their front 4. De Jong’s ability to carry the ball was very effective in progressing the ball from defensive areas to attacking zones. Dusan Tadic was most regularly used as the central forward in that remarkable Champions League run. Ziyech, Van de Beek and Neres then formed the line of three behind him. Domestically, Tadic often operated from the left, with either Kasper Dolberg or Klaas-Jan Huntelaar starting as the nine. On the right, Ziyech looked to cut back inside on his stronger left foot and shoot, cross or connect with the team’s central attackers. Right-back Noussair Mazraoui provided delayed attacking support while still offering a link to the back line or double pivot by inverting in-field depending on the opposition’s defensive set-up.
On the left, either Neres or Tadic moved inside much earlier, with the latter often operating more as a second centre-forward when he started there. This created significant room for left-back Nicolás Tagliafico to overlap and provide crosses from deeper areas of the field. The double pivot helped cover underneath Tagliafico’s marauding runs up-field. One of them could drop into the back line to support centre-backs Matthijs de Ligt and Daley Blind whenever required. Frenkie De Jong’s ability to beat the opposition’s press effectively helped a lot in building up play in this manner.
As the number 10, Van de Beek moved intelligently between the lines – but he was most effective from the right inside channel. His movement off the ball in the right half space complemented the width provided by Ziyech, in turn creating room for Tadic to exploit when he attacked from the left or for the central striker to drop into, thereby vacating more space for either the winger or full-back on left side to exploit this vacated space and create numerical superiority.
That glorious run in the Champions League started a fire sale: De Ligt, De Jong, Van de Beek Ziyech, Dolberg, Neres, Kristensen, Veltman, Sinkgraven, Promes all went to pastures anew. Huntelaar, Schone were phased out. The trio of Ten Hag, Technical Director Marc Overmars and Managing Director Edwin van Der Sar replaced these ongoing very well. Recruiting talented young players with high resale value from abroad and promoting youngsters from reserve and youth sides while also bringing experienced players who made their name in domestic league but struggled abroad. This overhaul prompted Ten Hag to change his tactical set-up. 4-2-3-1 shape paved the way for 4-3-3.
Ryan Gravenberch, Devyne Rensch, Jurrien Timber, Per Schuurs (technically not from youth setup but he was bought to be played in Jong Ajax team-reserves initially) were promoted and integrated into the first team; Lisandro Martinez came from Argentina, Edson Alvarez came from Mexico, Antony came from Brazil, Mohammed Kudus came from FC Nordsjaelland, Mohamed Daramy came from FC Kobenhavn, Ray Gorter came from Go Ahead Eagles. Experienced players like Davy Klaasen came from Werder Bremen, Steven Berghuis came from Feyenoord (the transfer completely nullified Berghuis’ status as a cult figure among Feyenoord fans given the rivalry between 2 clubs), Sean Klaiber came from FC Utrecht, Sebastian Haller came from West Ham, Remko Pasveer came from Vitesse to cover for Andre Onana who had to battle a 9-month suspension over the consumption of banned drug. Klaiber and Haller were re-united with Ten Hag after their time at FC Utrecht was fairly successful (although Klaiber suffered a serious knee injury and he has been on the sideline for a long time now).
Haller is the primary striker while Tadic remains on the left, from where he continues to drift inside. Here he is supported by Blind – another survivor from that Champions League team– who has moved to left-back. Blind’s experience at centre-back allows Ajax to build with a back three. Mazraoui then pushes further forward. The width that Tadic maintains on the left enables the midfielders to push further ahead and make supporting runs around Haller, particularly from Gravenberch on the left. Blind offers cover behind but can also invert while Mazaroui also has the same ability to provide more passing options alongside defensive midfielder Edson Álvarez.
Ajax have also showcased an ability to be flexible in the way they progressed the ball. They can pass their way around the opposition in vertical manner and play a direct brand of football but they also use Haller as a target for longer passes at times as well as using long switches to isolate their devastating wide players.
Without the ball, Ten Hag’s Utrecht mostly dropped into a 4-3-3 shape. The central forwards would defend on the outsides of the front line, around which opponents often looked to build. They could then target the space between centre-back and the aggressive press of the full-backs. The number eights would cover the inside channels, but if the distances were too great or the back line failed to slide over enough, opponents could exploit the spaces and penetrate through these channels.
Ten Hag’s switch to a 4-3-3 with Ajax has led to a different defensive approach. The striker, mostly Haller (or on loan striker Brian Brobbey who left Ajax for RB Leipzig), stays high rather than dropping deep to cover the opposing team’s pivot. The wingers track runs from opposition’s full-backs/wingers into wide areas, especially if the full-back has aggressively pressed in the inside channels. The number eights cover the inside channels aggressively, too. They will individually jump forward to support the press between the centre-forward and winger. With the wingers supporting back, the central midfield can focus more on the areas ahead of the two centre-backs. The theme around Ten Hag’s defensive approach is that of individual jumping and pressing out of line. Whether that’s a centre-back pushing out to deal with a dropping attacker, or a number eight pushing forward to press a dropping pivot, Ten Hag wants his players to work forward on to the ball – even if it means assertively leaving the line of defence. This puts constant pressure on the ball and, from a compact mid-block, forces the opposition back and away from goal.
This man-oriented pressing can become a blessing and a burden. And this has been a major issue with Ten Hag’s side. Despite conceding least goals in Eredivisie this season, Ajax have been unable to handle the opposition’s counter attacking players if their counter-press is broken, leaving them completely open on transitions and this is where Ajax doesn’t defend well. While there is a very big gap between the resources available at Ajax and other clubs in the Netherlands and quality of players is miles better, these weaknesses may go under the radar at domestic level but at European level, it has bugged them. Tottenham Hotspurs in 2018-19 UCL campaign, Getafe in 2019-20 UEL, AS Roma in 2020-21 UEL and recently Benfica in 2021-22 UCL Campaign have nullified Ajax’s strengths in attack with their vulnerability in defensive transitions. This is one area where Ten Hag can improve by tweaking a thing or two.
To summarize, the basic principles of Ten Hag’s coaching philosophy are:
Create +1 in possession
Don’t over-use the width of the pitch
Always make off the ball runs and play passes forward and in behind
Make sure that the defence is organized
Immediate pressure on the ball
Get back in shape after a failed pressing trigger
Lure the opponents to the flanks
Manipulate the “space”
Defend the “space”: zonal marking
Immediately play the ball towards the goal
Erik ten Hag at Manchester United: a realistic scenario
As we have seen, Erik ten Hag is a manager who is very flexible in his approach and has learned many things from his colleagues and surroundings over the years. He is a proactive coach and his best comes in a surrounding tailor-made for him, where HE IS THE MAIN MAN. While he is at a stage in his career where he has outgrown the Eredivisie, there still are some shortcomings in his tactical set-up which he has to cut out because those will be amplified in top 5 leagues, with better quality of players, coaches and managers in the opposition teams. In this section, I want to present my personal views on the realistic scenario which can pan out if Ten Hag is actually appointed as Manchester United manager in near future. Now, the selling point to bring Ten Hag to Manchester United will obviously be:
Manchester United: the brand
Big Transfer Budget and freedom to change squad according to his suitability
A sound person in a technical role to assist him in recruitment and contract extensions.
But in reality, almost every fan knows, deep inside knows that all things will not go hand-in-hand and in case Ten Hag actually ends up at Manchester United, he will also end up underperforming and when patience of fans, board will start to run out- they will abuse the manager and players and not direct their anger at actual people who actually put those players and manager in that weird, infinite loop of under-efficient performances. And that’s how another season of Rebuild will get over and a new cast will be found for Season 6.
Ten Hag will have to drastically change his instructions given the squad he may inherit. Many players in the squad have poor positional awareness, especially the full-backs and wingers which are the positions where Ten Hag actually rely on using width and in turn create space. First choice goalkeeper although picked up his main selling point of shot stopping after 3 years of underperformance (in the same period, also becoming the highest player on the planet after penning down to a new contract- expiring in *check notes* 2023), his inability to develop other facets of the game- sweeping, coming off the line to claim crosses, passing will be a big hindrance to Ten Hag implementing his principles of building the game from the back. Manchester United lack a lot of profiles in that midfield, a defensive midfielder to screen the defence, a midfielder who can control the pace of the game- when to go up-tempo, when to lower the intensity at which game has to be played and especially someone who helps the team to progress the ball from defence to attack. There is no reliable goal scorer in the squad either. Yes, Manchester United have Cristiano Ronaldo but he is a human being at the end of the day, he can’t beat the concept of time and ageing (and law too). For a long-term project which Manchester United want to work hard on, they have many players who are on the wrong side of the 30 or are losing their value, not only monetary but value in terms of game play too despite their young age. Only the centre back department looks settled but even here, fans have a lot of dislike for a certain someone and that certain someone has the skillset which Ten Hag usually wants in his centre backs.
The player recruitment is a big grey area. No one knows in principle how Ralf Rangnick will function in a technical role. Given he will have a say, but it will most probably be from the outside as an external consultant (because that’s what his work title will be). Actual power will eventually sit with Richard Arnold (who has worked all these years with Ed Woodward- has zero idea about football and its business side), John Murtough (responsible behind the running of Women’s team- whose running has been abysmal despite the ladies performing well on the pitch for a newly formed team- showcasing that this team is also run as a PR show) and Darren Fletcher promoted way above his ability over many qualified people at the club (a certain Nicky Butt just left days after the reshuffle was announced, it just can’t be a coincidence right?).
If Ten Hag will inherit such a broken squad at a club where there is no pre-defined hierarchy and no clear means of action then he is also set up to fail just like his predecessors.
When clubs are in a period of transition, they have to think of the long-term goals first and then in the short term. Opposite happens at Manchester United. A year or two isn’t enough to overhaul the squad when you appoint a methodical coach and director to assist him and don’t *efficiently* back them and automatically lose patience as your dwindling mood dictates your decision making. And this has happened with all the previous managers at the club, even if they were good enough to manage the squad or not.
The people at administration level in Manchester United are very cunning at selling dreams, and fan’s inability to hurt those responsible for this mismanagement because they also want “more”, More this, more that. This is why the owners eventually escape all the flak while fans, media despite knowing the actual people at fault always end up picking their obvious baits, overrating the newcomers to the extent that they raise the expectations way above the actual reality and when reality shows them the mirror, they can’t accept the truth and resort to tribalism and usual toxic, masculine, macho behaviour of many in the fanbase comes out where they stoop down to new lows just to show their anger because “Fans”. And don’t get started with the minority thing, Manchester United has a massive fanbase all over the world, “minority” of this fanbase will still number in hundreds of thousands or even millions- and this isn’t a small number at all.
STOP. RELAX. GO OUT AND TOUCH SOME GRASS.
Everyone has to take a breather, sit back and look at how they actually want to achieve this “more”. Transparency, which is one thing which both Ten Hag and Rangnick emphasize on, has to be kept at all times; with the board, with the fans, with the players and their entourage. This is a 2-way process. You don’t clap with just one hand after all. And this isn’t with just Ten Hag, Rangnick, Pochettino or any other candidate who will take the seat opposite to Sir Alex Ferguson Stand at Old Trafford. Transparency is very underrated and an important trait to have in general life as well.
You can’t just go on and assume that things will get fine in a jiffy because “club is massive and biggest in the world”. It is, but in size. Not footballing stature, at least not in the present day. And that is the bitter truth which fans need to accept. A certain someone once said “Facts don’t care about your feelings”.
Mismanagement can happen with even the biggest of clubs. If you are talking about “Rebuild”, then it has to be completely transparent. No favouritism, no emotion driven decisions. Complete reset- a clean slate. Manchester United needs a clean slate first. If that isn’t achieved then the fans who are getting excited with the news of Ten Hag- consuming the ill-informed content related to him will only get disappointed when he ends up failing (may it be 2 or 3 or 4 or whatever years) and everyone in anger will start dis-crediting his work of the past, achievements for which he had to work his bottoms off.
I’ll love to be proven wrong over my thoughts but my pragmatic self just can’t fathom that a club which hasn’t learned from its past mistakes in these 17 years, out of a sudden, will fix itself and appoint Ten Hag, who will then wave a wand like Voldemort and destroy any team in front of him. “Avada Kedavra” and Manchester United are the champions yayy!
But are they the champions? Are they looking like a team which will become the champion in near future? Are they working towards becoming a club which will become the champion in near future? Are they the club which was once hailed to be loving, caring and welcoming in the present day?
(Credits to The Coaches Voice and Wyscout sponsored Hudl blogs and ofc, the Main Man for the inspiration)