What is Erik Ten Hag’s philosophy?

by | Jun 18, 2024

We’re 2 years into the Ten Hag era. And while there are trophies to show, there are some big questions around the gameplay and ideal vision that need answers.

Firstly, the fact that we often see massive drop offs when we are missing first-team players begs the question:

1. ๐‘Šโ„Ž๐‘–๐‘™๐‘’ ๐‘Ž ๐‘‘๐‘Ÿ๐‘œ๐‘ ๐‘–๐‘› ๐‘ž๐‘ข๐‘Ž๐‘™๐‘–๐‘ก๐‘ฆ ๐‘–๐‘  ๐‘’๐‘ฅ๐‘๐‘’๐‘๐‘ก๐‘’๐‘‘, ๐‘–๐‘  ๐‘Ž ๐‘‘๐‘Ÿ๐‘œ๐‘ ๐‘–๐‘› ๐‘ ๐‘ก๐‘Ÿ๐‘ข๐‘๐‘ก๐‘ข๐‘Ÿ๐‘’ & ๐‘ก๐‘Ž๐‘๐‘ก๐‘–๐‘๐‘Ž๐‘™ ๐‘–๐‘›๐‘ก๐‘’๐‘›๐‘ก ๐‘ฃ๐‘Ž๐‘™๐‘–๐‘‘?

There are many teams that stick to their style of play & core philosophy regardless of players available or opposition faced. Brighton didn’t play many usual starters against us, but we all knew how they would play. It’s the same for City, Arsenal, Barcelona etc. Even Spurs.

But if the argument is that we cannot execute certain tactical elements with backups but we can with starters, then the answer to that question seems to be:

“๐‘‚๐‘ข๐‘Ÿ ๐‘ก๐‘Ž๐‘๐‘ก๐‘–๐‘๐‘Ž๐‘™ ๐‘–๐‘›๐‘ก๐‘’๐‘›๐‘ก ๐‘–๐‘  ๐‘ฃ๐‘’๐‘Ÿ๐‘ฆ ๐‘‘๐‘’๐‘๐‘’๐‘›๐‘‘๐‘’๐‘›๐‘ก ๐‘œ๐‘› ๐‘๐‘™๐‘Ž๐‘ฆ๐‘’๐‘Ÿ๐‘ .”

Eg. If the argument is that we can build up short & play through a press only if some players start, else we will have to go long, then this means that the build up is very reliant on the problem-solving ability of those players & not on coached patterns that everyone can execute.

It’s noticable. Licha & Shaw are great problem-solvers in build up who can carry/pass out of a press better than anyone else in the squad. When both don’t play, we struggle in 1st phase progression. This is also the main reason why ETH isn’t a fan of rotation & dropping his best players in general. Which in turn leads to other issues like injuries, tiredness and ignoring of backup-level players.

While it’s normal for teams to upgrade & get better players, relying on monster/unique player ability to solve tactical gaps instead of patterns of play isn’t a good sign. You’re always at the mercy of many external factors like injuries, form, opposition quality, gamestate etc. The lack of practice of the ideal plan means that even when most players are fit like vs Spurs (Mount, Licha, Varane, Antony, AWB, Shaw started), we often went long to bypass build up & rely on counter-press to create, while our high press was figured out within 20 mins & was played through easily all game.

Its’ hard to predict which Manchester United will turn up in a game. This extreme variation comes from dependency on players over patterns. A philosophy is something that can be executed consistently. It’s efficiency & success may vary based on factors, but the very nature of the tactical intent won’t fluctuate wildly. Which brings us to our next question.

2. ๐‘Šโ„Ž๐‘Ž๐‘ก ๐‘–๐‘  ๐‘‡๐‘’๐‘› ๐ป๐‘Ž๐‘”’๐‘  ๐‘โ„Ž๐‘–๐‘™๐‘œ๐‘ ๐‘œ๐‘โ„Ž๐‘ฆ?

What is that well-defined idea that we constantly see on the pitch game after game & envision a clear path to success (treble-aiming seasons) with?

My guess is that ETH’s philosophy is on the lines of:

‘๐ท๐‘œ ๐‘คโ„Ž๐‘Ž๐‘ก๐‘’๐‘ฃ๐‘’๐‘Ÿ ๐‘–๐‘ก ๐‘ก๐‘Ž๐‘˜๐‘’๐‘  ๐‘ก๐‘œ ๐‘ค๐‘–๐‘›’

His biggest strength is the flexibility & pragmatism to change things to suit the players he has & get the best out of any situation that the team is in. It’s a good trait to have in a manager. It is the main reason for the 22/23 season’s impressive results & served us well for year 1. But in the long-term, is it a boon or a bane?

ETH’s pragmatism seems to stem from reliance on certain players for certain game-breaking actions. He might ask his teams to pass through an opponent press if it contains a monster passer like Blind, dribble through it if it has a monster carrier like Frenkie De Jong or simply abandon build up & go long if it has neither. There are examples of each case in his career. He’s mentioned in multiple pressers that his players need to think for themselves & go long if the short option isn’t there instead of losing the ball in build up. We’ve seen 1 of the world’s best build up GKs in Onana playing long in the last few games including vs relegation-battling teams and lower league opposition.

ETH seems too content to take those hits. He’s not idealistic enough to feel hurt at not being able to play in a certain way, like a Pep/RDZ/Ange would. ETH’s ability to discard an approach based on player traits leads to constant sacrifice on how his team should ideally play. A philosophy isn’t built like that. The ideal state of having all players fit & happy in a perfect environment will never come. Not at a club like Man United anyway. The idea of management is to work through ever-changing dynamics & deliver sustainable & repeatable performances.

3. ๐‘†๐‘œ ๐‘คโ„Ž๐‘Ž๐‘ก’๐‘  ๐‘กโ„Ž๐‘’ ๐‘ ๐‘œ๐‘™๐‘ข๐‘ก๐‘–๐‘œ๐‘›?

There probably isn’t any solution as such. Such era-defining philosophies don’t crop up overnight (if at all). But we might have to start viewing Ten Hag’s United with a certain set of assumptions:

A) Manchester United’s gameplay & approach will fluctuate wildly based on available players, opposition, gamestate & other external factors. Big away games may always be a struggle & rely on a reactive approach rather than a proactive approach.

B) Manchester United’s gameplay will rely heavily on game-breakers. Build up masters, press monsters, carry mechants, 1v1 specialists – such profiles of high quality/ceiling become important to dominate games due to the lack of coached patterns. Recruitment importance goes up.

C) Manchester United may never be a league title challenger. Probably, my bigger concern compared to (A) and (B), such flexible state-based approaches work well for knockout competitions where you can adapt & thrive. It is a big reason why we went deep in cups in both years. It was highly enjoyable to see us defend compactly and shut down Man City to win the FA cup, but does anyone actually think that the final win gives us a template to play an entire league season in a similar manner versus all opposition? A dominant league side is built on the basis of a clear philosophy where a team’s various XIs can consistenly outplay all opponents across a year. Man City are a good example, Liverpool were under Klopp & Arsenal are currently close – consistent playstlyle & resistance to player rotation drop offs.

Final thoughts:

Combining A, B & C, I get the impression that if ETH does succeed at United, it will look something like Madrid under Ancelotti/Zidane – flexible tactical approaches based around high quality well-rounded players with more success in cups compared to the league. ETH’s pragmatism & lack of idealism could be his greatest weakness. He might win many games & even trophies but his wish of building a consistent treble-aiming dynasty will be tough until he doesn’t define an unshakable philosophy to stick to regardless of external factors.

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