Erik ten Hag was named as Manchester United’s new manager in April, with the Dutchman officially taking charge at the end of the season.
The 52-year-old is regarded as one of the most progressive coaches in Europe, after guiding Ajax to five trophies in the past four seasons whilst playing an attractive, attacking brand of football.
Ten Hag, meanwhile, has appointed his own staff with Mitchell van der Gaag and Steve McClaren named as his assistants.
United fans will now be hoping ten Hag can bring success to Old Trafford, but what does his appointment mean for Fantasy Premier League (FPL) managers, and can he reinvigorate Bruno Fernandes and co as FPL assets?
In this, our latest Scout Report, we’ll take a closer look.
Ten Hag’s decent but modest playing career came to an end in 2002, having spent his whole career in the Netherlands playing as a centre-half for FC Twente, De Graafschap, RKC Waalwijk and FC Utrecht.
After hanging up his boots, he went straight into coaching, working his way through the youth systems before becoming Steve McClaren’s assistant at Twente. The Dutchman only worked with the former England manager for one season, when they finished as runners-up, but clearly left a lasting impression.
“We were starting pre-season training the day after I was appointed. He brought out this folder, and there were six weeks’ worth of pre-season training planned in there. Every minute of every day was laid out, from drinks sessions to warming down, to individual work. It was so detailed. I’d not seen anything like it before, and I’ve not seen anything like it since.
He would prepare meticulous game plans about the opposition. How we were going to press, how we were going to build up. I thought I knew football before, but going there and experiencing that… I knew nothing about football. He could see things in the game that nobody else could see, myself included. I have to sit up in the stands to see the patterns of a game, but he could stand on the touchline (and see them).
He always knew the answer to everything, how to change shape, change positions. His adjustments in the games — obviously I had worked with Sir Alex (Ferguson), and I used to think that some of his subs and changes were strange, but they always worked. Erik is the same in that respect.” – Steve McClaren
His first managerial job followed at Dutch second-tier outfit Go Ahead Eagles in 2012, where he guided the club to its first promotion in 17 years, before taking charge of Bayern Munich II, the German giants’ reserve team. There, he would learn from Pep Guardiola, who had just taken over the first team.
“During my time at Bayern Munich, among other things, I saw how things work (at a big club). Every detail can be picked out for analysis. The media, people in general, always find something if you look for it. A hundred things can go right, if one thing goes wrong, people highlight it. That’s the football world.” – Erik ten Hag
After two years in Bavaria, he returned to the Netherlands in 2015 as Utrecht manager, taking them to fifth spot in his first season and then fourth position in the second, leading to Europa League qualification.
His success at Utrecht saw him become Ajax manager in December 2017 following the dismissal of Marcel Keizer, a decision that was spectacularly validated in the year that followed, as he guided the Dutch giants to the Champions League semi-final in 2018/19. His troops beat defending champions Real Madrid at the last-16 stage and ousted Juventus in the quarter-finals before falling to Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur in the last four. During his time at Ajax, ten Hag also led the Amsterdam club to three Dutch titles and two Dutch cups.
ERIK TEN HAG – MANAGERIAL RECORD IN EREDIVISIE
*2019/20 Eredivisie season abandoned due to Covid
Ten Hag is a perfectionist, who will not be afraid to confront underperforming players if his high standards aren’t met.
“I will not change my view on coaching. The material always determines how you play, but I set the requirements that come with it and the standards. I tell who has what task and those who don’t meet it, will be told that, regardless of who it is. I make no concessions in that regard.” – Erik ten Hag
However, in an attempt to protect his players, such conversations will happen behind closed doors.
“I definitely protect people outwardly. Internally, it can be different if someone has crossed a line. Ultimately, it is top sport. You have to be able to trust each other, otherwise you can’t get results. If my protective attitude comes at the expense of myself, so be it. I am the manager, the leader, I do that in the interest of getting results.” – Erik ten Hag
He also believes he is ready for the intense media scrutiny at Old Trafford.
“You don’t have to read everything. And you know that in my profession you get criticised. You have to deal with that. Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong.” – Erik ten Hag
You get the feeling that his handling of the press will be key, too, something Athletic journalist Carl Anka touched on recently.
“Ten Hag has been known to dismiss questions he feels are irrelevant during interviews and press conferences. That has gone down well(ish) in straight-talking Dutch media and football circles, but he may find it odd how often he is asked about United’s glorious past and how quickly he expects to restore the club to their “rightful” place. His answers on questions like these will be important. Especially if he’s asked them just before an international break.” – Carl Anka, The Athletic
“Attack is the best defence and it’s difficult to score against us as, first of all, we attack with 11 and defend with 11. All the players in our way of playing have a job, and have to do that job with 100% discipline. Achieve that, and it’s difficult to score against your team.” – Erik ten Hag
Under ten Hag, Ajax played attacking and aggressive football, dominating possession with lots of pressing.
The Dutch tactician typically employed a 4-2-3-1 formation, which will obviously be familiar to United’s current squad, given it’s the same system used by former boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and at times, interim manager Ralf Rangnick.
However, he also used a more possession-orientated 4-3-3, a system more typically associated with Dutch football.
In both set-ups, Ajax would build with a back three, either via two centre-halves and one full-back (the other would push into midfield), or a defensive midfielder dropping in. The two central midfielders were expected to get through an almighty amount of work, with their roles as much about playmaking as it was going box-to-box. The wingers were aggressive and expected to win the ball back immediately after losing it, while centre-forward Sebastien Haller came alive in ten Hag’s system, regularly dropping deep to help build up the play and filling the role of target man when Ajax wanted to go long.
Having keenly watched Guardiola at work in Munich, there are many similarities in the way ten Hag’s sides play.
“I learned a lot from Guardiola. His philosophy is sensational, what he did in Barcelona, Bayern and now with Manchester City, that attacking and attractive style sees him win a lot. I want to have possession and hurt the opponent.
It’s about possession, about movement, about vertical attacking patterns, about pressing, wingers moving into the middle to make room for the full-backs. Everyone is attacking, everyone is defending. It’s this structure that I’ve tried to implement with Ajax.” – Erik ten Hag
United finished 2021/22 with their worst points tally in Premier League history, ending the campaign in sixth spot.
As a result, expectations should be realistic under ten Hag: remember, even Pep himself finished third in his first season at Manchester City.
“I said this is the project, to bring Man United back on top, but also we have to accept the current situation we are in. First of all, Man United belong in the Champions League, so that will be the first target.” – Erik ten Hag
However, there’s also existing talent at the club that shouldn’t be completely written off by FPL managers. If ten Hag can revive some of their careers, we could perhaps see one or two value options emerge, especially as we’re expecting plenty of price drops.
“That we have to accept the current situation but also that they have a good potential. A year before this team was second in the league, so the potential is there. Learn the lessons from this season, we have to analyse clearly what went wrong. But from then on work hard, get a team and fight the opponents.” – Erik ten Hag when asked what his message to the squad will be after a difficult campaign last year
Ten Hag likes his wingers to stay high and wide, so we could see significant improvement from Jadon Sancho, who was up there with the best players in the Bundesliga in 2020/21. At Ajax, right-winger Antony certainly wasn’t afraid to cut inside and take shots, registering 4.1 goal attempts per 90 minutes, netting 12 and assisting a further 10 in all competitions.
Then there’s Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo. The latter had an impressive individual season in 2021/22, scoring 18 goals in 30 Premier League appearances despite the collective decline of the team. Under ten Hag, he should receive the ball much closer to goal, although United will surely sign another forward, not necessarily to replace Ronaldo, but he is 38 years old in February.
If United can fix their midfield, their defenders stand to benefit and Luke Shaw could perhaps thrive, providing he can rekindle his Euro 2020 form. However, it’s not the worst idea to stay clear of United’s backline for the time being, at least initially, given that it may take months to coach an effective counter-press. For example, Guardiola in his debut season at City managed only 12 clean sheets, and just one in their opening nine Premier League outings.
We can, of course, look to pre-season for clues as to how United will perform, but it won’t be until Gameweek 1 and beyond that we can really assess ten Hag’s impact. Chances are, then, the majority will be comfortable with little investment to begin with, although an appealing opening schedule may change things and boost the appeal of an attacking punt.
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