There is a pause, the three or so seconds allowing a technical staffer to offer his most accurate assessment of the manager’s debut pre-season in charge of Manchester United.
“There can be no doubt, this is Erik ten Hag’s club.”
The summation does not require elaboration for those who witnessed the Dutchman from close quarters during United’s tour of Thailand and Australia.
Ten Hag is in control, his influence stretching not solely to the large details at the club such as operational structure, but even the little ones like preventing the players from visiting and being filmed on the set of Australian soap Neighbours.
Nothing escapes the manager, from the squad’s media commitments to the exact spacing between cones during training drills which he tends to measure himself.
When something doesn’t feed into his “highest standards” ethos, there is no silence.
A case in point was the cut up AAMI Park pitch for a closed training session on a Monday morning following an Aussie Rules game.
The manager ran towards the touchline after setting up the opening drill to voice his displeasure of “conditions not for us, not for our football” to staff.
The flagging of mistakes has become a staple post-match and United’s only disappointing half of the tour – the “unacceptable” second 45 in their final outing against Aston Villa in Perth – earned a dressing down from the manager.
Ten Hag’s authority has been swiftly imposed and overwhelmingly embraced. “He explains really well what he wants so anyone not doing what he demands they know they will be punished,” Bruno Fernandes told Sky Sports News.
“When you talk about discipline, it’s about that. He’s very clear, so there’s no way you can escape from that. Even if you don’t understand English you can understand the way he wants to play, so I think that is really important for us.
“Discipline on the pitch comes from discipline off the pitch. Nobody can get away with anything with him.”
The Ten Hag law is a departure from what has been described as ‘Vibes FC’ under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the ‘total nothingness of the failed Ralf Rangnick experiment’.
Dialling further back, long-serving employees believe there has not been such a crystalline path, as well as emotional investment into it, since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
They are cautious about being so optimistic so soon, but given the context of the last decade as well as the circumstances that Ten Hag inherited, it is easy to understand why he has made such a positive impression.
Bar how well the players have adjusted to Ten Hag’s template and the effervescent feel around the team, the manager’s handling of the Cristiano Ronaldo conundrum has been internally applauded.
After an imposing opening week of pre-season training back at Carrington, the 52-year-old was greeted with the news – made public knowledge by the forward’s representative Jorge Mendes – that he wanted to depart the club.
The curveball was followed by Ronaldo’s no-show when the international players reported back to United for duty, although by all accounts the “family issue” cited as the reason behind that, is true.
If the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s presence is headline news, his absence can dominate the agenda, distract and destabilise to alarming effect.
Ten Hag has not allowed that to happen. His address to the squad was that the most important players are the ones who are in training and on tour. His on-record statements have not isolated Ronaldo, neither depreciating an asset nor closing the door on an amicable resolution between the megastar and the club.
There has been no circus, no unsettling of the dressing room, and no undercutting of what the manager has introduced over the past month.
If anything, while United have been showcasing progress and pro-active football to excite supporters, Ronaldo has been reduced to posting gym pictures on social media as many of Europe’s top clubs indicate they have no interest in him.
Mendes has a reputation for pulling off the unthinkable and another trick up the super agent’s sleeve seems like it would be a blessing for the Old Trafford side.
Ten Hag has proved no Ronaldo is no problem among his early big wins in the job.
Ten Hag era ushers in a wide-scale restructure of club
“I must say I have a strong belief in myself. This is a big challenge but everywhere I’ve been, I’ve got the maximum out of my teams. This is my most difficult project, but I am convinced I can do it.”
Analysis of United’s recent history has circled around a club rooted to its past, a slave to commercial expansion at the cost of a football identity, an absence of modern operational structures, shambolic recruitment, and a seriously under-coached squad.
The problems have been so severe and deep-rooted, it is way above the power of one individual to fix – that is without factoring in the parasitic Glazer ownership.
Ten Hag’s opening weeks in charge, even prior to pre-season kicking off, demonstrated a willpower to help remedy the club well beyond the pitch.
He realised the scale of work meant there was no time to waste, with a dossier drafted on the state of United and the way forward before his contract was signed.
Soon after it was inked, meetings were held with senior executives at the club’s Mayfair offices, together with assistants Mitchell van der Gaag and Steve McClaren.
This energy and enthusiasm for the immense challenge ahead was one of the decisive factors in hiring Ten Hag.
It cannot be debated he was cheaper to secure than the other main candidate Mauricio Pochettino, with Ajax providing the kind of obstacle-free negotiation process that is alien to Paris Saint-Germain.
Ten Hag represented a risk given his experience at the Eredivisie giants was conditioned by a steely set-up behind the scenes, the absence of a global glare and domestic competition nowhere near the level of that in the Premier League, while European campaigns were coloured by opportunity rather than enormous expectation.
However, his strength of character, surety in what he was capable of implementing at United, and heavy lean towards a discipline-first blueprint convinced chief executive Richard Arnold and director of football John Murtough he was the fresh start being sought.
Ten Hag’s conversations with the pair tackled the twin issues of haphazard recruitment and a football set-up that was not in sync with elite teams across Europe.
The clarity of and commitment to his ideals impressed them, aided by the timing being perfect to put it into practice.
The Ten Hag era has coincided with a wide-scale restructure of the club, with every department being shed of people that had been too safe in jobs with excessive power despite not being best in class.
This has offered the manager the opportunity to share the streamlined working practices of Ajax and Bayern Munich, where the hierarchy and decision-making process is clearly defined and driven by a ‘one club, one vision approach.’
Arnold, Murtough and Ten Hag are on the same page over how United should be run. It is apparent that the manager has selected transfer targets that he knows well and that merge with his philosophy.
He has been backed with financial support from the pair as well as trust in his vision, but longer term – as is the case with Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp – Ten Hag will need to defer to a solid recruitment group to find the right stylistic players.
It is the remit of Arnold and Murtough to now deliver such a brains’ trust, with business being dictated by analytics and a more holistic scouting methodology.
Ten Hag’s assessment of the squad was that it was grossly imbalanced, lacking technically astute thinkers, players were way off the conditioning needed to implement his high-tempo style, and there was a requirement for greater speed. He also noted that the majority of existing tools – take Fred and Anthony Martial for example – had been wasted by not being correctly used according to their strengths.
There were three chief ways he planned to cure the state of the group: intense training, a change in psychology and focused transfers.
‘The maximum is not an option’
“React, react, react.” Ten Hag can be heard belting out this instruction at almost every session as he seeks to improve how quickly the team responds to losing possession, but also to sharpen their decisions on the ball.
As detailed by Sky Sports News during his first week of pre-season, the manager’s drills have zoned in on helping the group transform into a unit comfortable dominating games, instead of operating in moments.
Every workout feeds into this, whether it is the eight defenders versus seven attackers or five-a-side matches in a quarter of the pitch.
Unlike his immediate predecessors, Ten Hag leads every element of training – even to the extent of rearranging cones. Van der Gaag and McClaren are also hands on, helped by Darren Fletcher and Eric Ramsay.
It is unsurprising for a man with a weighty development background to come alive on the pitches. Ten Hag’s fundamentals at Go Ahead Eagles, Bayern Munich II, Utrecht and Ajax all materialised from training rather than substantial investment.
United’s players have enjoyed the level of detail and direction they now have in sessions.
Ten Hag’s demands have been physically and mentally taxing, with punishments of press-ups when a goal has been conceded or the maximum amount of passes have been exceeded, but the rewards have been evident in match situations.
Raphael Varane and Marcus Rashford testified that they haven’t felt fitter following the intense sessions.
Donny van de Beek revealed how hard it is to break down the Ten Hag way on account of just how much it entails. “You can see it in the pressures, in our variations with building-up play, how we switch play, speed it up, keep the ball… It’s so much, it’s hard to explain.”
The goals United scored across their long-haul tour spoke to the above.
The movement, combination sequences and offensive aggression in the final third has been in contrast to a reliance on individual brilliance out of nothing.
The structures in possession and out of it have demonstrably infused the team with confidence.
Man Utd players responding to Ten Hag’s methods
“The responsibility is yours. You can reach the highest level if you work for it.”
How do you undo what David de Gea termed a “disaster” and “embarrassing mess” with United recording their worst-ever points tally in the Premier League as the entire club were drenched in misery?
Ten Hag’s method has been multi-approach. First, he spelt out his philosophy and expectations to the squad. He explained that he would give them all the tools to succeed: intensive coaching, a solid tactical structure and a culture of successful habits, but the responsibility is on them to subscribe to it.
His rules both on and off the pitch are only a framework and it requires the application from the players.
The group have responded well to this, and the senior members of the squad in particular, have taken it upon themselves to enforce an elevation of standards.
Despite being strict, Ten Hag has engaged players over how they feel about the progressive style he is instilling, which areas they need work in and he also has an open-door policy for any off-field issues.
His warmth has extended to staff. On the flight out from Manchester to Bangkok, Ten Hag walked through the plane asking employees about their role at the club and their background.
He has understood how gruelling a long tour can be on a personal level and constantly offered his gratitude to staff.
Fernandes told Sky Sports News the manager is “very easy to talk to” and the squad have noticed that he is not playing favourites and selection comes on merit from executing his demands.
Van de Beek, who was a core part of Ten Hag’s Ajax midfield, is not guaranteed any minutes under him. New signing Tyrell Malacia, recruited by the Dutchman’s order, has not managed to displace Luke Shaw at left-back yet.
Harry Maguire, much maligned last season, has retained the captaincy and has been switched to the right in the heart of defence with left-footed Lisandro Martinez primed to offer balance on the other side.
Centre-back is an interesting area with Varane, Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly all supplying performances to give Ten Hag plenty to think of but it is a department that has to be trimmed.
Having non-negotiable principles that have been communicated effectively has also given players credence in the plan and their own abilities.
Anthony Martial has swung from having an uncertain future to being a strong focal point for the attack. His off-the-ball work has particularly impressed the coaching staff.
The cohesion between him, Rashford and Jadon Sancho was one of the standout points on tour, with each player looking like the most conditioned, assured, threatening version of themselves. They are enjoying their football again.
“He just wants us to be positive,” Rashford said. “He wants us to do everything in a positive manner, so for us it means a lot of forward runs, a lot of interchanging positions, trying to link with each other on the ball.
“It’s fun to play in, we’re enjoying it, so hopefully we can kick on and offer these type of performances come the season.”
Ten Hag insisting that United still need to strengthen in attack can be read more as a comment to the uncertainty around Ronaldo and the compact nature of a hectic season ahead rather than how his offence has performed.
Fred, meanwhile, has done a fine job of being the “connector.” Ten Hag has appreciated his interceptions and link with the forwards.
It has been a good pre-season for several players that desperately needed it.
United maintain patience over De Jong pursuit
Ten Hag has acknowledged the one department that hasn’t been ideal since his appointment has been having all his priority targets boxed off before flying out for pre-season tour. In Tyrell Malacia, Christian Eriksen and Martinez, the manager has signalled the profile shift he is after: technically astute and tactically intelligent players that can help United become a team dominant in possession.
Malacia functions as an extra midfielder of sorts when the side has the ball, while his speed and reading of the game is an asset in transition.
Eriksen is the safe, composed brains in the centre of the park to complement the maverick talents of Fernandes.
Martinez is a ball-playing centre-back with aerial prowess and an aggression defence has been deficient in. His versatility can be a weapon, but Ten Hag is most enthused by having balance on both flanks to open up greater passing lanes.
The long, winding pursuit of Frenkie de Jong has been frustrating with the financial gymnastics that accompanies Barcelona. Ten Hag has stated “there are not many options in that holding midfield position capable of the level we demand. If we can’t find him, we have to deal with the players in our squad now and we will develop one in that position.
“We need the right player. We have a list of players who have the attributes to play that role. We will strike the moment the player is available.”
United maintain they will be as patient as possible with the De Jong situation but are ready to pivot to another target if necessary.
Can another window really be bypassed without addressing the crucial position in the squad?
Ten Hag’s top forward pick is Ajax’s Antony but his £68m valuation is prohibitive and the club’s new manager, Alfred Schreuder insists no exit will be sanctioned.
The new Ajax boss said: “We have sold a certain amount of players and I am expecting nobody else to leave. It would be bad for us if we would lose another starter.”
Outgoings, aside from those with expired contracts, have been slow too. United need to cut, especially in defence, and are aware their sales must drastically be bettered over time to reach Chelsea and Liverpool’s level, with Manchester City also gaining great ground in this regard.
What happens next with Ronaldo is anyone’s guess, but the club’s long-term strategy shouldn’t be factoring him in anyway.
If the 37-year-old stays, how Ten Hag integrates him will be fascinating, as will watching whether his authority shifts amid the forward’s whims.
The most daunting challenges still lie ahead for the manager. United’s positive pre-season does not equate to guaranteed success in the campaign ahead, nor point to a reduction in the gap to City and Liverpool.
It does, however, indicate the club will have a definitive on-pitch identity – one supporters can look forward to.
Ten Hag can only be judged on what he has put in place thus far and a clear style supported by solid tactical structures and discipline is a strong start.
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