Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Erik Ten Hag's end goal for Man United is 2021/22 Ajax

July 4, 2023 — I was becoming both confused and frustrated trying to figure out what Erik Ten Hag was doing in the January and summer transfer window. What was his end goal? Then it dawned on me; I need to backcheck his past team, the 2021/22 Ajax.

Statman Dave in this video highlights four things I took note of:

  • The Vertical Tiki Taka with a double pivot resembles what Manchester United used last season.
  • I could see Casemiro dropping into the backline, but they don’t have a full-back that can invert.
  • The emphasis on a target man in Sebastian Haller.
  • The Mezzala and number 10 pushing forward is something I’d expect to see next season.

He’s returning to what worked for him at Ajax, that landed him the Manchester United job.

Sébastian Haller is a target man. Erik Ten Hag signed Wout Weghorst, a target man, and is now linked with Rasmus Hojlund, who is more than just a target man but is a physical presence. That clears that up as to what profile he’s looking for.

What does that leave for new signing Mason Mount? Neither Mount nor Bruno Fernandes are first phase midfielders; they’re both more useful further forward.

He’s likely abandoning the double pivot they used last season for a single pivot. Casemiro being the pivot, with Mason Mount and Bruno Fernandes as the center midfielders further forward.

Figure 1.1 - Manchester United's players' names are listed below the 2021/22 Ajax players they would be replacing in the same roles.

If he’s switching to a single pivot, who fills the roles of Ryan Gravenberch or Steven Berghuis? That is the question.

I’m thinking it’s likely that he uses Mason Mount like he used Gravenberch and Bruno Fernandes like Steven Berghuis.

Gravenberch is similar to Mount in that he’s not a first phase midfielder but is comfortable floating off out wide on the wing. The Berghuis number 10 role suits Bruno Fernandes because he gets to sit further forward.

It fits.

I don’t know what this means for Fred and Christian Eriksen because they’re not like-for-like substitutions for Mount and Fernandes in this system.

  • Fred looks better when he plays on the left, but can’t play that free roaming role Mason Mount should play.
  • Christian Eriksen is better when played from deep.

Maybe they switch back to a double pivot if changes are made? They’ll have to remain flexible.

Figure 2.1 - Potential lineup and player movements when compared to Ajax's 2021/22 lineup.
  • Erik Ten Hag signed both Lisandro Martínez and Antony last season.
  • Casemiro is Casemiro, he’s brilliant. He can handle being a single pivot.
  • Luke Shaw is of a similar profile to Daley Blind but an upgrade in regard to his stockier build and better feet.
  • Raphaël Varane is a good enough option at right center-back, but they could improve there. United missed out on signing Jurriën Timber.
  • Marcus Rashford isn’t similar to Dusan Tadic, but he’s deadly, so that can be ignored.
  • Diogo Dalot makes similar searching runs up the field like Noussair Mazraoui liked to do.

The vision is becoming clearer and clearer. Manchester United needs to sign both a new starting goalkeeper and center-forward. Their current targets of Rasmus Højbjerg and André Onana would both be perfect.

The issues won’t be “can they build up in this shape” or “will they be able to create chances.” They’ll be able to create plenty of chances. The problems arise in defense when Mason Mount, Bruno Fernandes, and Diogo Dalot get further forward.

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