Erik Ten Hag… Tactics

May 9th, 2022 | Football

Erik Ten Hag has been confirmed as Manchester United’s new manager. The Dutchman has signed a three-year deal, with the option of a further year. So, with the current Ajax boss taking over Old Trafford in a tough spot after the club’s worst Premier League season, what can we expect to see in terms of tactics, application and mentality?

I’ve watched a lot of Ajax in the Champions League this season and have a good idea of how they play. Formation wise it’s four at the back, three in midfield and three in attack. The formations itself does vary at times between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3, but it doesn’t really matter. In terms of when Ten Hag’s Ajax have possession, there’s a lot of fluidity and interchanging with the ball, which is something you’d expect from a Dutch side and a Dutch coach. His team are patient with the ball, and don’t look to force anything. Every pass is played with an idea behind it, there’s not a lot of “hit and hope”. Ten Hag commits plenty of players forwards and plays with a high-line, often leaving just the centre-backs and one midfielder back when his side and building an attack, however there are occasions when one of the three sitting back commit forwards as well. This is an attempt to suffocate opponents and overwhelm/overpower them in attack.

In terms of how they attack themselves, Ten Hag’s Ajax have plenty of variety. They get plenty of bodies in the box. They can get the ball wide and cross, keep the play narrow and cross. Or they can play an incisive pass through the lines. A lot of the time Ajax players show for the ball and come towards the ball, but there are times when they also make runs in behind to keep their opponents on their toes. They hold width, with other players operating more centrally. The fullbacks play a massive part in the way Ajax play. There is variation in their positioning based on where the wingers are at a given time. If the wingers are holding the width, then the full-backs tuck in and occupy central positions, reminiscent of what Manchester City do. But if the wingers take up more central positions, which is also seen in the Ajax games, then the full-backs take up wider positions. On occasions where the wide-players and full-backs are both quite narrow, then a midfielder will move into a wider position to maintain width in their build-up play.

If you compare the Ajax that got to the 2019 Champions League semi-finals to the team now the main difference is the striker. They played more of a false-nine in Tadic in 2019, whereas now the play with a “traditional” number nine in Sebastian Haller. Haller is slightly underrated for his contribution with the ball and can drop deeper like a false-nine, but for the most part he does his best work with his movement in and around the six-yard box, getting plenty of service and scoring lots of goals. Ajax create plenty of clear-cut chances, so if anyone had doubts about whether Ten Hag can work with a traditional no.9, this season has shown he can.

Defensively his team are brilliant. In 31 league games his side has only conceded 15 goals, scoring 90. In the Champions League this season Ajax won all six games in a tough group which contained Sporting CP, Borussia Dortmund and Besiktas. In that tough group they conceded five goals in six games, however at home they only conceded two goals and that was in their final dead rubber group game when they played Sporting, still winning the game 4-2. Ajax exited the tournament after losing to Benfica 3-2 on aggregate, drawing 2-2 in Portugal, before suffering defeat in Amsterdam. However, I believe Ajax were by far the better team in both games, with Benfica’s goals in Portugal being an own goal and a goalkeeping mistake. The goal in Amsterdam came from a set-piece, with goalkeeper Andre Onana getting caught in no-man’s land, and United-linked striker Darwin Nunez planted a header in the 77th minute. So I believe there were somewhat unlucky to exit the tournament.

Ajax defend with a togetherness. There is no ego. Every play clearly knows their job defensively and understands it’s part of the game. There is a press, but it’s applied in triggers. They press as a team. You won’t see a one-man headless chicken press with everyone else standing off. This structure defensively and understanding is something Manchester United severely lack and I can’t wait to see this, hopefully, integrated into the team over time.

So as a Manchester United fan, I am extremely excited about the new manager and look forward to seeing if he can be the one to change the Red Devils’ fortunes.


Please note: The football articles that feature on this site are being written by Jack Dixon as part of his work experience. He is a teenager and looking for work experience within the football industry. He is currently studying for his media and art A-levels.