It has been widely reported this evening that that expectation is that Erik ten Hag will take the Manchester United managerial position once the season concludes. This article will aim to analyse Ten Hag’s principles of play to date, and how these will fare in line with United’s squad and expectations. Specifically, this article focuses on: Ten Hag’s principles of play at Ajax, the strengths and complexities of his system, and suitability for the Premier League and United’s squad.
Erik ten Hag has typically lined his Ajax side up with a 4-3-3 nominal formation. This is quite straightforward; there’s nothing too notable to discuss yet, and that’s ok. Both Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola use a nominal 4-3-3 too – it’s the most conventional four at-the-back nominal set-up in possession.
Ten Hag’s in-possession principles:
The principles most widely associated with his team are width, verticality (for example counter-movements), decoy runs and manipulation of opposition presses/blocks. From goal-kicks, Ten Hag’s Ajax build from a deep position with the keeper plus two centrebacks. This offers a conventional build-up structure – a solid foundation to work with. The centrebacks are typically comfortable with the ball and can regularly make simple progressive passes.
Utilising the ‘‘ring of security’’ – the centrebacks + goalkeeper, and one/both fullbacks dropping in, Ajax can regularly establish dominance in build-up against an opposition block; particularly if the opposition uses a front one or two – both of which are very common.
Ajax often drop one of the fullbacks (Daley Blind or Noussair Mazraoui) into a deeper + more narrow position to aid the ring of security. This is conducive of either fullback becoming a deep playmaker as they have time + space to find the vertical options on their side of the pitch.
This is very much akin to how Pep uses his fullbacks in the 4-2-4 structure (deep + wide can make them more accessible vs a front two).
Ajax also frequently stagger their deep midfielders too, pushing one higher, to create a single pivot. The single pivot acts as an anchor, holding the opponent’s front line to a narrower berth, again similar to how Pep uses Rodri.
The foundations of ten Hag’s build-up are solid, and really quite conventional. But where the value lies, is not only how Ajax are able to progress the ball and begin to create, but how they can utilise coached movements and problem solving to adapt vs various opposition shapes.
In terms of progression, the keys, once in settled possession, are: 1) opening the passing lanes 2) having time + space to make the pass 3) allowing the receiver to consistently receive in an optimal manner.
When Ajax create the ring of security, the fullbacks tend to drop into a narrower position. To oppose this, the wingers move wider to open a diagonal lane. This is beneficial for numerous reasons:
1) The wingers (who are typically inverted) can receive in a consistent manner, back to touchline/pressure, which is conducive of cutting inside/making their go-to dribbles/actions. Antony & Mazraoui share a strong relationship, with the RB knowing when to leave the winger 1v1.
2) The opposition block is stretched laterally, and from here Ajax can begin to distort and pick holes. Chance creation doesn’t just occur in the final third: distorting the block in early phases can generate chances downstream.
When posed problems in possession, Ajax begin to display their more complex principles. Their match against Dortmund is a good case study of this.
When pressed from goal-kicks, Ajax utilised vertical decoy runs from their centrebacks to open passing lanes directly from the keeper. Ajax could play out – or at least play to areas of lower risk despite sticking to their principles.
The degree of tactical complexity that the centrebacks must be aware of is rare – centrebacks do not usually move ahead of play in this regard, as they’re typically the most important constituents of rest defence. rest defence = predictive defending in possession.
Even from a throw in, we can see how aggressive Lisandro Martínez is at occupying vacated space, making himself an option. This occurred despite causing him and Jurrien Timber (the centre-back pair) to stagger to quite a severe degree. It appears high risk.
Furthermore, in settled build-up, Martinez was often found vacating his post in centreback entirely. It may be a stretch to call him a centreback in this regard, because of how much conviction he’d stagger the lines with.
Alvarez, one of the deep midfielders actually dis-marked to receive deep in this scenario. Martinez is still seen staggering the lines. This is a vertical rotation as such: the centreback advancing and the central midfielder dropping in. Blind (out of shot) has dropped narrow to aid rest defence.
These vertical counter-movements are typically seen further up the pitch, when looking to progress (and sometimes force) play. Seeing it executed with such regularity in deep positions in build-up is unconventional.
This now begs the question: if Ajax are so expansive, surely their rest defence will be exposed? Surely, they’re understaffed in defensive transition, given the number of players moving ahead of the ball? This could be an issue.
Moving to the Premier League, Ten Hag may need to re-evaluate just how expansive his team is in build-up. Having a centreback move past the first line of pressure, without the ball, is risky.
Conversely, with the left back dropping in and the security + clarity in possession, the risks are mitigated – to an extent. Compared to teams who have little tactical clarity and routinely lose the ball in their own half, Ten Hag’s strategy seems less risky.
ten Hag’s build-up principles are an improvement over United’s current + previous ‘‘principles’’ at the very least. At best, they could revolutionise how teams build up in the Premier League. Most likely reality will fall in the middle of that spectrum.
Progressing up the pitch, Ajax stick to similar principles. They establish lateral superiorities, using maximum width, to stretch the opposition block, before utilising vertical movements and decoy runs to tear holes in these defensive blocks.
Ryan Gravenberch, the more advanced of the deep midfielders, and Steven Berghuis, the advanced midfielder, often vacate space and move up the pitch. Conversely, Sebastian Haller is seen dropping to combine. Ajax then utilise wall passes, and them, aim to find third man runners.
There is an element of pragmatism to Ajax’s play; particularly going forwards. They aren’t rigidly set in a system that doesn’t utilise the players’ strengths – rather, they combine the principles with maximising their players’ skillsets.
Ajax often play so Antony can receive 1v1 in a deep + wide position. His distribution from here is excellent – particularly his inswinging crosses. He also enjoys being in a 1v1 scenario regardless of whether Mazraoui is overlapping or standing off.
In the case study match against Boroussia Dortmund, Antony notched three assists. This game isn’t perfectly representative (a sample size of one game never is), and while Dortmund were down to ten men, we can see the angles Antony likes to create from, on the right.
The overarching point regarding chance creation, is that the distortion through movement and width facilitates the individual quality, which ultimately adds another layer to the level of attacking threat ten Hag’s Ajax produce.
In terms of defensive transitions, Ajax generally perform reasonably, despite a system which makes having a consistent rest defence rather tedious. They often pack areas near the ball, thus, upon losing possession they are able to nip transitions in the bud with a counter-press.
This point feeds into a weakness that @lambertsmarc has suggested: Ajax’s reliance on fullbacks. Blind and Mazraoui are not only vital to build-up, progression, and (decoy) overlaps/underlaps in the final third, but are also integral to the rest defence.
To conclude this thread, it is important to discuss how ten Hag can play with United’s squad. To do this, profiling the players Ten Hag will use is one way forward. Here is a very tentative depiction of the players who fit the system perfectly:
Disclaimer: this isn’t to say Marcus Rashford or Amad can’t be the left winger, or that Diogo Dalot can’t be the right back, or Ronaldo the striker. These are just the players whose profiles are a very good fit at this exact moment, in the exact structure Ten Hag is currently using.
To summarise: Ten Hag’s Ajax have displayed some very impressive principles of play. That doesn’t necessarily mean United will play like Ajax, it doesn’t mean that United will certainly play a 4-3-3. These principles of play as transferable, and if Ten Hag moves to United, we can expect a strong brand of possession-based football, where the players have a high level of clarity in terms of their role and how to break down the opponent, systematically, as a team.