Manchester United’s next manager: Erik ten Hag or Mauricio Pochettino?

It seems all but certain that the current interim Ralf Rangnick will not be lasting any longer than the summer in the role he so much desired when he came in. And the expectation is still that the German will move upstairs and begin his two-year external consultancy role within the board. 

Many reliable reports have claimed that interviews with potential managers have began.

There have been many names banded around the domain of Twitter and from various drops of information from credible journalists but the same two names seem to be on the lips of every football fan when talking about Manchester United’s managerial situation. The two frontrunners are undoubtedly Mauricio Pochettino and Erik ten Hag

In this piece, we’re going to look into the suitability, tactical style, and general background of the contenders for the big job at Old Trafford. 

Erik ten Hag

Arguably the most sought-after young coach in Europe and it’s clear to see why he is a lot of the United fan base popular choice take charge in the summer. Since taking over the reins of Ajax, Ten Hag has done an exceptional job and created an incredibly talented side in the Dutch Eredivisie – dominating the domestic league and creating historic moments in the Champions League. 

Erik ten Hag managerial talents came to prominence after leading Ajax to the semi finals of the 2018/19 Champions League for the first time since 1997. The Dutchman was, but he successfully led them to a semi-final beating the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus on the way, they dominated but ultimately lost to eventual runners-up Tottenham Hotspur. 

It wasn’t just the run that excited, however. It was also how a youthful, dynamic Ajax team built in the vision of its renowned ancestors went about it. Ten Hag created his side around a core of young Dutch talent including Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, and Donny van de Beek as well as under the radar players such as Nicolás Tagliafico and former Red Devil Daley Blind and completed it with the attacking skill of Dusan Tadic, David Neres and Hakim Ziyech. That team played a 4-2-3-1 formation in the classic Ajax total football style but it was very much gradually turned into a 4-3-3 – formation out of possession too. The fluidity of their play couldn’t be limited to a formation so much interchangeability and rotation in all three thirds just showed how intelligent they were. 

As stated before, Erik ten Hag is a disciple of Johan Cruyff’s total football ideology just like his former tutor Pep Guardiola who ten Hag worked under at Bayern Munich. Ten Hag was put in charge of the reserves in 2013. Though they operated independently of each other, they worked together at Bayern for two years.

Ten Hag, has made no secret of his admiration for Guardiola. When asked about their time together ahead of Ajax’s win against Real Madrid in the last 16, Ten Hag said: “Guardiola’s philosophy is sensational and he has demonstrated this at Barcelona, Bayern and City. His structured attacking play is very attractive and I aim to implement this at Ajax.”

Apart from formation, the most significant aspect of Erik ten Hag’s sides are the off the ball runs that his players make. An issue many United sides over the years have struggled to coherently produce.

Like most teams nowadays, Ajax and Ten Hag promote the idea of building up calmly from the back with both centre-backs and a pivot creating a triangle, and engaging in a combination of rotation between them as well as alternating positionally to build play and help break the first press. This back three encourage the opponent to push forward and engage, leaving spaces in more attacking areas for them to play into. Something United have tried to implement, especially under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, but would occasionally get caught in possession due to the lack of quality from the players to play out of the pressure.

Also a defensive change that we’ve seen in Ajax this season has been their aggressiveness in defending and the higher line approach Ten Hag has implemented with Lisandro Martinez and Jurrien Timber having the athleticism and confidence to execute their roles in this high-line – this helps in their extraordinary counter-pressing

Another characteristic of Ten Hag attacking play is his admiration for wingers and the importance placed on them by him. Ten Hag’s wingers are usually caught clutching the touchline – uses wide players on either side that can hurt the opposition. This season, the skilful dynamic Antony and Dusan Tadic have been zigzagging past defences in a wide and high fashion but that didn’t mean they were fixed in their positions and the addition of Steven Berghuis from bitter rivals Feyenoord has only step up the creativity between them – . If one inverts, the full-backs will go on the overlap and are often on the underlap. This is something we see in technically proficient Noussair Mazraoui on the right and the ever-present Daley Blind on the left.

Erik ten Hag is regarded as one of the most tactically skilled coaches in Europe, let alone he’s one of the youngest. He knows what it takes to develop a club in the modern game and similarly to the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, he can rebuild teams within years. United have struggled in consistently maintaining an ideology of football for one reason or another since the post-Fergie era but by getting ten Hag he comes with the guarantee that it’s his way or the high way.

Another issue with the current United setup is the lack of clarity within the leadership structure and that’s something ten Hag believes heavily in and believes in having a leadership group he can rely on.

A major positive if United did hire the 52-year-old there would be a real belief that he would bring some of his Ajax boys with him to alleviate that transition of football. Players like Noussair Mazraoui, Lisandro Martínez and Antony would be welcomed to United in open arms and would show a change in recruitment from buying overpriced, over-the-hill players to young, high-potential players who have a real desire to improve at a club like Manchester United.

Ten Hag will have his suitors in the summer, there’s no doubt in that. But if United wants him they can get him and the attraction of managing one of the biggest clubs in world football with big ambitions will still carry weight. 

He wouldn’t be a quick fix and the time will need to be given for him to implement his ideas and for him to complete maximize his full potential as a coach there would need to be reshaped on and off the pitch. 

Mauricio Pochettino

He seems to be the man in the running every time the job at Old Trafford becomes available, Mauricio Pochettino and Manchester United have history that goes way back.

He was in the running to take over the Manchester United job after Jose Mourinho’s exit in 2018. A similar situation happened 2 years later when Ole Gunnar Solskjær was on the brink of the sack after a troubling string of results but the club backed the Norwegian and Pochettino was announced as the new PSG manager two months later following the sacking of Thomas Tuchel. Of course, the famous lunch with Sir Alex Ferguson, where the two had a meeting in 2016 even back then the rumours were spiralling.

For a manager who is so respected within the footballing world, his divisiveness resonates around footballing fanbases. 

To many, he’s a man who will be recognised for bringing back belief to Tottenham Hotspur, despite his trophy cabinet. Consistently punching above their weight considering the minimal financial backing compared to the big financial powerhouse, real title contenders in the Premier league coming close to winning it on two separate occasions and topping it off by taking the club to their first-ever Champions League final. 

To others, he’s seen as football’s ultimate failure (probably, definitely a hyperbole) failing to win silverware in the golden era of the club and seen as the man who could only take you so far but yet fail.

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