Erik ten Hag has taken on a huge task at Manchester United. Few Premier League teams looked more poorly coached last season than United and Ten Hag is seeking to give them the playing identity they have so badly lacked for too long.
His first summer in charge has already presented plenty of challenges, from the absence for family reasons of Cristiano Ronaldo, who also wants to leave Old Trafford, to the frustrating wait for new signings. Still, Ten Hag has been wasting no time implementing his ideas and the training is stepping up on the club’s pre-season tour.
United play Liverpool at the Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok tonight in Ten Hag’s first game in charge and this reporter had the opportunity to watch their full, hour-long evening session, which provided a valuable insight into how the players are adapting to the Dutchman’s methods.
The middle of Ten Hag’s three main drills yesterday focused on working the ball from side to side and urging his players to pick the right moment to strike in an 8 v 5 set-up.
The standout moment came when, after another patient build-up, the ball was eventually shifted from left to right where Jadon Sancho, on the edge of the penalty area, clipped over a fine cross that Marcus Rashford thundered home with a towering header, a combination Ten Hag will be eager to hone.
One of the most instructive moments came when Fred attempted an overly ambitious vertical pass intended for Bruno Fernandes that was cut out by Zidane Iqbal and invited the counter-attack. The error culminated in Iqbal rounding Fred and scoring, a needlessly risky turnover for which the Brazilian’s team had to do press-ups as punishment. If anything highlighted Ten Hag’s reasoning for wanting Frenkie de Jong, a midfielder with precise, intelligent distribution, it was that.
‘AARON INSIDE, INSIDE’
From the build-up, Ten Hag asked his full-backs to tuck in either side of Fred before creating as much width as possible once the play progressed.
Whether Aaron Wan-Bissaka, for whom United are prepared to listen to offers, can adapt to Ten Hag’s exacting demands of his full-backs if he does stay remains to be seen but there were some difficult moments for him here.
The right-back had to be told to tuck in when the play switched to the opposite side with Ten Hag shouting, “Aaron inside, inside”, something that came easier to new signing Tyrell Malacia at left-back.
PLAYING OUT FROM BACK AND PRESSING
United have never looked comfortable playing out from the back, nor have they pressed with any sense of cohesion or purpose in the past. Both are critical elements to Ten Hag’s style of play and the final drill of the evening worked to both disciplines. Whenever the ball went out of play, another one was introduced and it was clear the players’ reaction times and urgency, let alone the speed and precision of their passing, require work.
The contrast with Liverpool, who performed a similar drill on the same pitch, later in the day was very instructive and offered an illustration of where United need to get.
With Christian Eriksen and De Jong still to sign, United’s midfield is likely to undergo quite the makeover in time but Ten Hag effectively set up in training with two No 8s – Fernandes and Donny van de Beek – ahead of Fred as the midfield anchor. Van de Beek once thrived under Ten Hag at Ajax but he looked laboured here, and certainly a far cry from what Eriksen will offer.
WORKING OUT OF TIGHT SPACES
When the squad was broken up into two groups after a bit of light work to begin with, the first drill was an 8 v 3 rondo in a very small boxed area where the non-bibbed team were awarded points for reaching a certain number of passes but there was also an onus on the bibbed trio to win the ball back quickly, retain possession and find the nets. Ten Hag wants his teams to be able to keep the ball in tight spots and manipulate space effectively, defensively and offensively, and this drill provided an intense workout that tested the players’ first touch, reaction times, quick thinking, movement and fitness.
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