Man United 2022/23: Erik ten Hag’s to-do list before the Premier League kicks off – data analysis
Having joined Man United on the 1st of July, Erik Ten Hag has been focusing on getting his squad ready for next season. There’s a lot of preparation that needs to be done before the Premier League begins for every manager, let alone when it is with an entirely new squad. As ten Hag will have done before arriving, it is important to set out the jobs that need to be completed to bring life back to an underperforming post-Ralf Rangnick team, especially one with such a rich history of Champions Leagues and domestic trophies. There is a big rebuild on the Dutch manager’s hands and it is going to take a lot of work if he is to get it started in the summer transfer window.
This piece will be a data analysis using statistics and data to outline Erik Ten Hag’s to-do list, comparing his Ajax squad to the current players at Man United, highlighting the holes in the roster and places for recruitment.
Cleaning the squad
The first of Ten Hag’s jobs has been to weed out all the players in the squad that he doesn’t want or need. Man United have so many big-name players, not all of which have been living up to their massive price tags. Having come in for the entire duration of the summer transfer window the Dutch manager has had a great chance to thin out the squad, leaving his optimal team.
So far there have been six players sold, with Dean Henderson on loan at newly-promoted side Nottingham Forest, taking the current number of departures to seven. Already from the players ten Hag has sold, it is obvious this is going to be a total rebuild on his hands, with all signs pointing towards future success, much like the Ajax philosophy when it comes to squad building.
Dean Henderson – Nottingham Forest, loan
Paul Pogba – released
Juan Mata – released
Jesse Lingard – released
Nemanja Matic – Roma, free
Edinson Cavani – released
Lee Grant – retired
There are two common trends among all the players released/sold by Man United which are the number of games each of the players has played and the age of the players’. For the number of matches, each player has played, this may be due to them not being in Rangnick’s plans or because they are not performing at the standard required for such a club. Both of these will lead players to want to move to a different club, which if they remained in the environment, can create a negative atmosphere, as we may see with Ronaldo and previously with Dimitri Payet at West Ham.
The age of the players must have also been a huge factor in United’s releasing of players, especially when the squads’ ages are compared to the peak age of players.
As highlighted above, ten Hag is hugely reducing the age of the squad as the Dutch mastermind targets major competitions in the medium to long term. This is a risky plan in such a volatile business, as previous clubs have not given managers the time to see out their plans if results do not show progression. The ex-Bayern Munich II coach does have plenty of experience in this type of managerial style as squad building is a major part of the Ajax organisation. The United board to have faith in the process if they want to see the results they expect.
At Ajax, ten Hag orchestrated a Champions League semi-final run using a group of academy prospects mixed with experienced leaders on the pitch. Most likely, this is what he is going to recreate without the Ajax academy supplying the players and, instead, buying the promising or already future stars in the transfer window. For this, Ten Hag will likely dip into the Ajax team and academy with this being a hunting ground he knows superbly and is world-recognized as one of the best teams for young star players. For every rebuild, the transfer market can make or break a season particularly when a new manager is trying to implement their playstyle.
Ten Hag’s playstyle
Ten Hag is flexible in the players he uses but tactically he has deployed a distinct, Ajax-Esque, playstyle wherever he coaches. For the formation, the Dutchman favours a defensive 4-3-3 with a single-pivot screening the back four. This is typical of the top managers who favour a possession-based style, as seen by Pep Guardiola, Thomas Tuchel and Jurgen Klopp in the Premier League.
Within the system, the players must be right for optimum performance in every position. Seeing what ten Hag has at his disposal already will indicate where he may need to spend his money and where he is already strong in squad depth. To do this a comparison between the Ajax and Manchester United squad in each position, players with 15 appearances or over, will highlight the types of players the Dutchman has now and has previously used.
Obviously comparing the best team in Eredivisie’s stats with the sixth-place team in the Premier League has some drawbacks, with opposition quality and the different opposition tactics but it will be a good representation of how these Man United players compare to his Ajax team.
A crucial component of a possession team comes in the central defenders’ abilities to frequently have the ball and to possess the quality to be comfortable in the first phase of the attack. This is a department Man United are already strong with Varane, who was brought in by Rangnick, having lots of pace and a high passing ability that Ten Hag will need, alongside the Frenchman’s aerial ability and strength suited for the Premier League.
To go alongside the ex-Real Madrid centre-back are the options of Lindelöf and Maguire, both of which are also comfortable with the ball at their feet. Lindelöf is lacking in his defensive duels win percentage with only 55%, which may see ten Hag favour Maguire. But with just these two defenders to play next to Varane, this is likely to be a position ten Hag will look to improve in the market as he has already seen in his attempts to sign Jurrien Timber from his previous club.
The contrast between the two leagues may come in the aerial ability required as Ajax were weaker in their aerial duels won percentage, and maybe something ten Hag will look to change if he is to bring in a new centre-back.
The fullbacks can vary for ten Hag with him not worried about the wide men lacking pace in this area but instead looking for a technical and intelligent player. Daley Blind, Tagliafico, Mazraoui and Timber were the starters for Ajax in defence and at fullback last season and were able to excel in the system.
Highlighted in red, the Ajax players are top in most of the attacking statistics. Mazraoui is a player who will get at the opponent, carrying the ball and then putting in crosses for the forwards. Blind and Timber possess less pace than Mazraoui but were able to become the link between defence and attack through their passing ability and reading of the game.
The Man United players do not have the numbers to match Ajax but the type of statistics they are high in will show their playstyle. Dalot, a player who found his feet under Rangnick, could be the best suited to the ten Hag’s style of football with his high attacking output through dribbles and crosses second between the two teams. Shaw and Telles are all-around fullbacks that could be developed to fit into the system, the Dutch manager prefers players to be strong both defensively and in the attack, which could favour the English international over Telles.
It is unlikely that ten Hag will try to improve this position first with the plethora of options he has already and the different types of fullbacks he can choose from.
Defensive midfielders are a staple of all top sides in Europe and can enhance the whole system of the team. When comparing Edson Álvarez and Kenneth Taylor from Ajax to the current Man United squad, ten Hag has lots of options that are similar to what suits his system.
Scott McTominay and Fred have the defensive stats that mirror the Ajax players which will be important to support the creativity and freedom the attacking midfielders are granted when playing under ten Hag. Donny van de Beek has already played under ten Hag in his Champions League-defining team despite his struggles since joining Man United to get to grips with the league. It will be interesting if ten Hag chooses to go for the Ajax academy graduate, with him already having a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities within the system.
With multiple options for the 52-year-old manager to choose from in central defensive midfield, investing in a new central defensive midfielder is unlikely. It would be worthwhile keeping the funding for a later date or other positions within the team.
Since his arrival, Bruno Fernandes has been a key player in the Man United squad, even despite his struggles with Ronaldo in the team. The Portuguese international has shown he has the technical ability and intelligence to be one of the best midfielders in the Premier League and is unlikely not to be part of ten Hag’s plans.
The ex-Utrecht manager does encourage his players to dribble with the ball at the opposition, with three of the Ajax players registering around 5 dribbles per 90. At Ajax, ten Hag had plenty of options in this position which allowed him to stay unpredictable and enabled the squad to be rotated throughout the season. It would be important for Ten Hag to buy another player to go alongside Fernandes as the attacking midfielder, or he may need to push one of the defensive midfielders into a more attacking role. This could be where van de Beek is utilised, but ten Hag will certainly be scouting the market for the perfect player to fit into this area of his team. Christian Eriksen has reportedly agreed to join the Red Devils, with the Danish midfielder perfectly falling under this category.
Wingers are a key position in the system with them providing the width in attack plus the attacking threat and creativity for chance creation. ten Hag is not picky when it comes to the pace of the winger, which is usually a deal-breaker for the top teams in Europe.
Even if the winger is not pacy, Antony was a key part of Ajax’s success last season and was the complete winger, dangerous in front of goal, creative and fast with the dribbling ability to take on any defender. Tadić on the other hand is slower but technically better than Antony and has been an experienced head for them in major competitions such as the Champions League.
Jadon Sancho could have a real opportunity to excel within the ten Hag system, with his pace and technical ability to replicate a role like Tadic or Antony. The Dutch manager could also turn Anthony Elanga into an excellent winger, developing his game to slot into the system within a few seasons.
The main difference between the two sets of wingers is the crossing numbers which are shockingly low for United. Yes, this is down to playstyle under Ralf Rangnick but it is something that Ajax have adapted to get the full potential out of Haller, a powerful header and presence in the box. Bringing in a winger may be another area for Erik ten Hag to purchase a player from the transfer market if he feels he is unable to implement the wide men already at the club.
Choosing a centre-forward is obvious as ten Hag will be looking for similar statistics to every other team. Goals per 90 is a great indicator, not between the two teams, but overall this can provide a clear indication of whether a striker has a great goal-scoring ability. Especially when the xG is lower than the goals per 90 it can highlight finishing of the highest class.
Ten Hag does like a complete forward who has great finishing ability and the physical presence to get on the end of his wingers’ deliveries. Ronaldo is an obvious fit for this mould, so it is clear why the Portuguese striker is in ten Hag’s plans and will be a player difficult to replace if he is to leave.
Ten Hag has certainly got lots to do to get this team playing in his style with the quality needed for it to work. He must be given time by the Man United board as there is no quick fix to revamp a sixth-placed Premier League team. Ten Hag has already shown his ability to develop a squad and could get Man United back to their glory days. As shown in this analysis, there are some key positions that need strengthening in the team but Ten Hag has already done a good job trimming the numbers in preparation for the transfers.