Manchester United‘s summer transfer window has got off to a relatively slow start, but supporters should feel optimistic about the noises coming out of the club since Erik ten Hag’s appointment.
The players reportedly being targeted all fit snugly with the tactical preferences of the new manager, suggesting streamlined thinking and a move away from the chaotic pursuit of superstars – as well as a desire to give significant power to the new figurehead in the dugout.
It is too early in the summer to know quite how Man Utd will be lining up for their opener against Brighton at the start of August, but it looks as though we can be certain of an entirely reconfigured central midfield. Christian Eriksen has agreed to join the club on a free transfer while talks to sign Frenkie de Jong appear to be at an advanced stage; together, these two have the potential to kick-start Ten Hag’s tactical revolution.
Midfield has been the biggest weakness at the club since Sir Alex Ferguson‘s retirement and the problem has only become more pronounced over time. Fred and Scott McTominay as a deeper duo in a 4-2-3-1 became symbolic of the wider malaise under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick; of the static and fearful football, of sideways passing and a lack of intelligence throughout an under-coached team. Finally, it looks as though the McFred years are over.
Ten Hag represents a dramatic shift in style. His punishingly long training sessions are designed to implement a highly sophisticated and ultra-choreographed tactical system inspired by Total Football. The focus is on constant movement and position rotation to create complicated possession cycles that pull the opposition out of shape, with high pressing and sharp counter-pressing essential to a suffocating – and very attacking – tactical philosophy.
For any of that to take hold at United, and with a squad who rested on their laurels under Solskjaer and quickly revolted when Rangnick demanded hard work, Ten Hag will need new signings to reinvigorate the dressing room and set an example for others. In short, he needs hard-working players willing to sacrifice themselves for the team and for the manager, who could quickly face mutiny should things start slowly.
That is why De Jong and Eriksen, both Ajax academy products, make so much sense. But beyond their character, both players possess the kind of technical skill and sophisticated appreciation of space that will be needed for Man Utd to build through the thirds. It goes without saying that a possession-dominant system needs to be built around the central midfield trio, and in Ten Hag’s 4-3-3 there is a good chance Eriksen and De Jong will start together.
De Jong can play in multiple positions (another big plus given the rotations Ten Hag expects) but should chiefly operate as the defensive midfielder, collecting the ball from the United centre-backs to become the fulcrum of their attacks. He is excellent at driving through the lines in the dribble, as well as resisting the opposition press with intelligent passing.
Eriksen is likely to operate further up the field as one of the two advanced eights alongside Bruno Fernandes, with whom the Denmark international will drop into the half-spaces to interrogate the opposition defence and help get United’s front three on the ball in dangerous areas. Eriksen might not seem like an obvious fit at United, but his particular talent is reading the rhythms of a game; working out when to speed things up and when to slow them down, helping turn Man Utd from a chaotic team to one with the sort of control we see at Manchester City or Liverpool.
Considering that Donny van der Beek will get another chance this year, reunited with the coach who developed him at Ajax, all of a sudden United have multiple options in a midfield that could easily swap positions within a match. The individualism and specialisation that has held United back over the last five years is on the way out, with the likes of Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo now the outliers.
Ronaldo’s desire to leave is no doubt a blessing for Ten Hag, whose hard-pressing and hard-running football surely cannot accommodate the Portuguese’s static centre-forward play. Ronaldo (whose average of 6.54 pressures per 90 is the lowest number among all forwards in the top five leagues over the last 365 days, per FBRef) represents the opposite of Ten Hag’s modernisation project, and should he leave the job will become a lot easier.
Reported bids for Serge Gnabry, Antony, and Paulo Dybala point to a more fluid and energetic future at the top end of the pitch, with Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford taking on more prominent roles. But even sorting out the front line wouldn’t be enough to turn the club around, and it says a lot about the scale of the rebuild that Ten Hag must also sign upgrades at centre-back and full-back. It sounds far too ambitious for one summer.
He is right to have started with central midfield, the epicentre of Man Utd’s tactical issues and the battleground of Ten Hag’s attempted revolution. In Eriksen and De Jong, United are signing exactly the right profile of player to give the new manager the best chance of radically altering the direction of the club. It remains an almost impossible challenge, but if Ronaldo leaves and Ten Hag lands his primary targets there is a slim chance of success.