Erik ten Hag has kept his media duties to a minimum during Manchester United’s pre-season tour. There have been no post-match press conferences because his preference is to get on the team bus quickly and turn his attention to the next day’s training. In his mind, every second of planning counts.
But on Monday afternoon, after a morning session with his players at AAMI Park, the sports stadium next to Melbourne Cricket Ground, Ten Hag sat down to speak at length for the first time about his work at United. His answers were fuller than we have heard since he took charge, giving clear insight into his management style and plans for the club.
The United manager explained how he likes his teams to play, his thoughts on Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Maguire’s captaincy, dressing-room discipline, buying mainly players with Dutch links and lots more.
Here, our Manchester United correspondent Laurie Whitwell explains what was said, what it means for the future of the club and the season ahead.
Ten Hag on… succeeding where others haven’t
“I must say, I have a strong belief. This is a big challenge, but until now everywhere I’ve been I’ve got the maximum out of my teams. This is the project that is the most difficult, I realise that, but I am here, so I am convinced that I can do it.
“The first target is to win every game, that has to be our approach, that belongs to Man United.
“It is a pleasure, that’s why I took it, I know it’s not an easy job but that gives me some joy and energy, that together with all the people around, to make a unified co-operation. That has to be the platform for success.”
Laurie Whitwell: Most managers talk a good game when appointed, the slate is clean and the ideas are fresh, but as far as United are concerned, David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick mostly failed to deliver on any early promise. Time will tell on Ten Hag, but his self-belief was total as he answered, matter-of-factly, about why he can do better than his five predecessors. His confidence was compelling.
Rather than arrogance, his reflections on past posts were logical and stand up to scrutiny. He earned promotion with Go Ahead Eagles, won the Regionalliga Bayern with Bayern Munich II, qualified for Europe with Utrecht and, of course, lifted three Eredivisie titles with Ajax while overperforming in the Champions League. Although he has not managed a first-team outside of the Netherlands, it naturally follows with a record like that he would have faith in his methods at his next club.
Ten Hag on… his playing style
“We want to play proactive, attacking football where it’s possible. We want to play good, but if we don’t play good we still have to win.
“Our team will be different (to Ajax’s) because it is different players, a different type of football, that is clear. Finally, it is about the players you have because I cannot change the identification (characteristics) of a player.”
Laurie Whitwell: The fundamentals of a Ten Hag team are pressing high, running running and using midfield triangles, but pragmatism also underpins his approach. At Ajax, he played with a false nine in Dusan Tadic, then later an outright centre-forward in Sebastien Haller.
That adaption to his squad is already being seen at United, where he has selected a 4-2-3-1 formation instead of his customary 4-3-3, the former better complementing the players currently at his disposal.
Ten Hag on… getting his message across to players
“It’s a lot of, let’s say… a package of tools you have as a coach — of course, training sessions, you have meetings, collective and also individual, and they all have their own theme and topics. It is a process and finally, it has to stick together — it has to be a structure in the team, a platform for how we can win games.
“The players have responded well to the demands we have, I have. I set some standards, we introduce how we play, and I’m satisfied with that.
“This is why we started them quite early — fitness. But also I wanted to bring in a certain way of playing, it won’t be done when we finish pre-season, but when we finish pre-season we have to get results.”
Laurie Whitwell: Judging by the two friendlies and various interviews, the players are receptive to Ten Hag’s instructions and understanding of what he wants. He is imparting a lot of information in meetings but keeps messages simple and direct on the training pitches.
One of his “tools” there is a short, sharp rebuke if a player is deviating from the task.
He does not feel shouting at his players regularly is wise, but occasionally it carries a purpose. “Most of the time it will go in a normal behaviour way,” he added. “Sometimes you have to use all the set of tools you have.”
When asked if he has a version of Sir Alex Ferguson’s hairdryer, he paused briefly before appreciating the double-meaning and responding in jest. “I don’t need the hairdryer,” he said.
Ten Hag said he had spoken to Ferguson since taking over as manager and while he wouldn’t reveal what they discussed, said: “It is always fantastic to talk with Sir Alex about life, but especially about football.”
Ten Hag on… a disciplined and self-governing dressing room
“I think one of the issues when you want to get results, you need a team. It is organisation, co-operation, and also you need discipline. When there is no discipline around, you will not find it on the pitch as well. On such issues I’m quite severe. But I think it is on the players themselves to also be severe to each other, because if they want to achieve success they have to stick together. Sometimes there is a need for correction.”
Laurie Whitwell: This feels a crucial pillar of Ten Hag’s modus operandi — not only instilling discipline, but also wanting a group of players who will call each other out if standards slip. That aspect got lost along the way last season, with various indiscretions allowed to slide.
Ten Hag on… his interview with United directors
“I think we co-operate well with John Murtough, really good communication. It’s the same I think with Richard Arnold. I feel really comfortable with it.
“I think I have a clear idea about strategy. The way I want to play football but also in the way a top football club has to be structured. We talked about those ideas and we agreed on the structures and the way we play football. Now we have to implement that.”
Laurie Whitwell: Ten Hag was highly critical of United’s issues when interviewed by Murtough, Arnold and technical director Darren Fletcher in Amsterdam. It was a risk, but the trio came away impressed at his honesty and evident enthusiasm for fixing the problems.
Interestingly, he said an agreement was reached on the structure and playing style, not only for his involvement on that level, but also perhaps indicating more changes are on the way.
Ten Hag on… restoring confidence
“You can see that it affects the players. Now we have to cheer them up and motivate them. We are trying to bring the confidence back. That is one of the important points to get success, that you have self-belief as an individual and as a team.
“That is also a process, individual talks for instance, the positive approach. But sometimes also you can be highly demanding because that is what we expect and we give them feedback. If they don’t, ‘Why are you not acting to your standards?’. That is the question I am asking the players.
“I want to get the maximum out of the players who are now here, and I think it belongs to Manchester that you are always looking for better, for competition, because that is a tool to lift, too.”
Laurie Whitwell: It feels like a double-pronged strategy for increasing confidence levels: not only by creating a fun mood in camp and giving encouragement (something Steve McClaren is assisting ably on), but by getting players to grow in stature through healthy challenges with team-mates.
That latter strand seems pulled from the thread Andy Murray weaved when trying to better Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Murray grew in status by competing with, then bettering, his talented rivals. For Ten Hag, United’s players can also gain confidence by aspiring for higher.
Ten Hag on… Frenkie de Jong
“We are looking for a player who can play in the holding midfield position, but it has to be the right one. There are not many in that position capable of the level we demand. When we can’t find him, we have to deal with the players in our squad now and we will develop one in that position.
“I will not react on a certain player. We need the right player. We have a list and we qualify the player who has the competencies to play that role. We will strike the moment the player is available.”
Laurie Whitwell: Ten Hag would not be drawn on the specifics of the De Jong pursuit, but it was telling he chose to focus on United’s need for a holding midfielder. Clearly, he sees De Jong as that type of player. Not all those who sit need to have tackling as a prime characteristic — Michael Carrick being one from United’s past. Ten Hag wants competency on the ball. He also sees his midfield as rotating, allowing for those moments when De Jong carries the ball up the pitch.
United do have other targets, but Ten Hag appears to be saying the possibilities are not extensive due to specific requirements and he will develop from within if one isn’t recruited.
Whether that means adapting Scott McTominay or Fred or raising one up from the academy we will see. James Garner is the closest, but injury has kept him from showing his abilities in any friendlies so far. Charlie Savage and Zidane Iqbal have done well, but both are 19 and would seem a distance off regular first-team football at United.
Ten Hag on… Lisandro Martinez
“We have good players there but I think we need a squad that is also good and deep. I analysed and United last year were quite vulnerable over the left part of the defence. He is left-footed and that is an advantage in possession but also in defending.”
“He also brings a South American spirit, a controlled aggressiveness. I think it will fit really good with Manchester United and our way of playing.
“He’s not the tallest but he is quite good in the air. I feel comfortable with that. Of course, you need the right balance. He has good timing, that’s one of his capabilities. We bring him in to not strengthen the squad, but the team.”
Laurie Whitwell: The overwhelming takeaway is that Martinez is lined up to play left-sided centre-half as a means of correcting a flaw spotted by Ten Hag. That leaves a juggling act with Harry Maguire, Raphael Varane and Victor Lindelof.
Ten Hag also said Martinez can play in more positions — he operated in midfield for a time at Ajax — but him having no concerns over his height of 5ft 9in (175cm) suggests he will at least start him in his typical position.
Ten Hag thinks Martinez’s all-action style will enamour him to United fans, perhaps in the same way Gabriel Heinze earned something of a cult reputation.
You can read more about what Martinez offers here.
Ten Hag on… Cristiano Ronaldo
“We all know Ronaldo is a top professional and he will be fit, that is the last concern I have. He is training.
“I have set my demand. We want to play in a certain way. A top player can contribute and Ronaldo is an absolute top player in our squad. Cristiano is capable of doing that. In his career, he has shown everything.
“The players dictate the way you play. Especially players who score goals because they are extremely important for a team. You construct your team around them.
“I think we have scoring players and the first two games already showed that.”
Laurie Whitwell: Ten Hag still hasn’t spoken to Ronaldo since the forward communicated his desire to leave, which is curious. You might suppose Ten Hag would pick up the phone to establish the full facts but it could well be that he is instead focusing all his energy on the players he does have right now. Equally, Ronaldo might feel he has done all his talking and is content keeping his fitness up at Portugal’s Lisbon training complex.
Ten Hag was unable to say when Ronaldo would report back, but he portrayed the firmest message of unity aside from that by talking up the 37-year-old’s ability to play in his team and making the point that there is an extra year option in his contract. “I am well informed,” he said. He also gave the impression Ronaldo would be important to him immediately.
“I have signed here for three years, but in football, it’s short-term as well. We have to win from the start. So I don’t look that far ahead. I have a strategy, it’s a process, it takes time, but in the end, we have to make sure from the outset there is a winning team.”
Ten Hag on… Harry Maguire’s armband
“I always see the captaincy as an issue that I dictate. The team building for me is an important point and I always talk about a group of leaders. The captain is a really important one and I’m happy with him.
“It can help (give him more confidence). I will support him everywhere I can. In the end, he has to do it by himself, and he has the qualities to do it.
“We have good centre-halves and Harry is one of them. He can play on the left side and on the right.
“I think he is (a first-choice player). He’s proved it in the past but he also has to prove it in the present time and in the future. He has played 46 times for England. Harry is really impressive and I expect a lot from him.
“But there is also internal competition and that is what a club like Man United needs. You cannot win with 11 players. We need a squad, especially this season with so many games. We have the Europa League, the Premier League and the World Cup, so we need a full squad with high-quality players.”
Laurie Whitwell: Ten Hag had no thoughts of putting the captaincy to a player vote, as suggested by Rangnick, and gave Maguire solid backing. Clearly, his support of Maguire, like all others, is not unconditional — he must perform — but Ten Hag is more than prepared to use the defender’s first two seasons at United as a gauge of his suitability for the team.
Ten Hag on… Jadon Sancho
“I look to the player and I have a certain demand. And I will tell them, if they have capabilities, but you have to invest. It is not just in terms of Jadon, it is for every player. I will tell every player what I expect of them. I have high standards because you are here, you are playing for Manchester United, then you must bring every day on the pitch. That is an expectation I have.”
Laurie Whitwell: Ten Hag was responding to a question about his audible critique of Sancho in the open training session from Bangkok. Sancho reacted well to the challenge by impressing in the next day’s game against Liverpool.
Ten Hag feels that for Sancho and Marcus Rashford, the prospect of featuring at November’s World Cup is also an inspiration after falling out of the England squad. “I think every player wants to be at the World Cup, it’s once in four years. They have to have that in their minds and they will respond to that fact.”
Ten Hag on… shopping in the Netherlands
“I would like to sign English players because I think there is only one criterion and that’s quality in combination with the price. It looks like English players are quite expensive. It’s a fact you cannot deny. In the end, it’s about quality.”
Laurie Whitwell: Ten Hag insisted his attention on players with Dutch links is not deliberate, but the consequence of the market rate. Tyrell Malacia was on the cheaper side for what an equivalent player in England would cost, and Christian Eriksen was a free transfer. The Martinez fee, which could rise to £55million ($65.9m), is nevertheless on the larger side — he is the second-most expensive defender in United’s history — but if he transforms the team’s ability to play a high line, then he could yet be considered a bargain.
(Top photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)