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Talking Tactics

How Ten Hag's short-term planning has revived Man Utd

Adrian Clarke 26 Sep 2022
Manchester United v Arsenal FC - Premier League

Adrian Clarke analyses how the head coach changed his traditions to bring results to the club

Adrian Clarke looks at key tactical points and players who can be decisive in Matchweek 9.

Erik ten Hag (MUN)

The Manchester United head coach reacted to defeats in his first two matches by altering his tactics.

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At Ajax, during a successful pre-season at Man Utd, and across the first 180 minutes of this season, the Dutchman encouraged a possession-based brand of football built around making short passes through the lines.

After seeing his new team make errors under pressure inside their own half in the 2-1 home defeat by Brighton & Hove Albion and the 4-0 drubbing at Brentford there was a short-term rethink from Ten Hag.

In the last four matches, all of which brought victories, United have been far more direct, with a greater emphasis on turning defence into attack more quickly.

For example, all three of their goals in the 3-1 home victory over Arsenal came from swiftly constructed attacks that began inside United's own half and caught the Gunners' high line cold.

How possession & passing changed
Stat MW1-2 ave. MW3-6 ave.
Possession  64.8% 41.7%
Passes 536 375
% of long passes 8.4% 16.3%

There has been a stark contrast in the way Ten Hag has approached the last four matches, compared with those opening two encounters.

Fixtures against Liverpool, Arsenal and Leicester City played a part to some degree, but there has been an acceptance on the Dutchman's part that his side are not yet ready to control matches through heavy spells of possession.

Across the last four fixtures, which also included a 1-0 win at Southampton, they averaged 375 passes per match, a 30 per cent drop on what we had seen before.

There has also been an attempt to launch longer passes from back to front.

United's long-pass proportion has doubled since those early defeats against Brighton and Brentford.

Playing safe from the back

In their first match of the season, David De Gea made just seven long passes out of a total of 26, with short goal-kick restarts the norm.

When Liverpool visited Old Trafford a fortnight later, 30 of the 31 passes made by the goalkeeper were classified as "long".

Although there has not been such a high percentage in the matches that have ensued, this pattern of change has continued with the vast majority of De Gea's distribution hit over longer distances.

United players' long-passing ratios
Player MW1-2 ave. MW3-6 ave.
De Gea 38.5% 73.0%
Martinez 9.1% 20.6%
Varane 8.0% 15.1%

It is a similar story with central defenders Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane.

Both players are being encouraged to strike passes into the channels or up to the centre-forward.

It is also worth noting that Varane made only 20 and 13 passes against Arsenal and Liverpool respectively.

His role as a ball-playing centre-back was put on hold in matches where Ten Hag was concerned about the quality of the opposition and their pressing.

Adjusting to Ten Hag's style

Over time it is almost certain Ten Hag will introduce the style of play with which he has been associated during his management career.

United will eventually develop more control of matches through possession and learn to be comfortable playing out from the back.

However, Ten Hag has recognised that, in the short term, his group of players are better suited to a style of play that makes use of their pace in forward areas. The Dutchman's tactical input will evolve, rather than be implemented overnight.

Also in this series

Part 1: Chelsea set to benefit from Potter's flexible changes
Part 2: How O'Neil's changes have lifted AFC Bournemouth
Part 4: Bowen and Antonio can provide missing spark for West Ham
Part 5: Gundogan and Eriksen battle key to derby success
Part 6: Xhaka relishing more freedom at Arsenal

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