The Future Is Orange – Why Ten Hag Is A Better Philosophical Fit For Man Utd Than Van Gaal Was

As Manchester United attended training today in Perth to prepare for their last friendly game in Australia, a group of supporters made a point of cheering and encouraging Harry Maguire.

The United captain was subjected to a strange torrent of boos in the Melbourne friendly against Crystal Palace; but the response in Perth was more befitting and what one would expect of any supporter of the club in any corner of the world.

One fan who has travelled to Australia with a fan channel was interviewed on Sky Sports where he claimed to speak for the supporters and said the players have a lot of making up to do. I can only speak for myself and say I don’t feel anywhere near that sort of entitlement – I think there is much more sense in giving this new regime a chance to see what it can do, and that’s true for the manager as it is for Murtough and Arnold (and even though yes, some will say they’ve been at the club a while, we’re talking about their current roles).

Those men were already facing criticism from the same school of entitlement who wanted the entire transfer business wrapped up as soon as the window opened in June. Ten Hag seems to have identified the players he wants – players he trusts – and the club have worked on deals to bring those players in, at the same time as clearly prioritising the arduous process of trying to sign his main target, Frenkie De Jong. The process of moving players on has also been fairly significant – none of the players who have left have made upwards steps, which says much about the burden of trying to offload them for fees. Then there has been the Cristiano Ronaldo headache; his wages seem prohibitive to most suitors, and United who were caught cold by his decision to remain in Europe as he was so central to the recent kit launch and tour propaganda, have stressed from their point of view that they are not open to offers anyway – it may well be that Ronaldo may be forced to do an about-face and have the club to thank for saying he was not for sale.

The pursuit of De Jong may fail due to the absurd complications about the Spanish club’s financial gymnastics which seem to confound most major clubs in Europe as well as their own players; but if it does, at least the time was spent because Ten Hag has insisted on it. That means Murtough and Arnold deserve something of a pass.

That attitude means giving a fresh start to the players, too, even the ones who have disappointed – and that’s as true for Anthony Martial as it is for Donny van de Beek and as it is for Harry Maguire.

Maguire has been given the captaincy, a politician’s move by Erik Ten Hag; there’s still no guarantee that he will be a starting centre half, thanks to the purchase of Lisandro Martinez, who seems a cert to start in that left-side role that the England man has usually occupied. Martial has been given the responsibility of leading the line in the absence of Ronaldo but has responded well, presumably spooked by the paths Henderson, Pogba and Lingard have been forced to take. Nobody is surprised by his talent – the question still to be answered is, ‘can he do it consistently in the league?’ – but he has proved himself worthy of another chance, even if you might be tempted to scream Glazernomics at me. He looks vibrant in the front line – and so do the others. Some of that weight seems to have gone from the shoulders of Rashford and Fernandes, while Jadon Sancho has looked full of confidence in the right-hand role he was apparently bought for a year ago. And some of the goals scored have been a delight to watch.

It’s difficult to draw too many conclusions from pre-season. Sometimes you can get a fair indication of how poorly something is going to go – United’s last trip down under was nine years ago, where David Moyes saw his new side lose 1-0 to an all-star team sponsored by a brewery. The main point of reference most people are using is the tour a year later, led by Louis van Gaal in North America. United defeated Real Madrid and Liverpool playing fantastic football using a three-man defence throughout most of the tour, only for the same system to fail drastically in the league, leaving Van Gaal blaming the commercial reasons for the tour and changing his systems multiple times in the first few weeks.

Ten Hag and Van Gaal are from the same Ajax school and this has invited the reservations. There are some significant differences between the two, however, and even though nobody can know from this point how results will go in competitive action, there are some significant indications that it won’t be a case of history repeating itself. There are generally two iterations of total football, two threads of the philosophy – one which relies heavily on instruction and one which allows for instinct.

“Johan Cruyff’s philosophy and spirit still flows around in this club,” Daley Blind told BT Sport in 2019. “Erik ten Hag is doing very well now. He wants us to play attacking football but most of all without any fear.”

Cruyff’s, of course, is the more creative vision; the version Van Gaal introduced to Old Trafford was so restrictive that players complained that it felt like an army camp. It caused an infamous fraction between the manager and the Brazilian full-back Rafael. After a game against West Ham early in the era, Rafael set up a goal for Wayne Rooney. In the team meeting on Monday morning, the defender was criticised for crossing the ball first time instead of taking a touch. Players were given areas of the pitch they were permitted to operate in and they would find themselves the subject of similar criticism should they dare to stray. Van Gaal arrived at United as a 62-year-old veteran and was tasked with bringing the football of tomorrow to a club wanting to modernise; like Ralf Rangnick, it was doomed to failure.

Ten Hag’s approach is notably different. The other way of interpreting the style is to make sure that players are multi-functional and able to moonlight in different positions to allow players to move more freely. This is how Ten Hag operated at Ajax, pushing high to recover the ball with full backs going on the outside and wingers capable of moving into the middle, but most of all wanting aggression and adventure, encouraging one touch passing instead of imploring a player to take that touch to control. The difference is significant.

It’s also the exact same sort of approach encouraged by Rene Meulensteen, one of the prominent coaches of United’s last great team from 2007 to 2009. It’s been likened to Pep Guardiola’s style, and Ten Hag has himself confessed to being influenced by the City boss, but at the Etihad any issues are usually resolved by signing a cheque and not improving a player. United have a curious squad; even though there’s been a big turnover this summer, there’s still a strong nucleus left of the team who finished second just fifteen months ago, and even then faced accusations (or even protection) of not having their potential fully realised because of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s inexperience.

Even though Solskjaer understood the club, Ten Hag’s way of playing is probably more in line with United’s modern and traditional identity; and more likely to be successful than Van Gaal’s when it comes to taking it from friendly to competitive action because of the switch to proactivity and the encouragement of instinct.

Ten Hag will naturally be hoping to get De Jong over the line and sees him as such a unique player to build this vision around that he’s willing to wait. Patience hasn’t been a strong point for many modern United fans but those who make the journey for the first game against Brighton in a couple of weeks will be willing to give the new man a chance. If they do the same for the players, as they probably will, then they may well be pleasantly surprised.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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