In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag discusses the team’s problems and why he believes they can improve. Watch Arsenal vs Man Utd live on Sky Sports Premier League from 4pm on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm
By Adam Bate, Comment and Analysis @ghostgoal
Erik ten Hag’s second season at Utrecht brought European football. His second season at Ajax brought his first title and took the club to within seconds of reaching the Champions League final. The lesson of his career to date is that when it clicks, it clicks.
How close is that to happening at Manchester United? Two wins from three games is an improvement on last season but it has been an unsteady start with narrow home wins against expected strugglers Wolves and Nottingham Forest proving unconvincing.
The defeat at Tottenham brought harsh criticism, questions about the make-up of the midfield and fears that there is something still missing. But there is hope too. Bolstered by deadline-day additions, the belief remains that Ten Hag can take this team forward.
Over the course of our conversation at the club’s training ground, he will address the failings in both defence and attack in stark terms, acknowledging the issues. But he is also eager to project calm ahead of a huge game at Arsenal on Sunday. There is no need for panic.
“I have seen a lot of the games already in the Premier League,” he tells Sky Sports. “None of the teams are yet in the right shape and in the right form. That is normal at the start of a season. Everything has to settle in and to improve. That is our job as managers.”
He saw better signs against Forest too.
“We improved in attitude, resilience, determination. The way we did it, really dominating. For parts of the game, we even had 90 per cent of possession, so we pinned them back and even though they were very compact we created many chances.”
The underlying numbers also offer encouragement. Ten Hag spoke in the summer about turning United into a pressing machine, something that had initially proved awkward given the personnel inherited. There is evidence to suggest that it is now taking shape.
Three games into the season and United have won possession of the ball in the attacking third of the pitch far more times than any other team in the Premier League. They have pressed more opposition passing sequences in that zone that anyone else too.
Is this what he wants to see from his side? “Absolutely. We had a lot of ball wins, regains, high up the pitch. That part of the game we do well. In the transition, we can do better, because when you have so many high regains, you have to get the benefit from it.”
Why is this pressing so important to him?
“To keep a game under control, to dominate an opponent, the pressing has to be right,” he explains. “It does not always have to be higher up the pitch. There will be moments when you can be lower, really low. Our team has the ability then also to be a threat.
“But in my approach I want to always be able to give the fans something. We want to dominate opponents, we want to play proactive football, we want to play dynamic football. Pressing is a part of it. The in-possession stuff also has to be right.”
Ten Hag is in purposeful mood. A busy day? “Very,” he replies. He has just conducted his press conference confirming the arrival of Sergio Reguilon. The deal to bring Sofyan Amrabat to Old Trafford is imminent, a player who can help that much-criticised midfield.
Ten Hag refutes that criticism in a number of different ways.
Manchester United have picked up 42 points in the 17 games that Casemiro, Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes have started together in the Premier League, but only 39 points in the 24 games in which one or more has been missing from the starting line-up under Erik ten Hag.
Firstly, he points to the past record. “When we play with Casemiro and Eriksen and Bruno we are very successful,” he argues. He is right too. United have picked up 42 points from 17 Premier League games when that trio have started together – title-winning form.
Secondly, he makes the case in strong terms that his midfield has been exposed because of the failings of those behind and in front. “It was absolutely a team problem. We analysed and we showed the team where the problem was,” he explains.
“It had to do from the back by squeezing. It had to do from the front by late responding or not responding. Act as a team. Not every player matched the standards that they are supposed to do. We worked a lot in the last two weeks on that factor.
“We have to improve. Especially when you face Arsenal who have such a quality team. When you are not in the right organisation, you will get problems. We have to avoid such problems by doing the right stuff. We have to demand more from the players.
“We have to match high standards in those moments in games. It is about the front not matching those standards, as well as the back. When you do not match the standards from the rules then we have a problem. Every team would have a problem.”
Standards and rules. They are watchwords for Ten Hag, concepts that he returns to again and again, the principles upon which his work is built. Overhauling this squad has been a challenge fraught with difficulty, littered with situations requiring careful management.
Even now, there is the sense of a summer spent firefighting as much as constructing, the deadline-day arrivals evidence of this. If Amrabat is the midfielder who can better institute his dynamic vision, Reguilon is the emergency left-back cover. No time to adapt.
How quickly can players pick up his rules? “It is not easy,” he admits. Perhaps that partly explains why he favours bringing in former players. Amrabat, once of Utrecht, joins the former Ajax trio of Lisandro Martinez, Andre Onana and Antony at Old Trafford.
“Yes, but every situation is different,” says Ten Hag.
That brings us back to those past successes.
“I did not play in the same way when I was at Utrecht as I did at Ajax and I do not play in the same way at Manchester United as I did at Ajax. What is the identity of the club? What is the quality of the players? And then you bring your own ideas in and it is a mixture.
“I remember well that the start of my second season with Utrecht was difficult. Part of it was losing many players. You have to build in the new players. It was the same at Ajax when we lost Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong. That was not easy.
“Every season is difficult at the start. In the meantime, it is about getting the points. You need to gather points at the start and from there you build belief and confidence. Then you will see the game go smoother and better, when you go further into the process.”
Against Arsenal on Sunday, supporters may get their first glimpse of Rasmus Hojlund in competitive action. The presence of the club’s new £60m striker is a reminder that this is a long-term project, one that could soon click if Ten Hag’s rules are stuck to.
Beating the Gunners would be a welcome boost. A statement win? “I do not think in terms of statements. I think in terms of what we have to do to win the game. We like the challenge. To go there and rise to the occasion. To battle them,” he says.
“And to win, of course.”
Watch Arsenal vs Manchester United live on Sky Sports Premier League from 4pm this Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm