On the eve of Erik ten Hag’s first match in charge of Manchester United, he revealed a great deal about the way he plans to manage the club.
He gave a press conference in which he clipped potentially explosive issues by cutting the fuse at the source and he led a vibrant training session with barked instructions that demonstrated his football vision. You might suppose he saved the spark for where he feels it matters most.
This window into Ten Hag’s style happened during a humid evening at Bangkok’s Rajamangala Stadium, where United face Liverpool in their first summer run-out before the new season. The big question as Ten Hag sat down to address a packed media room, with local reporters numbering in the dozens, was whether Cristiano Ronaldo would be part of the equation.
“He’s not with us and that is due to personal issues,” Ten Hag said by way of answer one. Not ever, there was no elaboration.
Answer two brought a little more.
“We are planning with Cristiano Ronaldo for this season, so that’s it. I’m looking forward to working with him.”
Eventually, as the questions kept coming, he did provide a significant detail — he has yet to speak to Ronaldo himself. The lean manner of Ten Hag’s delivery meant there was some initial confusion when he referred to a talk he had with Ronaldo at the end of last season, which both men came away from satisfied. He then seemed slightly irritated that more interrogation on that conversation followed, staring down one questioner with a slight air of menace. The tension was broken after a few seconds by laughter in the audience and Ten Hag let his glare relax.
The other main topic to discuss was signings. Tyrell Malacia is the only new face on tour, with Christian Eriksen expected to join the Australian leg once the final details of his move are sorted. But there is still much work to do on Frenkie de Jong’s proposed transfer, with football director John Murtough and chief executive Richard Arnold making a trip to Barcelona to try to break the impasse.
Ten Hag wouldn’t be drawn on why he wants De Jong, instead striking a diplomatic tone: “We want to add the right players. We have a really good squad. We are working to develop our way of playing and if the opportunity is there, then we will strike.” He did say he wants to add in midfield and attack but this was not remotely the detonation decided upon by Jose Mourinho when frustrated during the pre-season of 2018, when the former United manager bemoaned that the club had not signed any of his “list of five names”.
Ten Hag, clearly, does not wish to give much time to things he cannot currently control. Rather, he comes alive on the training pitches with those who are under his guidance.
The open training session, available to around 10,000 supporters who bought tickets for the game, was much more educational than the 15-minute clips accessible to the media ahead of European matches. It was a proper exercise in hard work and team tactics.
It began with possibly the world’s biggest rondo featuring the whole squad standing around the center circle while three players chased the ball in the middle. A ball on a cone was placed on the center circle not to be toppled. The passes had to be the first time.
Next came two smaller rondo-type games by the touchline, eight versus three in a very compact space. Points were awarded to the attacking team for every five passes completed while the defensive team could get five points at once by scoring into a small goal at either end of the area.
Mitchell van der Gaag oversaw one group, Steve McClaren the other. Ten Hag observed, walking between the two. At one point he got annoyed at Van der Gaag’s group, which had almost all the first-team players, because the attack failed to line up in the formation he desired, with two in midfield.
“Bring an extra player — two in the middle,” he shouted. “You can make triangles, that’s football. Always the same principle.”
Players have been taken in by how involved Ten Hag has been in training. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick tended to leave most of the coaching to support staff. Ten Hag is certainly carrying authority in Bangkok.
McClaren told his players that five press-ups were the forfeit for failing to get to five passes in a minute. Twice he was able to call for them to drop to the grass. He did so with a certain relish.
— Laurie Whitwell (@lauriewhitwell) July 11, 2022
Van der Gaag had to remind his players that one of them must count the number of passes themselves aloud. Victor Lindelof took up the instruction. Zidane Iqbal received a “well done” from Ten Hag’s No 2 following a skilful pass out of a tight situation.
Darren Fletcher shouted for speed and put pressure on the defensive team, who were only level because Bruno Fernandes scored. “Bruno saved you with a goal,” he said. Fletcher is here assisting the coaching, primarily to act as a bridge between the academy players and the seniors. It is anticipated that he will continue to be a presence in sessions at Carrington.
McClaren’s value to Ten Hag was apparent. The pair had several conversations and McClaren also made jokes to lighten the mood in between drills.
If the football must improve at United, then so too must the sense of unity across the club.
“I think we have to be united,” said Fred, the midfielder. “All aspects of last season were difficult which is difficult. This season with a new manager, with new rules already, we’ll look to unite and stick together as that’s how our team must be.”
The next drill was a game of eight defenders versus seven attackers in a half of the pitch. The attackers had a full-sized net and goalkeeper to get past while the defenders had a small, unguarded goal.
The attackers looked to be much of the team Ten Hag might pick against Liverpool. Fred was the deepest player, picking the ball up from defense in a signal of how Ten Hag sees him, with Donny van de Beek alongside and Fernandes a No 10. Marcus Rashford was on the left wing and Jadon Sancho right — the plan Solskjaer had in mind last summer — with Anthony Martial up top. The defense had Lindelof and Eric Bailly as centre-backs.
Ten Hag was at the base of the attacking team conducting matters. Before the practice started, he told his wide players: “When you cannot cross it, pull back, pass back into (the central midfielder), we go to the other side.” He also wanted them to underlap and screamed at Sancho to get “inside!” at one point. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, the right-back in parts, also got the same instruction, only with slightly less volume.
Iqbal continued his good session by scoring after dribbling past Fred, who fell to the floor attempting a tackle. The punishment for the attacking side? Press-ups. This public humbling was greeted with cheers from those in the stands.
The attack did respond. Sancho set up two goals, one for Rashford, who headed in at the far post, and one for Fernandes, who swiveled nicely and shot into the corner past Nathan Bishop. David de Gea was doing different work elsewhere. For the second goal, Wan-Bissaka had indeed run inside and stepped over a pass from Fred to Sancho.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) July 11, 2022
To finish, there were five-a-side matches in a quarter of the pitch. The losers, of course, had to do press-ups. In all, it lasted 90 minutes, after Ten Hag had put his players through an intense two-hour session in the morning at United’s training complex.
Harry Maguire did light running work after picking up a minor injury. He gave a thumbs up to the crowd when they cheered him as he jogged in their direction. Under scrutiny after a difficult campaign, Ten Hag had earlier confirmed Maguire would remain his captain. Scott McTominay, Raphael Varane, James Garner and Axel Tuanzebe were absent, all doing bespoke programmes.
The players left the pitch dripping in sweat. Some stayed to sign autographs. There was enough encouragement to think that the ceremonial plate Ten Hag presented to match organizer Vinij Lertratanachai before his press conference, which coincidentally looked a lot like the Eredivisie trophy, might not be the only silverware he gets his hands on at United.
(Top photo: Supakit Wisetanuphong/MB Media/Getty Images)