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OPINION: Why Manchester United are doing well under Erik ten Hag

Erik ten Hag's appointment has gone well so far for the Red Devils, and his current successes look like the beginning of a long-term project.

Why Manchester United are doing well under Erik ten Hag

The term 'big boots to fill' has never been more apparent than in Manchester United's attempts to replace the great Sir Alex Ferguson.

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The 81-year-old left the job in 2013. Ten years and eight managers later, fans of the club still feel the absence of the Scotsman.

In what is often referred to as the ‘post-Fergie era’, Manchester United have, in an attempt to replicate past successes, employed a Scotsman like Sir Alex in David Moyes and had Fergie's own favourite pupil Ryan Giggs take over as a caretaker.

They then went for experience with Louis van Gaal, before going for Jose Mourinho's charisma and track record. After the two experienced managers failed, United turned to the baby-faced club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Michael Carrick, another of Ferguson's students, was appointed caretaker before German sporting director Ralf Rangnick was hired.

All of them bore certain characteristics of Ferguson, but none had enough of all the good qualities in a proportionate mix.

Then came Erik ten Hag, a new grand orchestrator for the Theatre of Dreams. Like flicking a switch, the tune of the team is new, the air is different, and Manchester United look like they are back.

It feels pertinent to note that the following performance indicators might not be novel, as similar initial successes have been enjoyed under managers who eventually 'failed' in the post-Fergie era.

However, it feels different this time. When Ole went on a 14-game unbeaten streak, it felt good but there was an air of unease, untrustworthiness, unnatural growth, and a too-quick turnaround.

The Europa League final against Villarreal became another instance of Ole 'bottling' games in the advanced stages of cup competitions; reaching semi-finals became a negative instead of the opposite.

Mourinho's trophies were credible achievements, but the club believed itself to be made for more: a Champions League title rather than the Europa League, a Premier League and FA Cup trophy rather than the League Cup and Community Shield he won.

Ten Hag's Manchester United are currently fourth in the league, level on points with third-place Newcastle with a game to spare, and only four points behind second-placed Manchester City.

Manchester United are currently unbeaten in eight games, having won all of them.

Unlike under Ole, this run does not feel lucky or like new manager bounce. It does not feel like a success stumbled upon, nor does it seem like a team running with emotion as its fuel.

The run has felt earned, like the result of something starting to work, and Ten Hag has the two losses at the start of the season to Brighton and Brentford to thank for this perception.

Also, unlike the reality when Mourinho was in charge, Manchester United have not won the Premier League in nine years. Memories of 2013 and the years before it were fresher during the Portuguese's reign. Those memories feel like relics of the past now.

The pride that drove expectations has faded, and Ten Hag now faces a fanbase that would cheer loudly if he won the Europa League or finished second in the league, as Mourinho did.

Ajax's Champions League run in 2017/18 is one of those ‘streets will never forget’ achievements in football.

The Dutch club knocked out defending champions Real Madrid in the Round of 16 after an impressive group stage. They then beat Juventus in the quarter-final and were moments away from knocking out Tottenham for a date with Liverpool in the final.

Football has seen many such underdog stories, but this one was unique; the football made it unique.

Ajax went toe-to-toe with the big boys in Europe, and matched up against them as equals, as against the usual all-out defence that passed for success in underdog teams.

And this was attributed to Ten Hag: it was his football, and it was so good. Therefore, he would come to Manchester United and make them play like Pep's Manchester City, or at least that was the assumption.

This has not been the case. If one were cast into the future from the day Ten Hag signed for Manchester United to a year after and was informed of a successful Manchester United, the assumption would be that it was done playing silky-smooth football.

It has not been a year yet, or even close, but based on the evidence so far, that assumption would be wrong.

Ten Hag's Ajax beat Tottenham 1-0 in the first-leg of the Champions League semi-final and were 2-0 up in the second-leg at the break, only to concede three goals to Lucas Moura and eventually get knocked out on away goals.

Critics blamed Ten Hag's inability to be pragmatic for the defeat, labeling him as one of the stubborn Dutch philosophical managers, like Van Gaal.

If only they could see him at Manchester United this season.

Manchester United have been far from free flowing. They are able to produce beautiful football, but it is not yet second nature. Ten Hag has dabbled in pragmatism but has done so in a way that fans can be proud of, in a way that it is not so obvious or even true to say Manchester United are 'parking the bus'.

But this is not what was expected from Ten Hag's reign in terms of play style. Possession data comparisons with his last two seasons at Ajax show a difference in style.

It is true that the different circumstances, league strength, and Ajax's standing in the Eredivisie as the best team cannot be be compared to United's standing in the Premier League. However, these stats are only to confirm what we all watch and are not the basis for the submission.

It should be noted that the seasonal numbers for Ajax are over a 34-game period (Eredivisie only), and Manchester United have played 17 Premier League games this season at the time of writing.

It should also be noted that 17 is half of 34.

Based on stats from FBref, Ten Hag's Ajax had 26,898 touches in the 2021/22 campaign, and 25,598 in the 2020/21 season. His Manchester United currently have 10,856, double that number is 21,714, not up to his Ajax numbers for his last two seasons. By comparison, Manchester City have made 13,687 touches in the Premier League so far this season.

Ajax completed 19,110 passes in the 2021/22 campaign and 18,259 in the 2020/21 campaign. Manchester United have completed 7,248 passes so far this season; double that amount is 14496, below the Ajax total.

Manchester City have made 10,738 passes this season in the Premier League; double that number would be more than Ajax’ in the Eredivisie, so yes, the numbers are achievable in the Premier League.

Goalkeeper passing is one of the key indicators of a possession-based side. Ajax's goalkeepers attempted 1110 and 959 passes, respectively, in the seasons under study. Manchester United recorded 407 in that stat, doubling that would amount to 814.

It is a fact that possession-based teams face fewer shots. Ten Hag's Ajax faced 78 and 109 shots, respectively, in the seasons under study. Manchester United have already faced 67 this season, and double that number is 134.

Manchester City, by comparison, have faced 42.

Recruitment was another factor that contributed to Ten Hag's Ajax success.

Ajax's impressive signings like Dusan Tadic, Sebastian Haller, Antony, Steven Berghuis, Mohammed Kudus, Lisandro Martinez, and Daley Blind were integral to his success, and many expected or hoped he would bring organisation and purpose to Manchester United's haphazard transfer policy.

However, it has been more of the same under Ten Hag as well. He was unable to land his marquee signing in Frenkie de Jong, and poor squad planning left him with an unhappy Ronaldo and no other striker as a replacement.

He also wanted Arnautovic and Rabiot, neither of whom the fans approved of and neither of whom were signed.

There are numerous contributing factors, some of which I have even mentioned in passing.

However, there is a significant reason for Manchester United's current success and sensation. Ten Hag has instilled discipline in the team. He has found the perfect balance between respect and love in a way that neither Ole nor Mourinho could.

There is a feeling that the players like the manager and are happy to fight for him.

It is also apparent that they respect him as a manager. They know he knows his stuff because he has a track record, and they can see clear ideas, something like Mourinho.

The difference between Solskjaer and Mourinho is that one had the attention of the players but did not necessarily have the information to give out; the other had an extensive repertoire of how-to-play to impact but sparked rebellion in his players that made them impervious to his teachings.

Ten Hag combined the best of both worlds, and it meant that he could instill discipline, something that had been lacking in Manchester United for a while; you cannot instill discipline if they do not respect you. Rebellion is all you would get if you tried to discipline those who have no love for you.

Ten Hag has punished Marcus Rashford, Alejandro Garnacho, Cristiano Ronaldo, and even the entire squad when he asked them to run the difference between their distance covered and Brentford's in the 4-0 loss earlier in the campaign. The usual media obloquy for such matters relating to Manchester United did not happen, or at least not at the level of past times.

Even the Ronaldo cases came and went with little fanfare, at least by Manchester United's standards.

Even in that case, it did not seem like the majority of the fans had turned on the manager. The famous Manchester United leaks seemed to have been clogged, and factions did not develop in the dressing room.

This is not the norm at Manchester United, at least not during the post-Ferguson era. The several incidents with Paul Pogba are good examples.

Ten Hag seems to have the whole squad pulling in one direction, and they have faith in him.

The players are able to fall in line because they can sense that Ten Hag is around for the long term, and he has the backing of the fans. In a ‘him or me’ situation, it would most likely be the player who gets the axe, and the most effective litmus test of that was with Ronaldo.

Ronaldo's most loyal supporters over the years are many amongst Manchester United fans, yet Ten Hag, who is yet to spend a year at the club, got massive support from the fanbase against a club legend.

It is expected that Ten Hag's ideas will be assimilated along the way, with his imprint becoming more visible in the team and bringing to life the high-intensity possession-based style that we all expected, but until then, discipline and camaraderie will keep Manchester United aloft.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Pulse Sports

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