Looking to implement a long term style? Forget about short term results
Implementing a term vision and trying to achieve short term results are often mutually exclusive. While they can sometimes give the appearance of co-existing, one often ends up cannibalizing the other
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What is the goal of Erik Ten Hag’s tenure at Manchester United?
The simple answer is “to return United to the summit of English football.” The true answer is more nuanced than that. Erik Ten Hag isn’t here to just win a Premier League or Champions League title. The goal of his tenure is to build Manchester United back into a team that’s not just going to compete for the Premier League title but for the next Premier League title as well. Return them to being a club where qualifying for the Champions League isn’t even an expectation but merely the norm, the basement of what they will achieve in a given year.
As with all rebuilds, that isn’t going to happen overnight. Ten Hag has wisely already spoken about this. It’s going to take time. Even if Ten Hag is ultimately successful United aren’t out of the woods just yet. There’s still going to be a couple more difficult seasons ahead of them before they reach the promised land.
I’ve seen different timelines thrown around about how long Ten Hag is viewing this project. Most of those timelines land between three and five years. I think the latter is more appropriate but all that does is raise the question, “what is the goal of this season?”
The most common answer to that question is “finish in the top four and win a trophy.” That answer sounds fine but the reality is part of hiring Ten Hag is to get the style of play Ten Hag plays. That means’s he’s establishing an entirely new system. That means whether this is a three year plan or a five year plan, the priority for this season is establishing the new system and putting the team in a better position to take a step forward in year two.
Logically you could say that finishing in the Champions League would be a good barometer as to whether Ten Hag’s plan/style is working and would naturally put the team in a better position for year two but neither of those are necessarily true. If United get off to a slow start in adapting Ten Hag’s system, and Ten Hag reacts by moving away from it in hopes of securing short term results is that really helping them get better for year two? Or is that wasting a year of laying the foundation for Ten Hag to build on.
Ten Hag’s system may not yield results right away simply because United don’t enough players that can play within the system, especially if a key player gets hurt. Does that mean if United fall short of the Champions League Ten Hag is failing? Not necessarily.
Patience is going to be required, from the fans, club, and even Ten Hag himself. If United don’t finish in the top four next season will Ten Hag be sacked? I’d sure hope not, and while fans are currently preaching patience you can be sure there will be a group calling for his head.
What’s important for Ten Hag is sticking with his vision. If being stubborn and insisting on building your style of play means finishing a place or two lower in the table that might be the better move long term.
There is a belief that results breed confidence therefore if you’re getting the results the players will be more receptive to adapting to a new style.
The reality is implementing a long term style, and pushing for immediate short term results are often mutually exclusive things. Several coaches have tried to do both and while some have looked successful in doing so, pushing for immediate results often ends up cannibalizing the other. You make a sacrifice here and a sacrifice there and eventually you haven’t developed in key areas setting your entire project back.
The two obvious examples here are Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. Of course they are, they’re the best two managers in the Premier League.
When Guardiola arrived at Manchester City they were naturally made title favorites because they’d won two years prior and because they had Guardiola, the best manager in football. Pep didn’t speak about winning the league right away and despite the media trying to make it a story, he never felt any pressure when City dropped out of the title race pretty early in the campaign.
For Pep, that season wasn’t about winning, it was about establishing his style of play throughout the squad. He knew if the team adopted that style, they’d be set up to win not just the next year, but for many subsequent years.
He was right. In his first season City won a paltry 78 points, 13.6 points fewer then they averaged over the next five years. The following two years they put up the two highest point totals in Premier League history.
Pep certainly benefitted from having his sporting director, Txiki Begiristain, put in place and start signing players that fit his style a year before he arrived.1 He also of course benefitted from working for a club where money was literally no object giving him access to whatever players he wanted but all that did was accelerate his build, it didn’t change his goal in year one.
Jurgen Klopp was a bit slower. The expectations were also a bit different. If he could simply win a Premier League title for Liverpool it’s job done, but when he was first introduced he spoke of how much time that would take.
When Klopp took over Liverpool eight games into the 2015-16 season the Reds were only four points out of the top four2 but this was never a stated goal of his for the season. He knew his new style meant a lot more running for the players, something they weren’t used to, injuries were going to happen. Sacrificing his style to try and make up a few points here and there wasn’t worth it.
Instead Klopp focused on laying the ground work for year two, where Liverpool did improve to fourth place and 76 points. His next step wasn’t to immediately aim to jump higher but establish a new floor. His third season Liverpool finished with 75 point and despite a run to the Champions League final, throughout that season there were still a sizable contingent of Liverpool fans saying the club should have never sacked Brendan Rodgers.
But over three years Klopp had patiently built his core, added the final ingredients, and then started running off 90+ point seasons.
Klopp benefitted from a club with a plan. They all bought in to his style and backed him. Players that didn’t buy in were shipped out as were promising academy players who didn’t quite fit - even if the fans may have been excited about them. They didn’t sign him the players he wanted but rather the ones he needed. If they couldn’t land their top target they moved on to the next player who fit, rather than simply one who was available.
There’s a reason these two are the only current Premier League managers to have been with their clubs for more than five seasons. Neither came in looking for immediate results, they took the time to implement their style and build the core of their teams. Now as the core gets older they’re able to spend money on replacing players one or two at a time, rather than having to undergo full scale rebuilds.
Then there’s Manchester United.
If all the discourse and quotes around Erik Ten Hag sound familiar it’s because it is. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was saying all the same things back in 2019. A three year vision, establishing a new identity, this isn’t going to happen overnight.
Solskjaer spoke of wanting United to play free flowing attacking football. He wanted his team being bold on the ball, taking risks, and when they lose the ball to press and win it back. He had an idea of how he wanted his team to play, and set the youth team’s up to play the same way, with the vision being eventually United will play a possession attacking minded 4-3-3.
Despite all that, Solskjaer always managed as if his job were on the line3. Long term building and developing his ideal style was put on hold as United tried to grind out results.
Solskjaer took one look at his squad entering the 2019-20 season and realized the best way to get results with this team was to play counter-attacking football. When Paul Pogba got hurt early in the season, he was left with a midfield pair of Fred and Scott McTominay, who could provide energy and defensive work, but lacked quality on the ball.
For two years Solskjaer based the majority of his tactics on how could I apply duct tape to cover up each of United’s holes. The first one was the lack of on-ball quality in midfield. At first he devised game plans that featured the team by-passing the midfield entirely. In the second half of the season he often used a back three, with Luke Shaw as the left center back making underlapping runs - which is just a fancy way of saying that Shaw played a lot like a midfielder and took on a lot of their ball progression responsibilities. When Paul Pogba returned and played next to Nemanja Matic, things looked a lot different and United were a much more possession based side.
That summer, after failing in their pursuit of Jude Bellingham, United failed to give Solskjaer any new ball moving midfielder there was another season of having to more of the same. Juan Mata came in as a right wing who dropped into midfield to help progress the ball, in the second half of the season it was Paul Pogba playing that role from the left.
All this done to mask over United’s issues and keep winning and in the short term it worked. Long term, it’s done some damage.
McTominay aren’t great on the ball, whereas Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire are. Instead of trying to develop the style of play he wanted United to eventually get to, more midfield responsibilities were simply given to Shaw and Maguire in addition to their own positional responsibilities (along with Mata and Pogba). Therefore, McTominay, Fred, and right back Aaron Wan-Bissaka were never developing those abilities.
After two years, Solskjaer made the jump to trying to play like he originally intended for the team to play by his third year, only he spent the last two years papering over the cracks rather than building towards this and the wheels promptly fell off.
If Mata or Pogba came out of the team and were replaced by a more forward type winger (rather than a midfielder type), the midfield and Wan-Bissaka would be exposed. Alex Telles is hot garbage but he wasn’t helped by the fact that he was often asked to do things that he was never good at simply because he was replacing Shaw and Shaw was given an abnormal amount of responsibility in buildup. This is why despite having a horrific season last year Harry Maguire was still undroppable. When you took him out of the team United simply could not move the ball forward. What he added to the team in possession outweighed what he was taking away defensively - even if it didn’t seem like it.
That lack of development catches up to you. The other day a colleague brought up a potentially available left back (I should make clear - he was not talking about Tyrell Malacia who is likely to be a backup to Shaw at least this season) and said, he’s better than both Shaw and Telles, Ten Hag should try to bring him in.
I asked, “how does that player fit United?” I got a bunch of explanations as to what the player does and doesn’t do, but never got an answer on how he fits United.
Whether that player is better than Shaw or not is up for debate, but the issue is that player most certainly doesn’t do the things in buildup that Shaw does.
At the moment that’s really important because United have still yet to address their midfield, which means, if United want results they are still going to be over-reliant on Shaw, or rather, the left back position, to compensate for a weak midfield.
That may not be healthy long term, United are more than likely asking Shaw to do too much. However if the midfield isn’t capable of handling their own responsibilities, replacing Shaw with someone who can’t help them out is only going to make everyone worse. Rather what United need to do is focus on building their midfield up so it can handle it’s own job, then if you need to upgrade on your left back you can do so without worrying about whether he can also do those other things.
This comes back to how will Ten Hag approach the season? Long term, what you’d like is for him to say, “I want this position to play like this and do these things with the ball and I want that position to do that and do those things with the ball.”
From there, let the players either develop those skills and habits or weed themselves out of the team. If you start adding responsibilities to some positions to cover for the weaknesses of players in other positions you’re probably going to create more problems for yourself long term. The problem is, the weaknesses in those positions could very well cost you points this season.
That brings it back to what is it United are trying to do. United need to be completely honest with themselves. They’ve fallen quite far and everyone wants to get back to where they were as soon as possible. But what’s more important is to figure out what “as soon as possible” means. It may not be for another three years, it may not be for another four or five. Whatever it is, create a plan for how to get there and don’t try and cheat.
Trying to cut corners or take too many steps at once will only expedite how quickly you end up right back in this situation. You’re trying to get to a place where you’re qualifying for the Champions League eight or nine out of ten times, not two out of three. If one step at a time means not qualifying for the Champions League again, then you have to accept that.
If you’re prioritizing the project then prioritize the project. Trying to get a bit of both is more likely to blow up in your face than work out.
Raheem Sterling, Nicolas Otamendi, Fabien Delph, and Kevin de Bruyne, half of which comprised Pep’s core all arrived a year before Pep
having yet to play Manchester City the eventual 4th place finishers
To an extent it was. Fans were screaming for his head after a team consisting of Dan James, Andreas Pereira, Scott McTominay, Fred, Marco Rojo, Ashley Young, and Diogo Dalot failed to beat Newcastle…