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Ten Hag, Guardiola, Klopp, Tuchel, Conte... what do they all have in common? They don't make miracles
The best coaches improve players by putting them in roles that maximize the skills that player has, not by getting the player to suddenly develop new skills
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Erik Ten Hag’s first pre-season as Manchester United manager has officially begun and to be honest, even the most optimistic of United fans could be forgiven if they can’t find much to be optimistic about. As United’s players report for training camp the club has yet to sign a single new player, while several others have departed the club after their contracts ran out. At the moment, United are carrying an even weaker squad than the one that just had the club’s worst ever Premier League season.
Several reports have indicated that United are very close to signing Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong. With Barcelona reportedly facing a June 30th deadline to sell him by, de Jong could arrive at Old Trafford within the week.
But De Jong is just one player, and a midfielder at that. Midfielder’s can’t do it by themselves. Their job is to facilitate play, protect the back four, and make their teammates better by getting them the ball in positions where they can be their most dangerous. Too often we judge midfielders on archaic things such as goals and assists, when the role they play suggests we should be judging them based on how their team is doing when they play. More than other positions, midfielders are at the mercy of their teammates when it comes to how good they’re going to look.
Midfield is also the weakest area of United’s squad. United just spent six years hoping Paul Pogba could do it all for them, only to be disappointed that he couldn’t. United never really had an idea of how to use Pogba and over six years used him in various different roles. Pogba had a few spells where he looked every bit the player United though they were signing. Those moments always came when he was playing as part of a well balanced midfield that allowed him to do the things he’s best at.
De Jong has played for Erik Ten Hag before and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the manager should know exactly how he’s going to want to use him. That however doesn’t really matter if United don’t have the players to put next to him and play the roles that will be needed for De Jong to do his thing. United currently don’t have those players.
The argument is, Ten Hag will simply develop the players United already have to play those roles, especially when it comes to Scott McTominay, a player who has apparently never gotten real coaching in his five year career. With Ten Hag’s instruction, McTominay or Fred will develop in the system and be molded into good complements for De Jong, or so the argument says.
That’s not quite how it works.
For Erik Ten Hag’s system to work, all his players - but especially his midfielders - need to be comfortable in possession, good with the ball at their feet, and be able to pass.
Scott McTominay cannot play with the ball at his feet. At the age of 25, that’s not going to change. It doesn’t matter what the reason is, whether it be injuries that kept him out for large chunks of his 17 and 18 year oldseasons, or lack of proper coaching for the past five years, the bottom line you don’t get that time back.
Erik Ten Hag is not going to suddenly make Fred or McTominay much better with the ball at their feet. He’s not going to suddenly get them to develop the technical on-ball skills that they are lacking. That’s not what a first team coach does.
While researching a different piece a few months ago I asked someone with first team coaching experience about how much time - at the top level - a manager/coach works on technical ability with a player. Here was his response:
At the top level, training sessions are about fitness and understanding (the tactical plans). Technical skills aren’t worked on specifically but may be developed as part of the regular drills run during the training session. If a player needs to work on a specific technique it comes down to their own desire to improve and the staff is there to help him and set up sessions.
Top coaches get more out of their players. There’s plenty of examples of struggling players who suddenly look completely different when they start working with a different manager.
Fans always talk about managers improving certain players and they absolutely do. But here’s the secret, those managers aren’t working miracles. They’re not taking bad players and suddenly making them superstars, nor are they teaching a player new skills that suddenly make them a whiz on the ball.
Managers get more out of players by putting them in roles that simply ask them to do more of the things they’re good at, and less of the things they’re not good at. It’s that simple.
Jorginho is a modern day regista, a deep lying playmaker. That position on the pitch is where you would typically see a defensive midfielder playing. But Jorginho struggles at actual defending, he’s not that good at it. His game is playing with the ball at his feet and moving the ball around the pitch.
Under Frank Lampard, Jorginho was often left isolated in midfield and tasked with covering a whole lot of space. He struggled in that system and looked really bad. When Thomas Tuchel came in, he put him in a role similar to what he was doing in Roberto Mancini’s Italy team. He gave him more protection and drastically reduced the amount of space Jorginho was asked to cover defensively. Despite being a “defensive midfielder” Jorginho had far fewer defensive responsibilities and was focused more on playing with the ball at his feet and moving it around. Chelsea won the Champions League, Italy won the Euros, and Jorginho was getting shouts to win the Ballon d’Or.
It’s rare for a player to flop at Manchester City. That’s not because Pep Guardiola simply makes every player unbelievable. Guardiola is all about positional football, he teaches space, he teaches zones, he focuses on where players have to be and where you want the ball to go. These are all things that can be taught.
Guardiola doesn’t care about positions - he just won back to back league titles without a striker. What he cares about is every player being able to play with the ball at their feet regardless of position. From there he’ll put you in the role that he feels will utilize your talents.
Every single player Guardiola signs can play with the ball at their feet and easily slot in to a possession system. But most of them hardly play when they first sign. A lot was made about City spending £100 million on Jack Grealish last summer only to keep him on the bench all season, but Grealish’s 22 Premier League starts is actually a lot for new City signing. Riyad Mahrez started 14 matches in the Premier League his first season at the Ethiad. Bernardo Silva started 15, Joao Cancelo 13. In year two Mahrez started 21 matches, Silva 31 and Cancelo 27.
They weren’t on the bench because Pep didn’t trust their ability, they were on the bench as they learned the complex positional system City play. It takes that long. From there he plays you where he wants to play you.
Fabian Delph, and Oleksandr Zinchenko were central midfielders before they arrived at the Ethiad. Pep played them both at left back, which seemed incredibly unconventional. It wasn’t. Pep wasn’t asking these guys to play like conventional left backs, that would be setting them up for failure. In Pep’s system, the central midfielders get more forward and play as interior attackers, while the fullbacks and tuck inside and play as holding midfielders. By playing them at left back he was putting them in the role that utilized their skillset the best.
For the last four years Trent Alexander-Arnold has been the best right back in the Premier League, yet he’s only been capped 17 times by England. Alexander-Arnold is a tremendous passer and crosser. He excels at the attacking points of the game, but is weaker defensively.
Liverpool’s system accommodates this. They run everything through Alexander-Arnold. He’s basically their number 10 just playing at right back. It’s very unique. Alexander-Arnold probably wouldn’t be as good as a central midfielder or a number - he’s good at running into space, creating from wide, and while he does tuck inside pretty often there’s a difference between starting wide and tucking inside and starting inside. Instead of moving Alexander Arnold, Klopp simply changed the roles of his midfielders to be more defensive and to cover for their attacking rightback.
Other than Thiago, most of Liverpool’s midfielders or more functional than flair. Not having to worry about contributing to the attack allows them to focus on the things they’re good at. Breaking up play, keeping possession, recycling the ball around.
Romelu Lukaku has the frame of a target man type striker but he’s not. Jose Mourinho, and Thomas Tuchel both used him heavily as a target man and he struggled in both systems. At Inter, and for Belgium, Antonio Conte and Roberto Martinez played him on the right side of a front two, operating in the half spaces and having him run the channels - playing with his front facing towards the goal. That’s his game, and he thrived in those systems.
Marcus Rashford has always been at his best when playing next to a striker who gives him space to run in behind - and in a team looking to get him in behind. He’s never been good when playing next to your archetypical ‘ball to feet give me service’ types of number 9s.
The list goes on and on. Even Sir Alex Ferguson - a man who seemingly made many miracles - didn’t have the Midas Touch on everything. Gabriel Obertan still stunk. Bebe was still terrible. Federico Macheda had some moments but ultimately spent six years hanging around United’s first team without ever breaking through. If you’re not good you’re just not good.
Coaches don’t develop skill. They put a system in place has different roles for different players so to maximize everyone’s ability.
There are two very important keys to all this working: The first is buy in. Every player needs to completely buy in, especially as the main objective of some players roles is to do all the hard work so their teammate can look better. The second is, every player has to still be able to play with the ball at their feet. In 2022 you can’t have a weak spot that the rest of the team has to carry.
That’s the difference between the top teams and Manchester United right now. United simply don’t have enough technically good players. If you want to win in 2022, that’s the most important quality you can have. Don’t worry about the effort, it will be there. We know that because lack of effort is something that only gets talked about when things aren’t going well.Then the call comes for the players who are perceived to ‘actually care’ to play more, but since those players lack talent you end up maintaining the cycle of losing and outrage.
That’s the situation that Erik Ten Hag is walking into. United don’t just need tactics, they don’t just need coaching, they need more talented players in key areas. They need players who complement each other. If they don’t address that, it doesn’t matter how good of a coach Ten Hag is.
The top coaches all preside over teams that have talent up and down the squad. They put in a system that simply maximizes that talentof as many of their players as possible. They don’t work miracles.
What a coincidence!
The ages where you really develop technical skills
That and Serie A is just a better league for strikers
There are two skills that come to mind as a counter point to this. The first is set pieces but that almost entirely comes from players working on that themselves after training. The other is headers. We’ve seen Ronaldo become a monster in the air under Sir Alex Ferguson and Sadio Mane did similar under Klopp. Though heading has a lot to do with positioning and timing and is totally separate from your on-ball technical skills
You ever notice that when United were winning the only matches where people complained the team “lacked effort” were when injuries/rotation forced Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to field sides made up of United’s least talented players
And inevitably there’s always a good player who doesn’t fit and doesn’t thrive