Four ways Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United is beginning to take shape

Manchester United will return unbeaten and in good spirits from their pre-season tour of Thailand and Australia.

While it can always be dangerous to read too much into pre-season friendlies, impressive victories over Liverpool, Melbourne Victory and Crystal Palace were followed by a 2-2 draw at Aston Villa on Saturday.

Erik ten Hag will have to work quickly to instill his own style of play and tactical principles into a side that lacked any identity last season, while new signings Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martinez will shortly join the rest of his squad.

While there is still more business to be done as the pursuit of Frenkie de Jong could last all summer, there have already been hints of what to expect during the Ten Hag era.

Here, The Independent takes a look at some of the clues United’s tour provided as to how Ten Hag will set up his side…

De Gea is still in goal, but plays more expansively

With Dean Henderson’s move to Nottingham Forest on loan, the theory that David de Gea’s position under Ten Hag’s management could be in question has been thoroughly debunked. There is now no question that he will start between the posts on the opening weekend of the season.

Still, De Gea’s limitations with the ball at foot and his more traditional goalkeeping skills in general have been a point of discussion for a number of years and whether he can adapt to Ten Hag’s definition of a modern goalkeeper is still a pertinent question.

Last season, De Gea averaged 13.6 meters off his line in defensive action, the deepest of any goalkeeper at the Big Six clubs. However, the first signs are that he is adapting and becoming less risk-averse when a few infrequent forays from his line to eliminate danger and more ambitious, long-range passes are something to overlook.

There will likely be teething problems – Ten Hag didn’t seem too happy with one of De Gea’s passing decisions in the win over Crystal Palace – but given there is plenty to do in other areas of the squad this summer, De Gea will keep their place and be asked to play more expansively.

Manchester United captain Harry Maguire


Maguire right in defence, Martinez on the left

Although United have been frustrated in their attempts to sign other priority targets in the summer market, Lisandro Martinez will emerge as the club’s most expensive defender. A deal worth €55m (£46.8m) plus €10m in benefits was reached with Ajax last weekend provided he completes a medical.

Martinez’s versatility and experience as a defensive midfielder have been highlighted – as has his 5ft 9in height – but Ten Hag has given a clear indication of where his new signing will play. “I analyzed and United were quite vulnerable in the left section of defense last year. He’s left-footed and that’s an advantage in possession, but also in defence.”

Harry Maguire typically played on the left side of United’s defense last season. While Ten Hag’s identification of a “weak point” could appeal to many and be interpreted as bad news for Maguire, the United manager has shown confidence in his captain by keeping him as skipper and reaffirming his first-choice status.

“I think he is [a first-choice player]. He has proved it in the past, but he must also prove it in the present and in the future. He has played 46 times for England. Harry is really impressive and I expect a lot from him,” said Ten Hag. “There is also internal competition and that is what a club like United needs. You can’t win with 11 players. We need a squad.”

Where is Raphael Varane? While a world champion and four-time Champions League winner might expect to be a regular starter, the reality of Varane’s first season at United was that he was often unavailable, failing to make the Premier League matchday squad 13 times.

Victor Lindelof could well expect to be more than a fourth choice. Eric Bailly and Phil Jones also remain in the books. Maguire seems to have the support of his manager and can expect to start alongside Martinez for now, but the competition behind them both is suddenly fierce. Ten Hag has options to choose from.

Erik ten Hag liked what he saw of Fred in a holding role


De Jong as a holding player, if not Fred

United’s quest for priority transfer target Frenkie de Jong seems no closer despite an agreement with Barcelona on the structure of a deal totaling €85million (£72.3million). The issue of his unpaid, deferred wages – believed to be worth at least £17million – is still a major stumbling block.

Ten Hag has questioned De Jong’s suitability for a lone holding role in the past, typically pairing him with a more defensive player during his time at Ajax. However, when asked specifically about De Jong’s pursuit earlier this week, he specifically referred to the need for a holding player.

“We’re looking for a player who can play in midfield, but it has to be the right one,” said the United coach. “There aren’t many in this position who can reach the level we demand. If we don’t find him, we now have to look after the players in our squad and we will develop one in that position.”

If De Jong doesn’t arrive – and maybe even if he does – Fred seems most likely to be developed in the deepest role. It’s not one he’s always been particularly comfortable with in the past, sometimes making hasty decisions and failing to adequately cover an overexposed defense.

Fred was one of the few United players to emerge from last season with recognition for his achievements, but even then he played in a midfield pair with Scott McTominay rather than as a lone holding player.

However, Ten Hag has trusted him at the base of midfield this preseason and is happy with what he has seen so far.

“Right now he’s playing the role of connector and defending the attack,” he said of Fred on Friday. “I think he plays the role quite well. I’m happy with this performance, with its improvement so far. I think he can do better and I will support him in that and he brings energy to the team with his attitude.”

Anthony Martial found form in the preseason


Martial at the top?

If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had had his way, United would have started the 2020-21 season with a first-choice pick of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jadon Sancho. Two years later, this vision has finally come true. It doesn’t look bad either.

Eight of the 13 goals scored in United’s four tour friendlies came from either Rashford, Sancho or Martial. Martial in particular has at least partially restored his reputation after spending several months on the sidelines in the first half of last season, followed by a miserable loan spell at Sevilla.

A front three that seemed unlikely just a few weeks ago could now start in the opening weekend. “It may be so,” said Ten Hag when the suggestion was made to him. “You see they’re a really good match and I think that’s when you see you’re lucky as a manager.

“The team is lucky, we have a threat, we have weapons, we have to improve and develop that every day.”

The elephant in the room is Cristiano Ronaldo, who would ideally leave United this summer and join a club capable of competing for major honours. With few escape routes open to him, there’s every chance his wish won’t be granted.

While it’s hard to imagine the five-time Ballon d’Or winner settling for less than one seed, it’s also hard to see how his reserved centre-forward playing style matches the dynamic attack seen up front . season tour.

Ten Hag has yet to work with Ronaldo as he hasn’t trained or traveled as United have accepted it’s a ‘family issue’ and his manager conceded Ronaldo will need time to get used to his methods get used to. “I’m focusing on the players who are there, they’re doing really well, they’re in good shape, I’d rather focus on that and develop that. I can’t wait for him to come in, then we’ll integrate him.” Four ways Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United is beginning to take shape

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