Three signs Erik ten Hag's masterplan is already working at Man Utd and why he's clearly an upgrade on Ralf Rangnick | The Sun

LET'S be clear from the start, we are only three matches into pre-season.

It's far too early to draw any conclusions about Manchester United's chances to perform towards the top of the Premier League in the upcoming campaign.

But from Erik ten Hag's three games we can start to look for insights into what we might expect this season from a tactical point of view – and work out who he likes and who he really does not.

When Ten Hag was linked with the Manchester United job, there was talk around what fans could expect of him tactically.

The truth was though that whilst he was at Ajax he was actually very versatile in his approach and in the types of players that he wanted to play in different positions.

Take the "No9" role for example.

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At Ajax Ten Hag used ex-Southampton star Dusan Tadic as a false 9 and former West Ham ace Sebastien Haller as more of a target style forward.

What we can say with some certainty is that we are likely to see Manchester United line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

With Cristiano Ronaldo missing from United's tour, Anthony Martial has been given a chance to prove himself as the lone striker.

Meanwhile Bruno Fernandes is free to operate behind the striker in the "No10" position that, er, Christian Eriksen played so well for Brentford last season.

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United fans will be encouraged that Ten Hag is showing signs of wanting his side to play aggressive and attacking football within that 4-2-3-1 shape.

Football that is very much in keeping with what is considered to be the identity of Manchester United. 

Here we take an in depth look at some of the things that have been noticed in the friendly matches played so far.

Rotation and movement

Last season, under both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick, United were fairly predictable in possession of the ball.

Players rarely moved out of their positional slots and the movement of the ball was relatively easy to read.

There is an argument to be made that this was in part because of the presence of Ronaldo at the head of the attack.

There was a clear, and somewhat understandable, tendency for United in the build-up phase to look to play into Ronaldo as early as possible.

As the season moved on, however, this tendency became a real issue as better passing options were ignored in order to force the ball into the Portuguese international.

So far in the three matches, we have seen a lot of examples of rotations and movements throughout the team as United look to unbalance and play through the opposition.

The important thing here though is that these movements are being made with a clear plan in mind.

Ten Hag has started to put in place the concepts that underpin the tactical system that he wants the team to use.

We have seen different patterns depending on the position of the ball.

At some points the two wide forwards will move very narrow to almost play beside the striker, as Fernandes also moves higher into space behind or to the sides of them.

This compact shape creates space wide, that the fullbacks are quick to move into

These different rotations around the pitch will make United far less predictable than they have been over the last couple of seasons.

There is a clear move in order to create overloads and passing lanes in different areas of the pitch to enable United to move into the final third from where they will look for opportunities to score.

Building from the back

The term “building out from the back” has become somewhat overused in recent seasons and fans, sometimes rightly, will sometimes become frustrated at watching their team attempt to do.

There are already signs though that United will be looking to build from the back more often.

What is clear is that under Ten Hag we will see United coached to do this very well and once again it is important that there are clear principles underpinning what they are trying to do.

In the second friendly against Melbourne Victory, we saw interesting methods used by United to get the ball cleanly from the back.

Ten Hag wants his side to create an advantage over the opposition by pulling players back.

This means that when the ball is being pressed by two opposition players, one of the two central midfielders, typically Fred or Scott McTominay, drop back into the defensive line at the sides to receive the ball and play forward.

When this is the rotation the fullbacks will go higher and either position themselves in the channel, if the wingers are wide — or wide, if the wingers are in the channels.

This means that when the midfielder takes possession and looks to play forward there are a lot of options to progress the ball.

By using different combinations, whether midfielders or fullbacks, to drop into the defensive line and overload the opposition press we have seen that United have a clear plan to build their attack.

Pressing smart, not hard

When Rangnick took his role as the temporary coach at United last season there was a lot of excitement among United fans that this would signify a move to a higher-pressure style of play.

The German coach was, after all, closely associated with the Red Bull game model which centres itself on high pressing.

In the end though, United did not evolve in this way and there were suggestions that Rangnick did not believe that the players at United were capable of playing in that way.

Either that or Rangnick just wasn’t all that after all.

So far we have seen Ten Hag expect his side to press, but not overly aggressively, instead the key for United appears to be the players who are positioned behind the press.

While the likes of the forward, wide forwards and "No10" are expected to move to engage the ball carrier and disrupt the build-up from the opposition, it is the midfield and full-backs who are acting aggressively behind that.

United appear to be going man for man behind the press.

This means that should the ball be played through the press we see that the pass forward is being quickly jumped by the next man as United look to create turnovers from the pass forward.

While Ten Hag does not necessarily want his United team to stream forward and look to press the ball in the first 30 yards he does want them to be aggressive in terms of engaging and winning second balls in the middle thirds.

The pressure high up the pitch is looking to disrupt the build-up and force a poor pass forward. From these situations Ten Hag then wants United to be exceptionally difficult to play through.

What does all this mean?

Whisper it quietly, but United are starting to look like an actual football team rather than a randomly assembled collection of expensive footballers.

Don’t forget – this is just three supposedly meaningless pre-season fixtures and we won’t really know anything real until the Premier League season gets underway.

But, there are positives.

Clarity over what is happening with Ronaldo would help Ten Hag, no matter how much is keeping the door open in public.

Where he fits in Eriksen is another head-scratcher.

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Adding in a sprinkling of Frenkie de Jong should only see this whole thing come together even better but they can stop chasing Antony based on what we’ve seen so far.

Should United fans be getting excited? Is anyone going to stop them no matter what we’ve shown you anyway?

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