In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Erik ten Hag explains how and why Manchester United can turn things around in the second half of the season. Watch Nottingham Forest vs Man Utd on Sky Sports Premier League this Saturday from 5pm; kick-off 5.30pm
Manchester United’s dramatic come-from-behind win over Aston Villa felt like a big moment. With new investment off the field and Rasmus Hojlund’s first Premier League goal on it, this was the boost Erik ten Hag and the Old Trafford crowd needed.
Speaking to Ten Hag at the club’s training ground ahead of the follow-up fixture away to Nottingham Forest on Saturday, he is cautious about calling the victory a turning point. There have been too many of them already. But he wants to stress his gratitude.
“We want to go back to that, creating that great atmosphere,” he tells Sky Sports. “It starts with us and showing that we really have a plan and you can see a team that is really hungry, really ambitious, really determined, and then you energise our great fans.
“I really have to thank them. They are always behind us.”
He adds: “Away from home and at Old Trafford, they always keep going even when we have setbacks, even when we cannot line up the players we want, with all the setbacks and the injuries, they are always behind us. They believe in us. So I say thank you to them.”
It would be understandable if faith were waning when two down to Aston Villa and heading for a third straight home defeat. Out of Europe before Christmas and even now lying in seventh at the halfway stage in the Premier League season, it has been tough.
The biggest encouragement for Ten Hag, given the constant noise that surrounds Manchester United, is that his team conjured a victory rather than just capitulating. The players are still fighting. “They never gave up. I have to credit that,” he says.
“They are determined. They have dealt with a lot of setbacks this season but we are still there. We are still in the group of contenders to go for a successful season. I am sure this team is hungry, this team is very ambitious, and we will strive for that.”
The onus is on Ten Hag to piece the puzzle together and perhaps there are signs of solutions. Starting Alejandro Garnacho on the right wing for the first time this Premier League season brought two goals in a game for the first time in his fledgling career.
“You always try to find the balance,” he explains.
“The balance on Boxing Day was very good with Garna on the right, Rasmus in the middle and Marcus Rashford off the left. Hopefully, we can continue that.” Hojlund will surely benefit from the presence of a winger crossing from the byline rather than cutting inside.
“It is not only about the wingers. You also want the full-backs there. But we have often had to make compromises over the first half of the season. Diogo Dalot is right-footed and on the left side. It can work very good but it is not always beneficial for your strikers.
“With Garnacho on the right you get a right-footer, a different type of player who can go inside but also go outside. We want those dynamics with swapping positions, combinations, getting in behind, bringing it out of the triangles and, from there, serving our strikers.”
The pace of United’s play was thrilling at times during the second half against Villa. It seems to be the template for this team with youthful energy in the final third. Ten Hag regularly talks of high ball-regains – winning it off the opponent in advanced areas of the pitch.
The transition game is arguably the one aspect where United have been a match for anyone in the Premier League, even during a difficult season. They rank among the top three for possession won in the final third and high turnovers resulting in a shot.
“It is what we have. It is the players’ competencies. The qualities of our players is suitable for it so we have to use it. Overloads, high ball-regains, high pressing. You can see how good it can be. When our squad is at its best, we can compete with the best.”
That Ten Hag has so embraced this style of play, and still seems committed to making it work, is curious given his background. He was appointed because of his accomplishments at Ajax, a team that epitomised the possession game. Dominating by keeping the ball.
Manchester City were the only team in Europe’s top seven leagues to have more possession than Ten Hag’s Ajax in his final season there. But he has eschewed that approach for something different at United. He wants this team to play quicker, more direct. Why?
“It has to do with the nature of the players, definitely,” he explains. “But it also has to do with the DNA of this club.” Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho never embraced that. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did but could take it no further. That is what Ten Hag hopes to do.
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“My philosophy is that I want to play from the back and if everyone is on board, you will see, we will do it. When we have the team ready, we will do it. You see already the direction in the last couple of games where we have had higher possession numbers.
“We have players like Bruno (Fernandes) who can receive and pass. We have Christian Eriksen and Kobbie Mainoo who are very good at serving and then, with the speed of our players, we can play very direct, arriving very quickly into the box of the opponent.”
Mainoo, 18, has impressed. Thrust in for his full Premier League debut at Everton, he has started each of the last three. An error at West Ham did not dull his appetite for the ball. “He has personality. That is what you need if you want to play here,” says Ten Hag.
“He is very talented. He has to work hard but he looks very composed. He is very mature for his age. What he brings to the team is his composure and his game understanding. He is always looking to go forward. That is what I like in a player.”
One of the issues for United this season has been that whoever has been operating as the so-called pivot – Mainoo, Sofyan Amrabat or Casemiro – has risked becoming isolated because of the tendency for Fernandes, Eriksen and Mason Mount to vacate midfield.
Ten Hag has tried to counter that by deploying Dalot as an inverted full-back. He was superb at right-back against Liverpool, despite his late red card. “I think we surprised Liverpool with that. We were very successful in bringing them out of their comfort zone.”
Against Villa, he performed a similar function moving inside from left-back. “Diogo Dalot is a player who can play inverted. It is a question of the demands of the game. Where do we need him? Where are the spaces?” Stopping Forest’s counter-attack will be critical.
The intention at the City Ground will be for Manchester United to dominate, of course. “Our game, it is always about that. We want to attack always. But the rest defence and the defensive transition are so important if you want to control the game.”
That control has been missing too often but there is a bullishness about Ten Hag right now. He speaks of the imminent return of Lisandro Martinez, a player who might bring the defensive line higher up the pitch, helping United’s pressing to be more coherent.
Casemiro and Mount, Tyrell Malacia and Harry Maguire, are all expected to be available again in January. “I think when the players return they can be new signings for us,” argues Ten Hag. “They will strengthen the squad and definitely we need that.”
With a stronger squad and a less congested fixture list – United will play their final 18 Premier League games over 20 weeks – maybe just maybe the corner has been turned, after all. Improbably, victory over Forest would move them within eight points of top spot.
“We want to win every game,” adds Ten Hag.
“If you bring that ambition and that mentality to win games, we have a very good chance to achieve our targets.”
Watch Nottingham Forest vs Manchester United on Sky Sports Premier League this Saturday from 5pm; kick-off 5.30pm