Are Man Utd right to put transfer strategy in Ten Hag's hands?

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Before the latest Cristiano Ronaldo transfer plea emerged last weekend, the conversation around Manchester United in this window focused primarily on their incoming business and the club's transfer policy.

A year ago, under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United looked to be building a young, exciting team, only to be distracted by the pull of nostalgia and Ronaldo.

The end result was United's worst ever Premier League points return, with Solskjaer lasting only until November and a number of the side's promising talents – including big-money buy Jadon Sancho – enduring difficult campaigns. All the while, Ronaldo tallied more than 20 club goals for a 16th consecutive season.

Rushed through amid rival interest from neighbours Manchester City, Ronaldo's clearly was not a considered transfer, and less than 12 months on it could not be deemed a success, despite the individual displays that have reportedly attracted the attention of Chelsea among others.

There appears to have been a great deal more thought put into United's movement this year – not that their new approach has escaped criticism.

Ten Hag's total control

There is a clear theme running through United's reported shopping list in their first transfer window under ex-Ajax coach Erik ten Hag:

Ajax defender Jurrien Timber, Ajax defender Lisandro Martinez, Feyenoord defender Tyrell Malacia, who was of interest to Ten Hag at Ajax, former Ajax midfielder Frenkie de Jong, former Ajax midfielder Christian Eriksen, who trained with Ajax again last season, and Ajax winger Antony.

Erik Ten Hag potential XI
Erik Ten Hag potential XI

It is only natural to wonder how many of these players would have been targeted had Solskjaer still been in charge, or Ralf Rangnick, or even, say, Mauricio Pochettino.

United, it seems, have granted Ten Hag – one of the few remaining managers in a world of head coaches – complete control.

Of course, this is nothing new at Old Trafford, where David Moyes was allowed to bring along Marouane Fellaini from Everton, Louis van Gaal to recruit Netherlands pair Daley Blind and Memphis Depay, and Jose Mourinho to reunite with Chelsea's Nemanja Matic – who has now joined him again at Roma.

In each case, the absence of a sporting director and an overarching plan was scrutinised.

Now, even with John Murtough in as football director and Darren Fletcher as technical director, United have again changed strategy entirely to suit the wants of the first-team manager – still the most important figure at the club.

This latest development has unsurprisingly been highlighted by United's detractors, but is it really such an issue in this case?

Ajax a class above United

There are worse clubs to be pinching a team's worth of players from than Ajax, renowned for developing world-class talents across several generations.

As recently as three years ago, Ten Hag's Ajax faced Eriksen's Tottenham – also featuring Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sanchez – in the Champions League semi-finals; United last reached the final four of Europe's elite club competition in 2011.

Ajax have been operating without the benefits of United's Premier League broadcasting contracts and, in 2022, have far more modest ambitions, yet they far outperformed the Red Devils in the Champions League across Ten Hag's tenure.

The Eredivisie side won 53.1 per cent of their 32 Champions League matches under their now former coach, with United winning just 38.5 per cent of their own 26 games over the same period. Ajax also scored more goals in the competition (2.0 per game versus 1.5) and conceded fewer (1.1 versus 1.3).

Ajax v Man Utd
Ajax v Man Utd

These Ajax players have set a far higher standard than that seen from recent United teams, so why would the club deny Ten Hag the opportunity to attempt to recreate that success at Old Trafford?

And whether by relying heavily on ex-Ajax men or otherwise, United's squad needed to undergo serious surgery to fit with Ten Hag's ideals – the ideals that attracted the 20-time English champions to him in the first place.

No room for Ronaldo?

If Ten Hag can effectively communicate his methods to players old and new, expect United to look very different this season – both with and without the ball.

Only Bayern Munich and Liverpool averaged a greater share of possession than Ajax (61.6 per cent) in the Champions League last season, with United (53.8) back in 10th in this regard.

Martinez (80.3 passes per 90) and Timber (74.7) were Ajax's most prolific passers, helping Ten Hag's men to build from the back. While United's passing leaders were also centre-backs – Raphael Varane (57.9), Victor Lindelof (54.7) and Harry Maguire (51.7) – they trailed a long way behind.

Crucially, Timber (93.3 per cent) and Martinez (91.9) were also the top performing Ajax or United players in terms of passing accuracy. Red Devils captain Maguire's far inferior 87.5 per cent accuracy perhaps shows why Ten Hag has been so keen to recruit one of his former ball-playing defenders.

Harry Maguire
Harry Maguire

But Ajax do not dominate just because of how careful they are in possession; they are also hugely proactive off the ball.

Ajax employed the most aggressive press in terms of opposition passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA) in three of Ten Hag's four Champions League campaigns, ranking second behind Bayern Munich in 2020-21.

Indeed, Ten Hag's last season was Ajax's most effective in this regard. They allowed just 7.4 PPDA – Bayern (8.8) were next, with United (12.1) 15th – and started their possessions 48.7 metres upfield on average, 2.0m more advanced than second-placed Chelsea (United were 12th – 43.0m).

Ajax
Ajax

Ten Hag clearly feels he needs more energy in midfield (De Jong) and attack (Antony), which makes reports United still want to keep Ronaldo a little odd. He averaged 16.8 pressures per 90 across the 2021-22 Premier League season, by far the fewest of any United attacker – Edinson Cavani, for example, averaged 35.8.

Letting Ronaldo leave might mean acknowledging an almighty error, but it would also represent a huge show of faith in a coach for whose system the five-time Ballon d'Or winner evidently appears unsuited.

And such trust in Ten Hag would certainly seem to fall in line with the rest of United's activity in this window.

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