Erik ten Hag is still flush from the training activities and San Diego sunshine as he sits down with reporters after the final session of Manchester United’s pre-season tour to the United States.
He is also beaming because news has just emerged that United will complete their third signing of the summer, striker Rasmus Hojlund from Atalanta, to go with goalkeeper Andre Onana and midfielder Mason Mount, ticking off the three positions prioritised at the end of last season.
In a room overlooking the pitches at the University of California San Diego, facilities United have predominantly called home on this four-match trip, Ten Hag opens up on how important recruitment is to his chances of success as well as a variety of other pressing topics ahead of his second season as United manager.
The Athletic details what he said and the context around it.
What kind of football can we expect from United next season?
“I think it’s not so much different from last season, but we want to do it better. In every moment of the game, we have to improve.
“What fits this team is transition, both ways. When you want to have a good attacking transition, you need very good pressing. That’s key, and so we work a lot on that, on moments where we are compact. From compactness, we press the opponent and that can be in different levels on the pitch. But we have to play proactive defending — and once we have the ball we have to keep the ball, or go on a transition.”
Ten Hag saying “what fits this team” is an indication of his pragmatism as a manager. While he has underlying principles, he will tweak specific details depending on the players available to him. It also seems he is making a nod to United’s historical association with counter-attacking football.
He wants to press high and the signings of Mount and Hojlund match this. Onana, meanwhile, opens more possibilities for “proactive defending” due to his comfort with the ball at his feet and advanced starting position. United’s defenders should be able to step up with greater confidence.
Onana’s forward-thinking was clear against Real Madrid in Houston on Wednesday and fellow goalkeeper Tom Heaton was instructed to do the same against Borussia Dortmund in Las Vegas last night. At a United attacking corner, Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof and Diogo Dalot urged Heaton forward from his box to the centre circle.
Mount’s work off the ball for Chelsea and England was one of the main reasons Ten Hag brought him in, and having only turned 20 years old in February, Hojlund, a player with athleticism, can be sculpted to the Dutchman’s desires at centre-forward.
Ten Hag was also asked whether this style is partly why United did not move for Harry Kane. Ten Hag’s diplomacy allowed room for his clear admiration of the Tottenham Hotspur striker and England captain. “I don’t talk about players in other clubs. I have to respect the club and respect the player. I think especially Harry Kane, I have huge respect because he is a great striker, one of the best ever. Maybe he can even be the best striker ever in the Premier League.”
Ten Hag wanted a proven Premier League scorer ideally as well as Hojlund, and his nod to Kane’s bid to break Alan Shearer’s competition record of 260 goals (Kane has 213) is perhaps a hint he would still like the now 30-year-old at Old Trafford one day.
Given United’s financial fair play considerations, how much of an influence do you have on money spent on signings and the fees for player sales?
“I’m totally involved, but you have seen all the investments which other clubs are making and you can’t compete in the Premier League for the top positions when you don’t invest in your squad. You see the market but I can do nothing for it or anyone else at United. It’s a choice: if you want to compete you have to invest.
“We are always looking for better quality. So if you want to be at United, you have to match a really high standard and when we find the opportunities to get better we have to do it because everyone is expecting the best from us.
“So we also have to raise the bar there but it’s also very important that the players understand we believe in them — believe in their potential, believe in their personalities, because team spirit, the fight together, the social connection, the relationships, has to be really good among footballers. It’s a team sport and when we are unified we are stronger.”
Ten Hag makes no secret of his authority on transfer matters, nor any apologies for demanding financial backing to compete with other leading clubs. Ten Hag was pushing behind the scenes for quick signings this summer even before the end of last season, so getting three in two weeks before 2023-24 kicks off is a sign of his influence.
His point on personalities is important too. He did work to find out about the kind of people Mount and Hojlund are, having already known Onana having managed him for several years at Ajax in the Netherlands, and believes they will enhance the dressing room dynamic.
Ten Hag was also asked whether the money spent in his two summer windows at Old Trafford increases the pressure on him. United have agreed deals worth £179million ($230.1m) in this market, after committing £229m in Ten Hag’s first few months. He returned to his familiar point, saying: “It can’t be because all the teams are investing huge money. In comparison with the others, we are not doing more or less. They all invested a lot in their teams. I’m not focusing on this issue because it’s totally, for me, unattractive.
“I have to think about my way of play and how I improve my team. I will fight for players who I want to have in and I will demand from the club to get the right players in and when we have that, we have to get results. I think we are unified in this club. We all work for the same objectives.”
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The gap to Manchester City when you arrived was 35 points. After last season, it was 14. With the signings you have made, how confident are you that you can close that even further? Maybe push for the title?
“I think in pre-season we shouldn’t talk about that. I think no one in the Premier League can do that — maybe City can do that because for the last six years they won the title five times. But any other club must first compete for the first four positions (in the table), and make sure you are getting in the first four and then, after, the first two, and then maybe you can see about getting yourself into such a position (to win the title), but don’t talk about that achievement.”
Ten Hag is making sure expectations are measured. He understands from last season the hype that can surround United when optimism builds and wants to underline how the first objective is another top-four finish and so another year of Champions League revenue.
He was, though, reminded that he said “all eras come to an end” at his United unveiling. He replied: “I think we have proven we can beat them (City; a 2-1 Premier League win at Old Trafford in January) but you have to do it every day and in this moment we have a way to go. City is also winning their games much more easily than we did, so I see the facts.
“But I don’t want to talk about them because it sounds negative and it’s not the way I meant it. I want to talk about our project. It was quite obvious that we could beat the big opponents, and also City. In the three games (last season) you saw absolutely that we increased the levels against them.”
You’ve mentioned Marcus Rashford having the right mentality several times on tour and then lifestyle earlier. Is there some concern about him?
“No, it’s in general. For all the players, you have to live the right life. Professional football is tough so, in general, our players can’t match the sensational life playing top football. Top football is tough nowadays — 60 games a year in club football, 10 international games. Seventy games means that every third or fourth day you have to match the highest physical levels. When you’re not living the right life, you get killed.
“What is important? Sleep, recovery, nutrition. Three key areas, and when you don’t do this right, you have a problem. You can’t perform. The same counts for every player.
“I think, in general, when I came in at Man United, the standards were not right. That’s true. I demand the highest standards in sleep, recovery and nutrition, because that makes the difference if you can perform every third or fourth day. That is the demand for every top football player, so at Man United we are demanding the highest standards. You need the right culture, you need the right players.”
In his time as United manager Sir Alex Ferguson would use certain players when he wanted to make a point en masse, and Ten Hag could be doing the same here. He might also be making sure Rashford doesn’t relax after having a terrific season and then signing a new contract. But it is abundantly clear Ten Hag expects commitment from his players when they are both inside and outside Carrington.
On this tour, the club’s commercial department have sometimes proposed an engagement when players have a two-hour window in their diaries. Ten Hag rejects these, insisting such rest periods have been allotted for a reason.
Jadon Sancho has been here two years now. You obviously believe in him but is this almost a make-or-break season for him?
“He has the skills, so also for him it’s the same. He has to show consistently that he can make a huge contribution. When you are a front player that end-product is the key. So make sure you are making the key actions, the final pass, and get your goals in, because that’s why he is here.”
Ten Hag has selected Sancho as a false nine this pre-season, and is genuinely looking to see if that could work in the Premier League. But Sancho needs to be scoring to get games at that position. He finished well against Arsenal in New Jersey last weekend, but Ten Hag wants that on a regular basis.
Ten Hag was also asked if Sancho has overcome the problems that led to him taking some time out last season. He said: “In this moment he is in a very good vibe. He decides how he is, how his mood and vibe is. I hope and expect. He has a lot of energy, we have all seen that from the moment he came back. He wants to enjoy football and be successful.” Ten Hag is saying it is within Sancho’s gift to play with fire in his belly.
It was put to Ten Hag that Sancho looks a different player to the one seen at previous club Dortmund, in terms of taking opponents on. Ten Hag pointed animatedly at his questioner when asked if this is because he playing at a higher level with United.
“It’s the development,” he added. “The Bundesliga is perfect preparation for the Premier League. But it’s tougher. I think your vision is a little bit grey. I saw many games at Dortmund and Jadon is not such a different player in Dortmund as he is here.”
You made some big calls this summer, taking the captaincy off Harry Maguire and moving on from David de Gea. How hard was that?
“It’s the difference between a manager and a human being. In the end, top football is about getting results and then you have to make decisions, but you have to do it in an honest and transparent way. The club appointed me to take such decisions in these moments, but to also communicate those decisions and do it in a straight and honest way. That is what I’m always looking to do. I always try to do it in that way.”
Essentially, Ten Hag’s responsibility as manager overrides his empathy. He is clear in his thinking and direct with his words. He wanted to wait until all his squad were together in New Jersey before communicating to Maguire and then the team that Bruno Fernandes would be his new captain, insisting on the club putting out a statement while that meeting was still going on so that it did not leak out first.
Ten Hag expanded on his choice over Maguire, who started eight games, came on in eight more and was an unused substitute 15 times in the 2022-23 Premier League. “It’s nothing against Harry, it was in advantage of the team. Then you make the decision. But I will not say that Harry isn’t part of this group. He has to fight for his position. He is a very good centre-back. It’s just that he has to prove himself. It’s up to him, and I think he can do it.”
What did you do after FA Cup final — you had a break to reflect but also look ahead?
“Yes, of course, that was a time for me to reflect. You do it, of course, every day but you have time (after the final match of a season) because the next game is not in three or four days. As a manager, you always have to reflect and from thereon you make your improvements. We are taking a thousand decisions a day and I always do my best to find a construction that is based on a (strong) argument. In that perspective, you think a lot before you take a decision.”
Ten Hag used that space following United’s final match of the season to make his calls on De Gea and Maguire, and set in motion the pursuits of Mount, Onana and Hojlund. And the club got their important work done much quicker than usual.
(Top photo: Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)