Erik ten Hag arrived at Old Trafford equipped with a few passing drills. The themes seem to involve passing the ball forward, finding team-mates in close quarters and keeping the ball on the ground. None of which sounds radical. All of which appears necessary.
Manchester United’s new manager also came with a shortlist of targets who can pass the ball. Lisandro Martinez, with an average of 87 passes per 90 minutes, can build up from the back. Christian Eriksen’s capacity to unlock defences meant that only Kevin de Bruyne and Jack Grealish averaged more shot-creating actions per 90 minutes in last season’s Premier League. Frenkie de Jong, the numbers show, will complete at least 89 per cent of his passes in a La Liga or Champions League campaign, which should bode well for the Premier League and the Europa League.
The training ground and the transfer market may form twin weapons in Ten Hag’s armoury. If his task is to make United better, in particular it is to make them better on the ball. If there are plenty of ways in which United have fallen behind in the last nine years, possession ranks among the most significant. United had a 52.1 per cent share last season, lower than Brighton, some 16.7 per cent adrift of Manchester City. In itself, it underlines how Pep Guardiola has changed the game: in Sir Alex Ferguson’s day, no team normally averaged 60 per cent in a Premier League campaign, let alone 68.
In the Scot’s final season, United finished fourth in the possession charts and won the league and, in as much as such statistics are available from his day, that was typical. Fergieball wasn’t a philosophy as much as a self-perpetuating winning habit. He could have two playmakers, in Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, but no overriding commitment to keeping the ball. He was famously left dizzied by Barcelona’s “passing carousel” in their Guardiola years.
All of which felt more important when one of Ferguson’s disciples became manager in a retro project. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s striking career peaked at the Nou Camp but, oblivious to developments there in the Guardiola years, his vision of football felt trapped in his own playing days which was why, when confronted by passing teams, he could only respond with quick counter-attacking.
Whether under him or Ralf Rangnick, United were strangers to the ball against the best last season. Last season, they had 37 and 28 percent of possession against Liverpool, 33 and 31 against City, 35 and 36 against Chelsea. They did not top 45 against either Tottenham or Arsenal either. And whereas in previous seasons, Solskjaer specialised in heists, winning with little possession, United had only a double against Spurs to show for their minority share. Meanwhile, during Guardiola’s reign, City have never averaged below 60 per cent of the ball in a full season, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool under 58 or United over 55. It seemed to signify a gulf in cohesion and class. It can follow that the teams with more of the ball score more goals and win more games.
It is not automatic, however. The aberration in United’s recent history, the time when they were a possession team, came under a former Ajax manager. United topped the charts in Louis van Gaal’s first season, with 58.8 per cent. They ranked second in his sophomore season, but scored a mere 47 goals. Their passing was pointless, sideways and sterile. That three of Ferguson’s first four successors – David Moyes, Jose Mourinho and Solskjaer – had no real passing ethos may have made them a team out of time.
It is where Ten Hag represents a break from the past. Perhaps he benefitted from the Dutch culture at Ajax; yet total football came with rather lesser resources than the modern-day continental giants enjoy. Nonetheless, Ajax had a 61.8 per cent share of possession in last season’s Champions League, third behind only Bayern Munich and Liverpool. They have consistently boasted over 50 per cent under Ten Hag, invariably rather more than United and often while proving potent.
It took the kind of collective quality that United have lacked. Given the individualistic culture at Old Trafford, it has felt at times as though passing has been left to certain big names. Bruno Fernandes has been simultaneously United’s best and worst passer, the most likely to create something and give the ball away. Paul Pogba could be a spectacularly good long passer. Donny van de Beek, accustomed to lining up with like-minded players in a system, was miscast as a Solskjaer player.
United have lacked a midfield metronome – a role De Jong may assume if he joins – but also a style of play where passing feels fluent and natural. They actually have ball-playing centre-backs, in Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof. In many another position, their numbers, for pass completion and accuracy, are significantly worse than those of their City and, at times, Liverpool counterparts. In some cases – Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Scott McTominay, Fred, the departed Dan James – it is tempting to wonder if individuals are technically good enough. McTominay and Fred’s prominence in pre-season suggests they will be tests of Ten Hag’s coaching prowess. Alternatively, one could make way for De Jong or Eriksen.
But the broader issue is to turn United into a side who are comfortable with the ball. That should be both an attacking and a defensive objective: if part of Mourinho’s thinking is that teams could control games without the ball, United, leaking 57 goals last season, could not. If reaching City-like levels of possession seems a long-term task, perhaps other indications of progress are more attainable. And maybe it would be a stylistic success for Ten Hag if this season, unlike last, a United player makes more passes in the Premier League than Brighton’s Lewis Dunk.