It’s been been three years and four months since Jose Mourinho was sacked as Manchester United manager.
United’s players have been tactically neglected since that Mourinho left on that December morning in 2018. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer viewed man management as his ‘passion’ and ‘an art and a science’ and he never hid his preference for that aspect of his role.
Solskjaer’s win percentage against Pep Guardiola was genuinely remarkable considering how tactically inferior he was to the Catalan — and to most other managers — but he could only get away with it for so long. Solskjaer was sacked in November but his axing was six weeks too late. The writing had already long been on the wall. Solskjaer’s tactical failings were his undoing.
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“You are my Solskjaer, My Ole Solskjaer,” was heard from United’s travelling contingent at the Amex Stadium on Saturday afternoon. It was a show of support from fans who understood he was in charge of a gutless playing squad. Although that’s true, Solskjaer never helped himself and he was ultimately responsible for his dismissal. He was eventually out of his depth.
Ralf Rangnick has talked a great tactical game but that’s not been put into practice. There is recognition that Rangnick is doing the impossible job — the players are the club have been a stain on the club’s history this season — but there’s no denying his tenure has been a disaster. The experiment has been a resounding failure and he was grossly unqualified to manage United.
Rangnick has had little coaching experience over the last decade. He masterminded RB Leipzig’s rise through the German divisions from the boardroom instead and it’s telling that the Austrian national team job is his best offer after managing at Old Trafford. The path from managing United and then going directly to Austria will surely never be walked again.
United haven’t improved under Rangnick and they continue to look tactically incompetent, which has been exacerbated by the unforgiving lack of heart and desire from the players within the dressing room. Tactics are nothing without the basics.
United need to have a flash sale this summer. There can’t possibly be enough departures from the club and it seems inevitable some players will overstay their welcome. United haven’t been smart with contracts and the stock of their squad is tragically low.
For the players that remain beyond the summer, they will benefit from something that United haven’t had since Mourinho: a tactically competent manager. Erik ten Hag has enjoyed his success exclusively in the Netherlands, but his Ajax side have punched well above their weight in the Champions League. Ten Hag’s tactical nous has been the key to their underdog success on the biggest stage.
Ten Hag is known to be meticulous in his preparation. He’s also known to be shy and reserved to journalists that have regularly spent time at his press conferences, but it’s claimed he comes alive when discussing tactics. That’s more his language.
What can United fans expect tactically from Ten Hag? The Dutchman has taken inspiration from Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp throughout his career and he lauded Liverpool’s ability to create overloads when asked about his tactics two years ago.
When analysing an Ajax against PSV, Ten Hag said: “We call that ‘creating several 10s’. Getting between the lines. You see that in the movements off the ball. Dusan’s run. Liverpool are masters of this, creating space for each other with the off-the-ball runs.
“Because [Dusan] Tadic goes wide — opening up the centre and Joel [Veltman] gives the ball at the right time to Donny. That creates a three-on-two situation in the centre. Van de Beek, [Kasper] Dolberg and [Quincy] Promes against Luckassen and Dumfries.
“In order to destroy the opponent you need off-the-ball runs. That’s the key to success.”
It’s embarrassing United have had to wait over three years for a tactically competent manager. But at least that wait is now over.
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