Home » Mirroring Michels: Is Erik ten Hag attempting to implement Total Football at Manchester United?

Mirroring Michels: Is Erik ten Hag attempting to implement Total Football at Manchester United?

by Seth Dooley

Engrained in Ajax, Total Football has become synonymous with Dutch football and attacking philosophy. As a manager from the Netherlands, Erik ten Hag will naturally be extremely well-educated in the art form. But has the former Ajax coach already brought Total Football along with him to Manchester United?

Following four years in Amsterdam, Ten Hag has spared no time in instilling his ideals around Carrington. As Marcus Rashford learned prior to Saturday’s victory against Wolverhampton Wanderers, if you do not adhere to these ideals then you will be punished. Alejandro Garnacho felt a similar wrath during pre-season. Discipline is key to a Ten Hag squad and its mentality.

Ten Hag may consider strict discipline as essential due to his upbringing in Total Football. As Johan Cruyff – perhaps the person most commonly associated with the style – wrote in his autobiography: “Total Football requires talented individuals working in a disciplined group. Someone who whines or doesn’t pay attention is a hindrance for the rest, and you need a boss like Michels to nip that in the bud.”

Cristiano Ronaldo and his campaign of whining recently learned that Ten Hag is a boss who would nip hindrances in the bud. A talented individual? One of the greatest. Able to work in a disciplined group? One of the worst. And as a result, Ten Hag never viewed Ronaldo as a viable candidate to partake in his system.

Rinus Michels – often included in “who is the best manager ever?” debates – knew that disciplined application was intrinsic to success, both on and off the pitch. Cruyff highlighted how Michel dedicated the majority of his coaching at Ajax to implanting the necessary mentality. Sir Alex Ferguson is another obvious leader who incessantly drilled this into his players.

United’s dressing room door has been unhinged since Ferguson’s departure which bled onto the pitch. It became all too familiar to watch games and read stories about the club which screamed that there was a lack of desire, commitment, and focus: things you should never expect to see in discussion about any major sports club. Ten Hag’s mission to alter this and bring in the Total Football mindset started on day one – with zero let-offs allowed.

And of course, there’s the football.

Cruyff described Total Football’s philosophy as: “Defenders could attack and attackers could defend. The aim was that every player should be capable of taking on the ball in the opposition half.”

Premier League viewers have watched Pep Guardiola unfortunately bring this to the other side of Manchester, with the Spaniard even deeming Ederson as capable of playing in midfield. Guardiola indirectly received his footballing educated in the Netherlands through his time playing under the tutelage of Cruyff at Barcelona as part of the famous “Dream Team”.

From the signings Ten Hag has made, it is clear to see his intent on having a multi-faceted XI.

Christian Eriksen played as a left winger or no. 10 for Tottenham Hotspur but is now being deployed as a deep midfielder. Casemiro’s ability to break up play is astounding – but the Brazilian no. 6 displayed his aptitude for attacking against Nottingham Forest by driving towards the opposition’s 18-yard-box and deftly passing through to Fred. Lisandro Martínez’s position was a major point of discussion prior to his debut given his history of playing as a centre half, left back, and midfielder. Antony’s tracking back and defensive work from right-wing was essential against Wolves. Tyrell Malacia has been positioned as an inverted full-back. There is a clear trend.

To defend in unison and with cunning is a fundamental of Total Football because of the strong attacking intent. Cruyff said that the style of play relies mostly on “a question of distance and positioning.” With such, players must press and “push back the opposition” with full knowledge of how their teammates with follow suit – hence the need for a disciplined group.

Ten Hag’s training tool ‘automatisms’ is used to equip the players with the knowledge and subsequent muscle memory to enact when play is in transition. His way of coaching through automatisms is clearly set to teach and engrain the players in unbreakable Total Football practices.

It is too early for concrete summer targets to be verified, but there would be no surprise if more players capable of attacking and defending and playing in the opposition half walk through the doors at Carrington.

A goalkeeper has been frequently suggested as first on Ten Hag’s things-to-fix list for the next post-season transfer window. Cruyff discussed the important non-shot stopping qualities a goalkeeper must hold:

“Since the keeper can’t pick up a back pass, he has to be able to play football with it. Someone who can make sure that the defenders receive the ball at the right moment. He often has to be positioned at the edge of the penalty area, to be an option for the teammates in front of him.”

David de Gea is simply unable to replicate this requirement.

Diogo Costa has been linked with United, for example. On average, the Porto keeper attempts over 32 passes per match. De Gea attempts 20. He is not a sufficient “option” and too fallible with the ball at his feet for Total Football to be implemented at United.

This vital aspect of Total Football makes it rather predictable to read reports about United being interested in signing a new no. 1.

With Marcus Rashford’s fine form, Alejandro Garnacho’s insurgence into the first team, and Eriksen and Casemiro’s midfield tandem being immovable, Ten Hag favours players who think ahead, constantly scan, and are fully confident when the ball comes to them.

Perhaps the best example of Total Football’s requirement for players to be steps ahead was Rashford’s goal against Wolves.

Cruyff wrote that, “the good player is the player who touches the ball just once and knows where to run; that is what Dutch football is about.”

Before Rashford received the ball from Tyrell Malacia he knew what exactly what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go, and how he would go about doing it. Fast, direct, ruthless – Rashford made it impossible for the opposition to keep up.

Ten Hag will be desperate to see this on a regular basis from his front line and thus realise Total Football in Manchester; perhaps the reason why Jadon Sancho was sent to train under Dutch coaches in the Netherlands during the World Cup break.

Making Old Trafford a theatre of shatterproof Total Football – where players hold a winning and dedicated mentality; defend together with cleverness and willingness; and attack from all fronts clinically – will take time, and money, to completely implement. But in six months as manager of Manchester United, Erik ten Hag has already launched his pursuit.


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