Two bald men with gimlet stares. Two coaches united by a Cruyffian vision of football and trying to impose it in a foreign land. But as Sunday’s Manchester derby approaches, it doesn’t feel as though Pep Guardiola and Erik ten Hag have that much in common.
Ten Hag’s star is rising. After his successes at Ajax, only now are his ideas reaching a truly global public and being tested at the highest level. Guardiola is the old master, with 10 championships in the big five leagues to his name. His philosophy is not merely well-known but has shaped the modern game at elite level. It doesn’t appear imminent but, given his intensity and the consistency of his achievement, there are already whispers about his possible retirement.
Yet Ten Hag is nearly a year older than Guardiola, a detail that seems almost implausible given their status and the way football regards them. It highlights just how young Guardiola was when he began to revolutionise the game and also the scale of the task facing Ten Hag. It’s not unrealistic to say that if he is truly successful at Manchester United, this could be his last major job in football.
Their situations in Manchester could hardly be more different. On arrival in 2016, Guardiola came into a club that had effectively been built to his specifications, his path smoothed by two directors from his former club, Barcelona. In six years at the Etihad he has been able to craft a squad to play his very precise brand of football, supported to the extent that when, in his first few weeks, he realised that Joe Hart wasn’t good enough on the ball to operate as he needed him to, he was supported in sidelining the England No 1 to bring in Claudio Bravo.
By contrast, Ten Hag walked into the chaos left by half a dozen rapidly abandoned plans. If the general idea of Ralf Rangnick replacing Ole Gunnar Solskjær the previous season had seemed a step towards reality, the practicalities only added to the confusion. Was he a coach, a sporting director or a consultant? How many layers of de facto sporting directorship can one club have? And what was Cristiano Ronaldo doing there?
It took Ten Hag two games to realise his Ajax philosophy had, at least temporarily, to be laid aside. The goalkeeper David de Gea cannot pass out from the back and is uncomfortable behind a high line, as was brutally demonstrated in the 4-0 defeat at Brentford. The team generally are unused to a press-and-possess style. Last season, Ajax averaged 66.6% possession in the Eredivisie. This season, United dominated the ball in their two opening Premier League games and lost both. The four wins that followed featured one game, at Southampton, in which possession was almost equally shared and three in which United had about a third of the ball.
Ten Hag has had to reinvent himself as a counterattacking coach, to go back to something like the approach preferred by Solskjær. But then there is the problem of Ronaldo, who no longer has the pace to play in a counterattacking side but equally has never had the inclination to press as would be necessary in a purer Ten Hag way.
United’s is a make-do-and-mend squad bodged from disparate parts and it could take years to put right, requiring an almost impossible balancing act to retain a functioning team while edging towards the vision of the coach – always assuming he is the one who has, and is trusted to have, the ideas and personality to return the club to the top.
He certainly seems trusted. It is still early and the potential for United’s ownership to switch course without warning or logic should not be ignored, but a total transfer spend of £229m in the last window – more than any other United manager has ever spent in a single window, almost double the expected budget in May – suggests both a faith in Ten Hag and a recognition of the scale of his task.
United were responsible for three of the 12 highest fees paid in the summer. Antony and Lisandro Martínez, bought from Ajax for £85.5m and £51.6m respectively, are players Ten Hag worked with last season who fit his preferred style of play. But it is the £63.6m signing of Casemiro that encapsulates United’s problems.
For all his talent, Casemiro’s success has come sitting deep in a side that did not press particularly high; if Ten Hag were putting together a dream XI to play his way, Casemiro would be nowhere near it. But United were desperate for a high-class holding midfielder and Casemiro is that. As such, he represents an extremely expensive patch for lots of other patches. Sometimes, though, emergency repairs are essential. It may be that in a year or two, this patch can be removed and the unadulterated Ten Hag structure revealed. But it’s a measure of where United are that there is a perceived need to spend so much on a player who is not part of the final vision but a means of inching towards it.
Ten Hag is gaining trust beyond the boardroom. Making the players run a punitive 13.8km after defeat at Brentford could have backfired, but it appears now the act of a manager asserting authority that has been accepted. Similarly, leaving Ronaldo on the bench was a high-risk move; had United continued to lose with one of the most prolific goalscorers of all time among the substitutes, there would have been an easy rallying point for opposition.
In that sense, this is reminiscent of big calls Guardiola has made when taking a new job: offloading Deco and Ronaldinho from Barcelona, or Hart at City. A quibble often raised about Guardiola’s achievements is that he has never done it at a smaller club, but he is an elite manager, his style honed to elite players. A more realistic observation might be that he has never taken over an elite club in the sort of mess United were in when Ten Hag arrived.
Guardiola’s City remain at the top of the game; there are signs that Ten Hag’s United have made the first tentative steps towards joining them. But it is an extremely long road yet.