In the past week, a significant number of reports surfaced linking Erik Ten Hag and, in particular, Mauricio Pochettino to the United manager role. Based on these reports, it looks as though the latter is favoured, with the expectation on both sides that he could become the next manager at Old Trafford. Meanwhile, plenty of reports imply that the United hierarchy are keeping tabs on Ten Hag. With these two looking like the front runners for the job, who should United go for?
On the surface of it, there are many similarities from a tactical viewpoint. Both have a focus on attacking football, ensuring energy from their sides to maintain a steady press high up the pitch, perhaps a step below Ralf’s gegenpressing style, but a focus on pressing nonetheless. However, there are subtle differences too.
Pochettino’s style is more based around the idea of pressing and speed, with an emphasis on winning the ball back quickly. Players have the freedom to press all over the pitch, running horizontally and vertically to do so. He also likes his players to play passes quickly, but these passes must be played vertically, pushing the opposition back. His style does have some drawbacks, particularly against better teams who can handle the press. With Poch, think Liverpool under Klopp, with a tad less energy, in terms of style.
Looking at Ten Hag, he combines the pressing style with a rigid and compact formation, normally 4-3-3. He likes the forward players to press while also ensuring there aren’t gaps left behind them, meaning the back 5-6 players are normally well structured. Then, going forward and progressing the ball, players are advised to keep ahold of the ball with some creative license, no Van Gaal era flashbacks here. This style of play would be more akin to our noisy neighbours in blue across the city under Pep.
Aside from tactically these two are again very similar in terms of their philosophy on youth, therefore it’s clear these two have been identified as targets for a reason. There is a strong emphasis on youth from both managers. Ajax has a famed academy with which Ten Hag has brought through the likes of Frenkie De Jong, Matthijs De Ligt and Donny Van De Beek. Poch is similarly keen on youth, with the likes of Harry Winks and Dele Alli thriving under his man-management.
The key difference here would be that Ten Hag is more adept at working with a famed academy. Along with United, Ajax is one of the top academies across Europe meaning Ten Hag has a vast knowledge of nurturing players and developing a pathway from youth teams to first team. Ryan Gravenberch is the latest to do so. Poch hasn’t done this on the same scale. While working with and developing youth team players is part of his ethos he hasn’t worked with a strong academy system, with the slight exception of Southampton, as neither Tottenham nor PSG are lauded for their academies. For me, this puts Ten Hag ahead in terms of youth development, a key area for any United manager candidate.
The conveyor belt of players brings us nicely to Ten Hag’s ability to rebuild a team. After becoming Champions League semi-finalists in 2019 (losing to Poch’s Spurs) the team was dismantled. Losing the likes of De Jong, De Ligt, Van De Beek and Ziyech in quick succession. It is therefore impressive that this season Ajax have been so strong in the Champions League this season, beating a strong Dortmund team 4-0 for example. Through clever signings and promotion of youth it has been this rebuild that has really put the Ajax manager on the map of some Europe’s top teams, including the blue half of Manchester. It is one thing to build a team for success, but another to rebuild it, just ask Sir Alex.
Meanwhile, Poch, trophyless at Spurs, went on to PSG with whom he has struggled. Losing the league to Lille last season was a big embarrassment for the Argentine despite taking over half-way through. This season too he has failed to get the best out of arguably the best front three in football, Neymar, Messi and Mbappe. They’ve struggled in the Champions League too, looking lacklustre against Man City and Leipzig. It was also Poch who failed to re-motivate a Spurs side that lost the Champions League final, with things seemingly falling apart months later and him ending up with the sack.
It is for this reason, that myself, and many others, prefer Erik Ten Hag. There is a feeling that he would ‘get’ Manchester United. There are many similarities in his current club to United, from their long histories to their great academies it feels as though United would be a great next step for the Dutchman. Add on top of this the fact that while neither manager has won big European trophies, Ten Hag has taken Ajax to two Eredivisie titles, more than can be said for Poch. And yet, there’s seemingly a sense of trepidation on his part, announcing that he’s keen to work with football-focussed owners in any future role, that which the Glazers certainly are not. It is therefore seemingly more realistic and highly possible that Mauricio Pochettino, although not my first choice, will be our next manager.