This Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United Tactical recreation comes from @TheDevilsDNA
He’s very active on Twitter sharing his analysis of United and his thoughts about the team.
Principles of Play and Team Instructions
As a first season in the Premier League with a team that’s not quite in his ideal image yet, there has been a lot of figuring out for Erik Ten Hag in 22/23. Based on the opposition, player form and player availability, he has opted for a variety of approaches ranging from very deep defensive blocks that bypass build-up to focus on generating direct transitions, to high control possession setups that have patient build-up, rotations and a high press. It feels like a clash between “What he wants to do” versus “what he can realistically do given the conditions”. My FM tactical recreation will marry a bit of both. In cases where I felt, we can be optimistic and go for Ten Hag’s ideal scheme, I have opted so, and in cases where I felt the existing players simply cannot do what he envisions, even on FM, I have gone for the pragmatic option.
On that note, the team style I have opted for and the team instructions that come as a result, have a certain dichotomy to them. Let’s take a look.
I have opted for shorter passing and playing out of the defence, to recreate Ten Hag’s insistence to build up whenever possible. The team gaps from real life aren’t as hard to paper over on FM, so this approach largely works well. Ten Hag’s ideal vision sees more patient build-up in deeper areas and more direct and transitional play in advanced areas. I try to mimic the latter by allowing the team to be more expressive and pass into space. This gives us a good combination of patience and security in the first phase and flair and expressiveness in the chance creation phase. The player instructions have also been set based on this duality, but I’ll explain that later.
In transition, I have opted for counter-pressing and counterplay, since most Ten Hag teams. including this Manchester United one, have a big tendency to press hard, steal the ball and counter quickly to target the gaps left by the opposition. The distribution of short kicks is in line with the approach of playing out of defence.
Probably, the instructions I experimented with the most are the out-of-possession ones. While United have been in the bottom 5 for defensive height in the league this season, there are games where Ten Hag has wanted to play higher. I have opted for a standard line as a result. It helps the team not concede too many long balls and through balls behind their defensive line and yet remain decently high enough to enable attacking play and pressing. I have gone for a higher and more intense press, as I feel that even with a deeper line, United have mostly tried to press well whenever possible.
Player roles and instructions
Coming to each player role, they largely follow the principles laid out above, in addition to maximizing their traits and of course, replicating how Ten Hag has used them, in reality, this season. Let’s start from the back.
While in reality, De Gea has repeatedly proven to be very incapable of displaying any aspects of the sweeper keeper that the team needs, in FM, he isn’t as bad. Given our build-up needs, I have assigned him as a sweeper keeper but on the ‘defence’ duty. If the team was playing a higher line, I would have shifted that to ‘support’ or ‘attack’, but for a standard line, this should be good enough without straining De Gea into doing too much.
Varane has been the more defensive-minded centre-back of the duo, largely focussing on box defending and taking very less risks in possession. I have assigned him the basic CB role, with additional player instruction to reduce risky passes. He will win the ball, cover behind the line and keep it simple in possession.
On the other hand, Lisandro has been the major build-up player in defence this season, comfortably helping United progress out of their half even without support. I have assigned him as a ball-playing defender and his traits of diving into tackles, bringing the ball out and attempting long-range passes, perfectly lend themselves to the role of an aggressive front-foot defender who is great at carrying and passing under pressure.
I did need a bit of a think on the fullbacks since 4 have featured heavily with varying roles and form. In the end, I decided to pick Dalot in an inverted role and Shaw in a wide role, which seems to be the trend this year, and also suits both players well. Dalot is pretty well-rounded, which lends itself well to the inverted role, where he is a part midfielder and part fullback. His trait also enables him to enter wide or central areas higher up the pitch, when the opportunity presents itself, just like in reality.
I gave Shaw a lot more attacking freedom. Essentially, he is to join the attacking front 5 as the widest player on the left who stretches the pitch and creates chances in the final third. In addition to the attacking wingback instructions, I have asked him to dribble more and stay wide to stretch the pitch and create gaps in the opposition’s defence. His attacking traits also suit these instructions perfectly.
The midfield 3 was another cause for great thought. Ten Hag has played a hybrid between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 with the build-up midfielder moving based on phase. I opted for a DM triangle shape since the formation you see on FM is largely the shape in which the team defends in and for United, in the defensive phase, Casmeiro largely takes up the central anchor role to position himself to defend transitions. He has the most possession regains for United this season, which is why the ball-winning midfielder role seems suitable to recreate what he has done this year.
Eriksen’s role has been very interesting this year. Essentially he drops deep during the build-up to help the team progress and later joins the attacking third as well to create in advanced areas. I felt that ‘Roaming playmaker’ best describes this movement and is very well suited to Eriksen’s skillset as well. His traits of coming deep to get the ball are a very good match for the build-up movement, while his killer ball trait helps with releasing attackers nicely.
The obvious candidate for AM in case I had gone for an AM triangle, Bruno is largely the side’s main chance creator. I had to think hard about his role, since he has been shifted around a lot this year, to the right wing and even the build-up role in recent times. From the few games we saw when all of Eriksen, Casemiro, Antony and Dalot played together, I noticed Bruno take up a right-sided midfield role that helped him link up with the 2 players on the right flank while giving him license to roam into attacking areas, especially the right half-space area. I think this is where Ten Hag envisions Bruno to be playing long-term when everyone is fit, and as a result, I have given Bruno the mezzala role. With an additional instruction to cross more, which Bruno loves to do from the right (often towards Rashford) and his own traits of killer balls and shooting from distance, we end up getting a powerhouse of chance creation, instinctive attacking movement and goal threat from midfield.
Antony has been settling into the squad, managing form and fitness constantly, but in most of his appearances, his role is clear – a wide isolation profile, who stretches play by parking wide or carrying the ball towards the wing, and then looks to cut in to cross or shoot. With an inverted winger role, that’s exactly what he does and I have given him additional instruction to stay wide and stretch the pitch. He becomes the widest player on the right in the front 5 when the team attacks. But when he gets the ball, he comes alive. His traits of cutting in and trickery, combined with his great attributes of dribbling, flair and agility, help him weave his way into good areas and produce the x-factor that the attack needs.
It’s no secret that United need a new striker. Between Martial’s injury concerns and Weghorst not being the elite-level talent that should be leading the line at a club vying for titles, Ten Hag has had it rough in this department. But when either play, I feel that the deep-lying forward describes them best. This role enables a lot of back-to-goal play, where the striker can receive in tight central areas and lay it off to an oncoming player, or turn and play a through ball to one of the wider players. Martial’s excellent first touch, dribbling and technique help him pull off this role to great effect, while he also gets on the end of chances, after the initial hold-up and pass.
Last, but not least, the team’s main outlet this year – is Marcus Rashford. While Rashford has featured in the central role a few times, it seems clear that Ten Hag envisions him as an attacking inside forward playing off the striker. I have given him an attack duty and asked him to stay narrow. With Shaw on attack duty while staying wide and the team instruction of overlapping on the left, what we end up getting is Rashford in the left half space.
Essentially the front 5 in the attacking phase looks like this:
With the instruction of shooting more, player traits of getting into the opposition area and beating the offside trap and excellent attributes for off-the-ball movement, acceleration and pace, don’t be surprised if Rashford is the one regularly on the end of moves and ends up as the team’s top goal scorer, as he has been this season in reality.
The final tactic
And that’s how it looks when it comes together. I have explained the playing XI in detail, but here are a few notes on rotation players. Ten Hag has used Maguire on the right and Lindelof on the left this season, in a bid to give Maguire a chance to usurp Varane and partner Lisandro, but that hasn’t worked out. In reality and in FM too, Maguire is better on the left and Lindelof better on the right. They also suit the tactic roles that way. My advice would be to rotate that way. The fullbacks are more open to debate. If you want to play it realistically, ideally Malacia should have an inverted role from LB and Wan-Bissaka should have a more traditional wide role from RB, but again, for the purposes of not confusing the whole tactic (especially their equation with the wingers), I would advise to just rotate them in these same roles.
The midfield backups are technically not suitable replacements, but I have seen decent success with Scott in the DM role, van de Beek or Sabitzer in the Bruno role and Fred or Sabitzer in the Eriksen role. Long-term, you might want to make some ins and outs here. In attack, Sancho is the highest-profile backup option. He doesn’t offer the movement and goal threat of Rashford due to vastly different traits and attributes, while he isn’t a great inverted right winger either. I would suggest experimenting in both roles and seeing what works better (much like how Ten Hag has done). Garnacho feels like a much better like-for-like LW rotation (again, like real life). Weghorst is decently suited to the CF role as a backup, but it would probably be best to sign a top-end CF anyway.
Another note in on-game tweaks: I haven’t created a second tactic, since I didn’t feel a more defensive version was required. This tactic defends decently and is capable against the best teams. What I would offer are a few tweaks against smaller teams if you want to force a breakthrough or want to dominate against an easy opponent. If your possession is high, but the team isn’t taking enough shots, increase the tempo. If the opponent is settled in a very narrow formation (Half-time analytics reveals the shape), then consider attacking wider in possession to stretch them. If you feel their attack isn’t good enough to trouble your defensive line, you can push it up higher and increase the pressing intensity, in a bid to force high turnovers.
Gameplay and pre-season results
With my tactic set up, I decided to give it a run in some pre-season friendlies and see how it works out. I set up 3 testing games against Arsenal, Leipzig and Bayern.
Within 20 minutes, we could see a move that recreated what we wanted. A quick interchange between Varane and Bruno set up a brilliant through ball into the left channel from Eriksen to Rashford. Those are the areas we ideally need Rashford receiving regularly in. From there, a simple cross to Martial was enough.
The next goal was a result of the good pressing setup and Antony doing what Antony does best. Martial and Antony press well to force the mistake and the striker plays in Antony, who delivers a fine far-corner curler from the edge of the box. Those are the situations we want Antony in.
The game was tight with Arsenal bossing more possession and shots taken, but a lot of those shots were from distance thanks to our deep line. In terms of xG generated, we were superior and had 2 clear-cut chances and 2 half chances. A good result.
The pass map vs Arsenal indicated much of what we wanted, with Rashford being the main outlet and the team having a left-leaning shape with Varane dropping more to offer defensive cover.
The next game saw us meet RB Leipzig. I picked them specifically to see how we do against a high-pressing team, which FM favours at times. I did have a feeling that our setup could be ideal to hit such a team on the break, and that’s how it played out with us running riot in a 4-2 win.
Two goals were of interest. Bruno’s trigger-happy nature paved the way early for a good long-range effort. Expect him to get a few goals from such areas.
The second goal was brilliantly worked. As always, the team finds Rashford in a good advanced area. Some nifty passing later, our secondary chance creator Shaw finds Antony at the far post easily.
In the end, the RBL win seemed closer than it was, thanks to some second-half slacking off after being 3-0 up. With 4 clear-cut chances and an xG of 3.33, our attack was clearly on top.
The pass map saw the wide players enjoying the spaces behind RBL’s aggressive fullbacks and Martial much deeper than expected (as he often is in real life as well).
The final game was probably against the toughest opponent. What complicated matters were the trio of Rashford, Martial and Eriksen missing due to injuries (A snapshot of what Ten Hag has to deal with in real life). Even with key members out, we kept things competitive.
The only goal of the game came from a good front press from Sancho (not so likely in real life) that resulted in a thumping bottom-corner finish from Weghorst (even more unlikely in real life).
A game that should have seen more goals; We still won the xG battle and created 1 clear-cut chance and 7 half chances to Bayern’s 2 and 2 respectively. A tight game that could have gone either way.
In the end, I was satisfied with our pre-season results. We were largely competitive or better than a variety of opponents, and the principles of play that we were going for were clearly visible. A full season of this should do as well or better than 22/23 Manchester United in reality.
Tactic Download LINK