Ten Hag's philosophy exists between Guardiola and Ancelotti
Ten Hag isn’t the next Guardiola — ten Hag isn’t the next Jose, van Gaal, or Ole. Ten Hag is one of one with a philosophy that uniquely possesses both positional and anti-positional principles.
The film of a positional play coach sticks to script whilst Ten Hag's cast are allowed to improvise.
There is a tendency for tactics talk in 2022 to be seen firstly through a Guardiolan lens. It’s one of the biggest compliments you could pay the Catalonian. For all his successes in the game, one that sits close to the top is his undeniable influence on the sport and an acceptance of his supremacy in the game that strengthens year on year.
For coaches that exist alongside Pep, there will always be comparisons.
X and Y is the next Guardiola is the topic of conversation every year, with a new name filling in the initial blank. This season, Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag is next up in the casting carousel for the role of new Pep.
Ten Hag did, after all, accompany the ex-Bayern Münich coach in Germany for 3 years, observing him with an astute and learning eye. Ten Hag’s stint as head of Bayern Munich’s second team would’ve undoubtedly left a mark on his managerial career but it hasn’t produced a Guardiola clone.
Admittedly, both coaches share some of the same values. At their essence, a ten Hag side and a Guardiola side have been uncompromising in their need to play a brand of football they deem attractive, enjoyable and in their or their club’s image. Both coaches deploy sides that are ball dominant, possession heavy and attacking in intent. Both are obsessive and committed in their training ground application and hold the highest of expectations from the club, top down.
Both coaches also hold some base tactical principles in common, such as the need for a player to stay wide on the non-ball side, in order to stretch and occupy the opposition defence, a principle that goes back over a decade to Guardiola’s earliest season as Barcelona manager.
“He had a plan. If you don’t actually do what he’s asking you to do, you’re going to be in trouble. Me being me, I went [to the right wing] to play with Leo [Messi] and I could hear Guardiola being upset because I wasn’t on the side of the dugout. I didn’t really care, you know. I scored a goal, 1-0 up against Sporting Lisbon at half-time, all nice and everything, and he took me off. When Pep had a plan - respect his plan.” - Thierry Henry.
In a similar vein to the aforementioned Henry anecdote, ten Hag reviews a beautiful Ajax move, highlighting the purpose and necessity of Donny’s width.
This is an example of focusing on controlling space (or a zone) first, a hallmark of positional football. Donny van de Beek, Thierry Henry or whoever, are told to occupy an area and remain in it, acting once they’ve received the ball. Once they receive the ball, the players are then given the opportunity to play and become involved.
All tactical philosophy can be demarcated by how the system interprets both space and time/game-state. Now forgive me for the next paragraph or two, I know it sounds like I’m walking into writing a thesis centred around the works of Einstein right about now but briefly mentioning some theory here will help the rest of the piece make more sense.
A positional philosophy seeks to dominate space first through the occupation of individuals in specific zones, in a relatively rigid structure and acting only once the player has received the ball in their zone.
This graphic illustrating a Guardiola practice outlines 20 zones on the field. The idea here is that no more than three zones in the same horizontal line should be occupied by individuals and no more than two zones in the same vertical line should be occupied by individuals. Stay in your zone, stagger lines, create a strong structure, maximise passing options, width and breadth.
Positional play, here and always, doesn’t want the individual to go seeking the ball, it wants the individual to wait for the ball to arrive in their zone.
Juanma Lillo, a pioneer in the world of tactical development (and Manchester City’s former assistant coach to Guardiola) summarises the idea sweetly, saying, “the ball goes to the positions, not the positions to the ball''.
As we move our attention towards the anti-positional game, it takes the opposite approach in theory:
Time or game-state informs player actions which then leads to domination of parts of the field (spaces).
Players are allowed to and encouraged to leave their marker, move freely and go towards the ball. The individual can and will vacate whatever zone us English league fans might expect them to be occupying.
Nice. Theory talk, over.
Despite some of the Pep and ten Hag similarities, a particular philosophical difference comes to light when analysing ten Hag’s game with a closer eye, being ten Hag’s more readily applied anti-position concepts.
A ten Hag side, thus far, has expressed an intuition and liberty whilst birthing novel attacking solutions, with these changes notably seen from his midfield.
Now this isn’t to say Guardiola doesn’t implement some of these ideas in his own game, he has done, particularly with Kevin De Bruyne, at times Bernardo Silva and (this is a prediction) soon to be Jack Grealish. Rather my point is that it is simply more common in ten Hag’s philosophy. The ten Hag philosophy deviates from the stricter position philosophy championed by the likes of Cruyff — not entirely, but more so than one might first expect.
Ten Hag appreciates football through a lens of player roles rather than overt positions, whilst championing a style that too allows for asymmetry, in a way that would be classed as ‘wrong’, ‘unbalanced’ and ‘wonky’ if it were to arise in a strict JDP or positional side.
All of these quirks combine to form a footballing system that bakes a myriad of influences together that include the School of Rinus Michels and the School of Tele Santana, whether intentional or not.
The Guardiola similarities have been regurgitated mindlessly in conversation about the Dutchman but ten Hag’s philosophy also shares many similarities to the opposing school of thought in anti-position (and maybe it deserves a better name). Regardless, reflection of these traits and their similarities with someone like Carlo Ancelotti is in order.
“Time or the game-state informs player actions which then leads to domination of parts (spaces) of the field.”
Ancelotti speaks about this concept of time and its importance in a book he authored ‘The Christmas Tree’ — essentially iterating the need to be wary of the ‘time of the game’ or game-state as I’d word it. Ancelotti talks about dominating space secondarily, doing so by the combined movements of offensive players, off the ball.
This principle of acting first can be executed through various mechanisms, including numerical advantages via overloading the ball side, individuals playing in free roles and the encouragement of intuition.
During his Ajax tenure, ten Hag explicitly spoke on these various mechanisms:
“Both Dusan and Hakim are at their best when they can play freely and on intuition. So they are allowed to do this, and from the wings,” couldn’t be a clearer admission of the freedom from positional strictness given to certain ten Hag players.
The 21/22 version of Karim Benzema under Ancelotti’s reign takes up a similarly free-role; his constant movement deep into midfield or into the flanks created overloads and a ‘strong’ flank. Real Madrid dominate that space now through Benzema’s movement into it and Real Madrid can exploit that area through numerical and qualitative advantage.
Real Madrid could also choose to exploit the opposition via switching the ball to the opposition’s weakened and emptied side (to Asensio in this image).
Benzema, as a result of this concept, formed a combinational relationship with Vinicius Jr. on that side that was central to their trophy success last season, a relationship that may not have worked as well as it did if Benzema was instructed to remain ‘in his zone’.
The Ajax goal above follows a sequences in which the right side of the field is occupied by 5, maybe 6 Ajax players something that would be a rarity in the symmetrical, positional systems we know today that instead typically deploy three players towards each side (ie. Arsenal’s Zinchenko, Xhaka and Martinelli on the left and Tomiyasu, Odegaard and Saka on the right).
This asymmetry leads to Ajax dominating the space on the right hand side of the field, not through strict positional play but instead through the collaborative movements of several players Ancelotti was describing.
The final ideal I’ll touch upon shared both by Ancelotti and ten Hag is their ability to formulate a plan that is informed by the quality of the individuals at their disposal. For some coaches, there is a rigidity, a blueprint that exists in their mind and the team, its players and the inevitable transfers have to bend to that will.
Van Gaal and Maurizio Sarri’s sides come to mind here. Jorginho’s transfer from Napoli to Chelsea made perfect sense because he was the cog for the Sarri system. Sarri was less interested in looking at the squad at his disposal and adapting a midfield to suit their strengths first, it was a system-first approach.
Guardiola, a coach of positional play like Sarri, however is less rigid. Even though Pep has held positional play as a system unwavering through his career, he has demonstrated an ability to look at the strengths of his individuals to then make adaptations within that system that better suit those individuals. (He is so good).
Both ten Hag and Ancelotti also take the player-first approach, possibly at a greater degree to Guardiola, letting it inform the shape and system at times. This is certainly true of Ancelotti and is probably most evident for ten Hag when reviewing his Utretch managerial career.
In a 2019 interview, Erik ten Hag was questioned on his transition from his 4-3-3 of old towards his newer 4-2-3-1 to which he replied: “the qualities of the players determine the system, not the other way around”.
Ten Hag recognised Frenkie De Jong’s skillset was a distinctive but special one and postulated on how best to utilise the player’s traits:
“We have really been looking to find ways to use his skills in the best manner. Where can he play best, for the team and to showcase his talent. Everyone was screaming: Frenkie is the biggest talent, etc etc. Well yes. But, where? In midfield? Ok, but which role?”
Ten Hag subsequently profiled Frenkie with astuteness and accuracy, before tweaking the system to accomodate the Dutch midfielder, which worked superbly.
“His quality is that he makes the forwards perform better. He is a wanderer, an adventurer, he’s always on the move, like a shark. With the ball, often, but also without the ball. So if you put him on 6, he’s away too often.
But you need to give him freedom, otherwise you can’t the best out of him. It wasn’t an easy puzzle, so I decided to play with two number 6s and only one attacking mid.”
I have to thank whoever from MARCA interviewed Ancelotti in 2013, as they simply asked the veteran the incredibly relevant question of ‘What came first, the system or the players?’ and his answer echoed ten Hag’s sentiment.
“The players come first and foremost. I spent a long time working with Sacchi and back then there was only one formation for me, 4-4-2, which was easy to explain.
But things changed at Juve. I didn't like having to take Zidane out of his natural position by shunting him to the left or right, so I started looking at the players' attributes and designing a system that suited them.”
I find Ancelotti’s quote on his refusal to sign Baggio at Parma for systematic reasons particularly amusing. It illustrates his development, growth and learned adaptability.
“Before [Juventus and Zidane], I had the chance to sign Baggio [at Parma].
When I spoke to him, he said he wanted to play as an attacking midfielder and I told him I couldn't play him there because it didn't fit into our system. When I look back I think 'no way, how on earth did I turn down Baggio, a 20-25 goal-a-season player?”
A non-position game has for some years now, been dismissed, with the latest rebuttal coming in the form of the nonchalant dismissal of managers as ‘vibes coaches’.
It has been levelled at Ancelotti over the last few years, for sure, but it would be disingenuous not to give credit to the results Ancelotti and co. have garnered.
Could the Real Madrid side of 2022 have played a more dominant game against some of their Champions League opposition, if they were being steered by a position play coach? Perhaps but with two potential Ballon d’Or podium finishes in Benzema and Vinicius Jr, a La Liga title and the Champions League title, it would be impossible to say the approach didn’t work.
Ancelotti’s ability to facilitate and nurture the magic of the individual in a way that benefits the team should be commended too. The quality both Vinicius and Benzema have shown occurred given the optimum conditions Ancelotti curated for them.
Frenkie De Jong and Hakim Ziyech in similar ways have struggled under coaches post-ten Hag and it may be down to a reduced understanding by their newer coaches of their profile, strengths and how best to allow them to express their qualities.
In a sport that people often view in black and white concepts, ten Hag is a fascinating case study who seems to more clearly marry both opposing schools of thought.
Subjectively, I would be inclined to think he lies towards Klopp and Ancelotti a little more than he does Pep, Lillo and Cruyff. I would with confidence suggest he lies closer to Klopp and Ancelotti than he does van Gaal and Sarri.
All of this only adds to the myth of ten Hag given his supposed reputation as the latest graduate from Ajax and Bayern and thus Cruyff and Pep’s heritage.
Is there a right way to play the sport is a question with an answer that will change depending on who you ask.
Are the players cattle, as Alfred Hitchcock described his actors, or artists?
Are cogs that may suppress themselves at an individual level for the greater good of a more successful and unrelenting winning machine a sign of a better coach than a coach who affords the magicians freedom to play as best suits them at an individual level?
Ten Hag isn’t the next Guardiola — ten Hag isn’t the next Jose, van Gaal, or Ole. Ten Hag is one of one, an unassuming man in the press conferences who through his successes leaves behind a series of questions unanswered.
Understanding ten Hag is a more complicated task than some have branded it. Understanding most coaches and philosophies remains complex given coaches arrive at their philosophy after a lifetime of lived experiences. With ten Hag in particular though, I think there has been an oversimplification by the narrative-makers covering the sport so far, at least in the English world.
Between the two poles of position and anti-position mentioned throughout this piece, a scale exists and a coach’s team could lie anywhere in between.
Lying in the hues of grey, exists ten Hag and watching what shade he eventually paints this Manchester United picture is an endeavour we welcome.
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