There are now just two games left before Erik ten Hag’s reign at Manchester United finally begins. A trip to Brighton this weekend is the penultimate outing of the campaign and another chance to lay the groundwork for the future, with plenty of youngsters in contention to feature.
While victory over Brentford at the start of the week had the feeling of a testimonial about it, Saturday’s venture to the South Coast will be a chance for new beginnings and an opportunity to show fans what the future could hold.
One of the key reasons why United opted for Ten Hag to become their next manager was because of his track record of producing exciting young talent, another was the work ethic he demands from his players, a trait born from his own career as a player.
READ MORE ON TEN HAG: ‘A poor man’s Virgil van Dijk and a real team player’ – What Manchester United can expect from Erik ten Hag and Mitchell van der Gaag
Although he shot to fame with his success at Ajax, the 52-year-old is just as well known for his time playing for FC Twente, where he enjoyed three different spells over the course of his 13-year professional career.
Ten Hag was a defensive player for much of his career, playing predominantly as a centre-back while also enjoying spells at full-back and as a holding midfielder.
It was in the deep midfield role that he started his third spell at Twente, where he played alongside former United loanee Rob McKinnon, a former Scotland international who fondly recalls his time with the United manager-in-waiting.
“Most Dutch players at that time were good technically, they pride themselves on it, he wasn’t a hard ball-winning midfield but he kept everything ticking over,” McKinnon told the Manchester Evening News.
“Lots of people say he was a centre-half but I would recognize him as a front sweeper, playing in front of the centre-half. Tidying things up and keeping the players and the ball ticking over, moving it on, processing the play and giving it to players who would take it forward.
“He wasn’t a hard tackling player, he was decent on the ball and solid. I would say Erik was always a seven out of ten every single game, he probably didn’t stand out like a Paul Bosvelt, who went on to play for Man City, he wasn’t that high profile but he certainly broke up the play and kept the ball moving.”
Ten Hag’s own legacy as a selfless squad player has given him great appreciation for the role in his managerial career, something which could see the likes of Fred and Scott McTominay given continued opportunities under the Dutchman.
Back in February, Fred further cemented his cult status amongst fans by admitting ‘he carries the piano for the artists to play’ and openly admitting he compensates for his technical shortcomings by working harder than anyone else on the pitch.
That is not only the desired mentality and work ethic United crave, but it is the same ethos which Ten Hag instilled at Ajax and will no doubt look to replicate in Manchester.
His first great squad was built with Lasse Schöne doing the dirty work at the base of midfield, while this season Edson Alvarez has done much of it, breaking up play and causing nuisance to opponents with his intense pressing game.
While much of the focus might be on buying at least one new midfielder in the summer window, the real success of United’s first season under Ten Hag might well depend on those effective squad players who are happy to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the team. .
Fred has a lot of hauling left to do.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.