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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Erik ten Hag and communication: Is the Man United manager getting his message across?

Underwhelming results, injury issues and other off-field matters have complicated Erik ten Hag’s plans for his second season in the Premier League. Where many fans and pundits hoped for development and refinement of the methods seen in 2022-23, the team have regressed, prompting questions as to what the Dutchman is hoping to achieve and whether he has the skills to do it.

“We need to see a style of play develop in the next few months or else I think the coach will be vulnerable,” said Gary Neville following United’s recent 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur.

“They really struggle to be able to know where each other are and put combinations and patterns together. Where is the default style of play in this team? I don’t see it and that is a real concern.”

Put simply, there is a gap between the style of football Ten Hag describes in his interviews and the one his team is delivering.

Does this mean his communication is part of the problem in that he is not able to get his message across to the players, or is he not articulating publicly the messages he is trying to get across privately? The disconnect between what he says and what fans see has become an area of concern for a manager with a forever-changing list of responsibilities.

Not that this is a phenomenon specific to his time at United — questions on the subject have followed him since his early days as Ajax manager.

“At first, he received a lot of criticism for his style of communication. He was not considered as a typical Ajax coach, because of his background in the east of the Netherlands and his accent,” explains Pieter Zwart, editor at Voetbal International.

“On top of that, he always spoke about the same principles. Over and over again.”

It is known that Tottenham Hotspur interviewed Ten Hag following the dismissal of Jose Mourinho in 2021, but Spurs elected to hire Nuno Espirito Santo rather than the Dutchman. Later that season, it was reported that senior executives at the London club had concerns over Ten Hag’s command of English and ability to communicate ideas.

English, of course, is not his first language. During his time as Ajax manager, he had a history of answering some questions in English as well as Dutch during away games in European competitions. English was the spoken language in the Ajax dressing room during the majority of his time in charge of the club. Coaches — including Ten Hag — were known to take some training sessions in English and captain Dusan Tadic, a Serbian who learned Dutch during his time in Amsterdam, would answer his press conference questions in both languages.

During the interview process for the United job in 2022, Ten Hag’s meticulous approach impressed Old Trafford’s key decision-makers. Technical director Darren Fletcher and football director John Murtough were said to have felt there was no issue with the Dutchman’s communication skills, focusing instead on his explanations of how he planned to develop the squad and make them capable of competing for trophies on multiple fronts.

Last season, Ten Hag became known for punctuating his responses to questions with an “ehn?”-like grunt. His repeated use of the word “clear” when answering questions stems from the Dutch phrase “duidelijk”, which can mean “obviously” or “as plain as day”. But is he delivering a clear message?

When the United manager speaks, he strives to be a straightforward communicator who looks to address situations in a direct manner. Yet, in recent weeks, he has found some of his communications misconstrued. Earlier in January, the Dutchman was asked about the contract renegotiation status of a number of players.

Ten Hag is under intense media scrutiny as Manchester United manager (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)

“We are talking with Rapha Varane and Anthony Martial and we have triggered the options on (Victor) Lindelof, Hannibal (Mejbri) and (Aaron) Wan-Bissaka,” he answered in a press conference.

Asked to clarify, the Dutchman added: “That is an internal discussion between the club and the player.”

Ten Hag did not confirm one way or another in which direction those internal discussions were headed, yet a handful of news outlets interpreted the use of the word “discussion” as an indication that players — including Martial — would have their contracts renewed. United would issue a clarification of Ten Hag’s response.

It was a small miscommunication between manager and media. But after spending so much of his first season talking of clarity, Ten Hag’s directives have run the risk of confusing those listening.

Ten Hag’s fondness for tactical meetings, analysing team shape and the strengths and weaknesses of the opponents saw him praised in his first season in England. His process-based, ordered approach was seen as much-needed as United finished third and won the League Cup. Ten Hag is thought to conduct more of these sessions than some of his predecessors, with meetings typically running between 20-30 minutes.

Those close to the situation — speaking to The Athletic on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships — believe the coach’s approach derives from his meticulous nature, in which he repeats instructions to ensure everyone involved has grasped the finer details of his plans. However, there is a fear the effectiveness of these sessions can vary among a large and diverse group of players, especially during longer sessions, which can run closer to an hour.

Articulating oneself in a second language to a group of players who themselves have varying levels of English fluency can be difficult; Marcelo Bielsa chose to work via a translator during his time at Leeds United and Mauricio Pochettino initially opted to speak in Spanish during press conferences as Southampton manager. Ten Hag, to his credit, has opted to engage publicly only in English since moving to the club.

When moving around Carrington, it is understood he converses in English with everyone, except for the occasional conversation with his assistant coach Mitchell van der Gaag and one other Dutch-speaking member of his analyst team, where he can switch to his native tongue.

Ten Hag delivers a training session at Carrington (Darren Staples/AFP via Getty Images)

His reiteration of the same principles, both in interviews and training sessions, seems to come from a desire to ensure certain ideals are properly understood by all. Some senior players are said to have occasionally grown weary of his repeated mention of concepts that should be straightforward and self-evident. The longer the United manager spends attempting to explain what he wants from his players, the more he risks losing their attention.

This, again, is not an uncommon situation for Ten Hag, and his approach to detail and repetition has brought praise as well as criticism from those who have worked with him.

In December 2021, Tadic said his manager “explained everything”. “For example, we had three meetings of 45 minutes for AZ (Alkmaar) at home. We were told 50 times what the strength of AZ is and what we should do in return…”

“Can you blame the coach if it happens and a goal is conceded? I don’t think so.”

“During 2018-19, Ten Hag performed excellently with the team and suddenly the same communication was praised,” adds Zwart.

“His style of training was revolutionary in the Netherlands, with more focus on transitions. Assistant Alfred Schreuder helped him in this aspect on the field during his first one and a half years in Amsterdam.”

In February 2023, Luke Shaw lauded his straightforward style of communication. “The control he takes, the rules he sets out and everyone has to follow them — or, as you’ve seen recently, if you’re not following his rules and doing what he wants, then you won’t play.”

‘Rules’ is one of the most commonly used words in his press conferences, with the manager believing results are often decided by how well his team carry out their collective responsibilities. When United fail to stick to the rules, they have to “follow the facts of the game”; Ten Hag’s way of describing moments such as when the opposition score and United are forced to react.

Not all communication is verbal, of course, and part of a manager’s success is an ability to convey messages to a team through instructions on the training ground.

This is something he did at Ajax, despite initial scepticism about his appointment. He was not considered a ‘typical Ajax manager’, having come from a background of time spent with Go Ahead Eagles and FC Utrecht, among others. Yet he won over the fanbase through his ability to bring in ideas not traditionally associated with Ajax to further develop the club’s style of play.

During his four-and-a-half seasons in Amsterdam, he became known for a training drill involving two teams where goals would only count if the entirety of one side stood in the opponent’s half. There was an increased focus on pressing high up the field and looking to counter-attack opponents quickly after regaining possession.

“We practise formats in which we have to score within a certain time if we win the ball, or very specifically work on deep-running actions,” said Frenkie de Jong, a key part of Ten Hag’s Ajax team, in November 2018.

“There is a lot of emphasis on this and if you train something a lot, it will automatically get into your system. In addition, we have many players in the team who immediately think ahead when winning the ball. That is important because you have to dare to play forward. Conversely, you also see us growing, during the transition moments from ball possession to ball loss. How we should stand and that regularly involves images. What needs to be improved and that is also reflected in our game. We are really working on it.”

By contrast, Ten Hag’s attempts to make United a transition-focused team this season have left the side vulnerable to conceding counter-attack goals, and the question lingers about whether his message is getting through to the players.

It should be noted that he is not solely responsible for delivering this messaging — training sessions at Carrington are led by Van der Gaag, with additional contributions from Steve McClaren, Benni McCarthy and Eric Ramsay. McClaren, who was head coach at FC Twente while Ten Hag served as an assistant in 2009, is thought to take a gentler approach to communication compared to Ten Hag and Van der Gaag (who speaks six languages).

There was a curious moment recently when Ten Hag claimed United do not employ a man-marking style when out of possession, yet those words do not seem to be supported by what happens on the pitch.

Earlier this season, the Dutchman explained he did not want United to play in a style similar to his successful Ajax teams as he had “different players” in England. An aborted attempt to reunite with De Jong in the summer of 2022 saw Ten Hag adjust his initial plan for United. Still, he has carried over his focus on minute details and an emphasis on transitional moments.

This is not the first time Ten Hag has faced questions over his communication style and his preferred style of play. He won over the Ajax fanbase through a run of positive results and eventually, multiple trophies. Only time will tell if he can turn things around at United.

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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