When Manchester City won the Premier League, Erik ten Hag was not one of the first on the phone to Pep Guardiola. Perhaps that is unsurprising: he is, after all, manager of their rivals. But he is also an old ally, a man who worked with Guardiola at Bayern Munich, one who, just before he took the job at Manchester United, the Catalan had said could succeed him at the Etihad Stadium. They are part of a mutual admiration society.
“The way in winning the title is a demonstration of football, everyone likes the way they play: so attractive, so brilliant,” Ten Hag said. “But their season is still not finished as our season is still not finished.” If Guardiola is denied a historic treble, it may be by a man he took under his wing.
The man who liked Guardiola’s football so much that he took a backward step to team up with him, leaving a manager’s job at Go Ahead Eagles, who he had led to promotion, to take charge of Bayern’s second team in the German fourth division in 2013, has progressed rapidly. If Ten Hag was playing the long game, looking to further his education, now they meet as peers; at the Etihad Stadium and then Old Trafford this season, at Wembley in the FA Cup final on Saturday. Guardiola has the more storied CV, but Ten Hag is in charge of the bigger club. If, for much of this season, Guardiola could look up the league table and see one of his proteges, Mikel Arteta, above him, now he may be denied the FA Cup by another from his footballing family tree.
And yet the sense is that Ten Hag is looking to topple Guardiola, not emulate him. They can come from the same school of thought, but they have attended different classes. Ten Hag is the former Ajax manager and yet Guardiola is more of the Ajax purist. Guardiola is the Johan Cruyff disciple, the man whose thinking was shaped by the man indelibly associated with Dutch football. He was the slow, inelegant reserve-team player parachuted into Barcelona’s Dream Team, who then became a European Cup winner as a player; in 2008, Cruyff advocated giving the untried Guardiola the manager’s job. A spectacular success only enhanced his own legacy. “Without him, I wouldn’t be here,” Guardiola reflected in 2016.
Guardiola was exposed to Cruyff’s thinking at a formative age. There is a clip of a 13-year-old Ten Hag asking Cruyff a question on Dutch television, but he is not from Amsterdam or an Ajax product. He grew up near the German border, had three spells as a player and one as a coach at Twente in Enschede. He was 43 when he linked up with Guardiola, 47 when he got the Ajax job. He was, according to his assistant Steve McClaren, known as “mini Pep” at Bayern, when they coached on adjacent training pitches. Yet Ten Hag’s United are not a mirror of Guardiola’s City. There are similarities, but marked differences, too. Arteta’s Arsenal have more common denominators with City.
United have topped the Premier League’s passing charts under a former Ajax manager, but he was Louis van Gaal and it was in 2014-15. In 2022-23, as City predictably had the most possession, United trailed in sixth, with 53.7 per cent to the champions’ 65.2. Their pass completion rate was only the seventh best, behind even Tottenham. Meanwhile, as City, partly by having the greatest share of the ball, won the fewest tackles, United won the eighth most. They were eighth for blocks, too. City were twentieth. United were less slaves to possession, more reliant on winning duels. They played more long passes and scored the most goals from counter-attacks.
United have not been slaves to possession. A difference can be seen in their respective wingers: Guardiola will often pick the pair who give him most control whereas Ten Hag tends to prefer a dribbler, in Antony, and a scorer and sprinter, in Marcus Rashford. United are willing to risk losing the ball more to try to make something happen. The passing statistics of Bruno Fernandes (77.7 per cent completion rate) and Casemiro (78.5) are examples; only Erling Haaland of the City regulars finds a teammate on a lower share of occasions. If United’s style of play in part shows Ten Hag’s pragmatic streak, he has shown a willingness to keep David de Gea, no Ederson with the ball at his feet; Guardiola would surely have ditched a goalkeeper who cannot double up as the eleventh outfield player.
But they share a fondness for left-footed centre-backs that is a recurring theme among those with Ajax influences. Perhaps Ten Hag’s flagship signing was Lisandro Martinez; he has shown a reluctance to use the right-footed Harry Maguire in his old role as a left-sided centre-back. In converting left-back Luke Shaw to use him in the middle, he has echoed one of Guardiola’s early surprises, when Aleksandar Kolarov assumed similar duties. So far, though, he has eschewed inverted full-backs or hybrid roles like John Stones’, two of Guardiola’s idiosyncratic ploys; in Martinez, Shaw and Varane, however, he simply has defenders who can double up as progressive passers.
Ten Hag’s United debut came with a tactic that seemed to come straight from the Guardiola handbook, with Christian Eriksen selected as a false nine. It did not work, though he had greater success at Ajax when selecting Dusan Tadic instead of a striker. His use of Fernandes in a variety of positions has shown a total football ethos; as Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan can testify, Guardiola’s midfielders can find themselves given a number of different slots in the side, too.
Ten Hag has differed from Guardiola in derbies; a strategy of man-marking in midfield backfired when they went 6-1 down at the Etihad, eventually losing 6-3; with Fred excelling against De Bruyne and Fernandes playing off the right, it worked better in victory at Old Trafford.
Perhaps, with his fondness for quick attacks, Ten Hag is trying to tap into United’s traditions, to borrow from Sir Alex Ferguson as much as from Guardiola; his relentless emphasis on a winning mentality echoes the Scot’s attitude. Certainly, his style of football is designed to bring the best from some of those he inherited, such as Rashford and Fernandes, rather than being dogmatically ideological. But were Cruyff still around, the chances are he would have seen his stamp on one of the sides at Wembley: that managed by his pupil, Guardiola, rather than that under a successor at Ajax and a compatriot, Ten Hag.