Erik ten Hag reveals failed Man Utd signing that blocked Ajax style | Football

The Dutchman has been criticised for his side’s style of play (Picture: Getty)

Erik ten Hag has again defended Manchester United’s style of play and explained why he has not been able to replicate ‘the Ajax way’ at Old Trafford.

When the Dutchman was first brought in nearly two years ago, he was expected to overhaul the counter-attacking, transitional football played by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – and which continued under interim boss Ralf Rangnick.

Ajax are known for playing a more methodical, possession-based style rooted in the Total Football of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, a style which has heavily influenced Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola.

United had already had a taste of it under Louis van Gaal, who quickly transformed the team from a counter-attacking side to one that looked to dominate the ball, going from an average of 42 per cent possession in the season before he joined (which ranked ninth in the Premier League) to 58.8% in his first campaign (which ranked first).

But this season, United’s matches have been open, end-to-end affairs and the side have had little control, with their 50.4% possession ranking them 10th in a division that has otherwise shifted dramatically towards playing with greater dominance of the ball.

In an exhaustive interview with Gary Neville on Sky Sports, Ten Hag has now opened up on why he decided against trying to play an Ajax-like brand of football and says it is largely down to the players he had at his disposal – and the failure to land a key target in his first summer.

Asked why he felt he could not bring Ajax’s playing style to the United team, Ten Hag explained: ‘Because then you have to bring in players.

‘So in the recruitment you need the players with those typical assets [that Ajax players have] and you can’t bring a player who is here who has a [different] style of play and I don’t want to change his nature.’

Barcelona star and former Man Utd target Frenkie de Jong

Ten Hag wanted Barca’s midfield metronome Frenkie de Jong (Picture: Getty)

Probed on whether the signing of Frenkie de Jong in the summer of 2022 would have allowed him to play a brand of football more similar to Ajax’s, Ten Hag agreed and continued: ‘That would have been Frenkie de Jong and Casemiro.

‘They would have been really connected with each other, they would have been really complementary with each other, absolutely. But that is a typical player, if you want to play the Ajax style, you need that type of player, yeah.’

United were locked in talks with Barcelona for months in an effort to try and sign De Jong but were unable to get a deal over the line.

The Netherlands international came through the academy at Ajax and made his breakthrough under Ten Hag. This season, De Jong has averaged 82 passes per game, the most in La Liga, and is his side’s heartbeat in midfield, whereas United’s top passer – Bruno Fernandes – only averages 55 passes per game.

Ten Hag also defended his side’s performances and again attributed any issues to their extensive injury list this season, saying: ‘We are not where we want to be with the way we want to play, but the headlines are still there because we want to be proactive, be dynamic and we want to play with a high line. That’s what we always aim for.

‘We have made improvements. We score more goals after the winter break and also we were more consistent. We haven’t had so many defeats in 2024 – only three defeats – but we draw too much. What we can do is put ourselves in a winning position, but then you have to draw to bring it over the line.

‘When you have so many changes in back four, the rules and principles remain the same, but the patterns are not there. We don’t bring the results and we know that.’

Although United missed out on De Jong, Ten Hag has actually brought in a number of players from Ajax such as Lisandro Martinez and Antony, while goalkeeper Andre Onana also previously played in Amsterdam.

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