Manchester United

Manchester United

Premier League • England

Ten Hag sack: Five left-field contenders to become next Man Utd manager analysed

We've analysed some potential shouts for Ten Hag's successor

Erik ten Hag is under serious pressure at Manchester United and a 4-0 thrashing by Crystal Palace could be the final straw for Sir Jim Ratcliffe. 

Ratcliffe took over as part owner of the club, acquiring a 25% stake, and the purchase was completed in February 2024. Since then, he has already drastically changed the landscape of the Manchester United board.

INEOS co-founder John Reece and INEOS Sport chairman Rob Nevin are new board members moving with Ratcliffe, whilst Omar Berrada joined from Manchester City as the CEO, Jason Wilcox has joined as Technical Director from Southampton and Dan Ashworth looks set to join as their new Sporting Director from Newcastle United.

With so many changes to the key decision makers of the club, Manchester United now have much clearer responsibilities at the top which will only trickle down to the footballing decisions such as the player recruitment and who the manager leading their project and the coaching staff will be.

It’s likely that they will want to go in a different direction to Ten Hag and if that’s the case they’ll need to bring in a worthy candidate to build the club based on the Manchester United DNA and the board’s vision for the future. Here are some more left-field options.

Thiago Motta – Bologna

Back in March, TEAMtalk revealed that Thiago Motta was someone Manchester United have been taking note of.

Motta’s Bologna side have been extremely impressive this season and in fact are on the verge of qualifying for European football, maybe even the Champions League. Motta’s tactics have been particularly excellent due to their advanced nature and the way he’s built his team is a good blueprint for an elite team.

In Motta’s thesis “The Value of the Ball – The Instruments of Exchange in the Heart of the Game” he discussed how the ball is the component of the game which holds the most value and everyone around it is interchangeable. Players can roam freely and progress the ball. Motta discussed that “it’s essential to train the mastery and management of the ball to develop a player’s problem solving, critical thinking, creative thinking and the management of emotional aspects such as dealing with teammates, the environment and opponents”.  Reading his thesis and seeing his Bologna team shows the synergy of his philosophy throughout.

Motta almost sees the players as the vehicle to carry the ball up the pitch and into the goal. He speaks about protecting the ball being so important and this shines in how players handle it. All over the pitch, players have so much technical security and aren’t wasteful with possession. It allows for an expressive nature from the most creative players in any position.

Thiago Motta managerial record at Bologna

The Bologna manager speaks about his setup being a 2-7-2, which to us may seem as if he’s referring to a two-man defence, seven in midfield and two in attack, but it’s strikingly different. Motta speaks about the future of football being the 2-7-2 where he counts the seven as the middle of the whole pitch from the goalkeeper, up to the striker. “The attacker is the first defender and the goalkeeper is the first striker. The goalkeeper starts the game with his feet and from the wings the offensive pressing to recover the ball takes place”. The ‘2’ are the full-back and wide midfielder combining together on the wing to provide the width.

There are two players who epitomise Motta’s philosophy: Joshua Zirkzee and Riccardo Calafiori. In fact, despite Calafiori being a left centre-back and Zirkzee being a striker, they combine together a lot. Calafiori is always making runs into advanced areas and meanwhile Zirkzee drops deep to facilitate play. There’s a sense of ‘every player needs a good understanding of every position/role’.

READ MOREMan Utd told why Joshua Zirkzee is the perfect No 9 with Ten Hag implored to make huge push to sign him

This style and philosophy is different to what Manchester United are usually associated with as there’s much more of a heavy possession focus but it’s one which is made for an elite title challenging side in the modern game. Motta has a big focus on height throughout the team too, with taller wingers, full-backs and obviously the striker and centre-backs too. This size and physicality would translate very well to the Premier League enabling them to be defensively solid and attack in style too.

Kieran McKenna – Ipswich Town

Former Manchester United coach Kieran McKenna has helped transform Ipswich Town into an impressive team. After earning promotion from League One by finishing second, McKenna’s Ipswich have then continued their dominance in the Championship. They have now secured incredible back-to-back promotions, with the Tractor Boys back in the top flight for the first time since 2002.

McKenna’s style starts from building up from the back and to do this, having both a goalkeeper and defenders who are composed and skilled on the ball is essential. McKenna’s style at Ipswich aims to overload at the initial phase of build up, draw the opponents to press them and then quickly play around them playing quick passes and show a lot of verticality to counter teams.

This playstyle to quickly counter and break into the final third is perfect for Manchester United. When you think of Sir Alex Ferguson’s best teams it included some direct players able to kill teams on counter attacks. McKenna’s philosophy is clearly rooted in this style whilst having a modern ball playing style which is geared around creating more transitions to suit this style even more.

The goalkeeper has an important role here as he has to be the start of build up and play as another defender to overload the opponent’s press and play around it. Luckily for Man Utd they already have Andre Onana who would be perfect for exactly this. In addition to this, one of Ipswich’s most important players is left-back Leif Davis who will bomb forward playing in the front line as a situational left-winger whilst the actual left-midfielder/left-winger comes more central in the front five.

Bringing in a coach who knows the club, has a style perfect for the club and has a track record for getting the most out of players would be smart. At Ipswich he’s got so many players who were playing at a lower level to look like far better players, this is always a hugely positive sign.

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Graham Potter – free agent

Despite being one of the most sought-after managers during his time at Brighton, Graham Potter is still a free agent after his unsuccessful spell at Chelsea in 2022-2023. But interestingly, Potter was manager at Brighton when Ashworth was their Technical Director. Ashworth brought in Potter in 2019 and they worked together for a few years building a successful team. You could easily imagine Potter being a target for Ashworth when he joins Manchester United as the club’s Football Director.

Potter’s Brighton would set-up in a variety of formations. A 4-4-2, 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 were the most common iterations. But the most important thing was that no matter the set up or the personnel, Potter’s philosophy was maintained throughout: pressing from the front (strikers) and building up from the back. The likes of Mat Ryan, Lewis Dunk, Adam Webster and Dan Burn were all good passers and the centre-backs were strong carriers too. This was all about overloading the first phase to build up from the back.

But there was a variance to how they would do so. Often Potter would have a double pivot or a deep lying playmaker who would drop deep to receive the ball from the defenders normally creating a 3-2 build-up. But at the same time, the wide centre-backs also had freedom to be vertical by carrying the ball through central areas or playing through balls in behind the opponent’s defence.

Dynamism, quick passing and an abundance of technical ability was the key for Potter’s Brighton and will be wherever he ends up. This style of building up from the back but still being vertical is a good blend of Man Utd’s DNA and how the modern game is evolving. In his latter stages at Brighton he would use Alexis Mac Allister (who at the time was exclusively a #10) as a regista. This deep lying playmaker role was important in build up as Mac Allister was so press resistant that he could receive the ball from the defenders and turn calmly under pressure and carry the ball forward and progress with his passing. Looking back at this role, it’s perfectly suited to Man Utd’s Kobbie Mainoo.

Obviously since then there’s been his time at Chelsea where he spent seven months at the club and wasn’t overly successful. But one of the biggest issues with his time at Chelsea was the fact that as a club their direction kept changing and they weren’t patient enough with him to allow him to build. When he came in it was on September 8, seven days after transfer deadline day when players signed in the summer were signed for then manager Thomas Tuchel. The likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were signed to work with his previous manager Tuchel.

That summer they signed a lot of players who were older including the likes of Aubameyang (33), Kalidou Koulibaly (31) and Raheem Sterling (27). The average age of signings that summer was 24.6 years old. By the time the January window came, Chelsea’s focus had massively shifted to signing young players for the long term, spending €329.5m in the process. The oldest player they signed was a loan deal for Joao Felix (23) and the average age of their signings was 20.6 years old. A drastic change in personnel and recruitment strategy would make you think they’d give him plenty of time, right? By April 2, Potter was sacked. 61 days later. For a long-term strategy the key is having patience and faith in the project.

But this shouldn’t put off Manchester United from Potter because if they’re looking to give him this time then he could be the right fit for them in building a better, more competitive team with the philosophies and principles that align with the club’s hierarchy.

Gary O’Neil – Wolverhampton Wanderers

Gary O’Neil has been very impressive at both Bournemouth and Wolves in the past two seasons helping both teams to escape relegation and actually finish much higher than expected.

O’Neil took over at Bournemouth following Scott Parker’s sacking in August 2022 as the caretaker manager. At the time Bournemouth were favourites to get relegated due to the 9-0 loss they had suffered under Parker against Liverpool and a general disconnect in performances. But O’Neil took over and they were unbeaten in his first six games at the club then getting dominated for Premier League Manager of the Month for September.

Later in the season he was made permanent manager for Bournemouth and the club managed to escape relegation finishing in 15th place with 39 points, five ahead of Leicester City in 18th. Later on though, Bournemouth and O’Neil parted ways for the Cherries to bring in Andoni Iraola.

O’Neil then moved to Wolves in August replacing Julen Lopetegui. Wolves were in a similar situation to Bournemouth when O’Neil took over there – one of the favourites to get relegated and no one expected too much from them. But Wolves currently sit in 12th place on 46 points, and O’Neil’s exciting football has the club’s supporters excited.

Wolves manager Gary O'Neil

Wolves’ midfield are all-action #8s with high energy and mobility that love to carry the ball and are combative in duels. The likes of Joao Gomes, Mario Lemina, Jean-Ricner Bellegarde, Tommy Doyle and Boubacar Traore are effective in all phases and have so much work rate. Their energy is symbolic of the style that both Wolves and O’Neil are known for: transitional football. Which again, is in Manchester United’s DNA.

O’Neil’s Wolves have a real high intensity with forwards like Hwang Hee-chan, Matheus Cunha and Pedro Neto relentless pressers with a lot of technical ability and finishing prowess. They’re the type of team who can kill many teams on the counterattack, which suits beating the big teams. In fact, this season they’ve been Chelsea twice, Manchester United once, Tottenham twice, and Man City once.

Under O’Neil, there’s a real sense of togetherness is a once disjointed team. This transformation is something which Manchester United fans surely aspire to since their downwards trajectory following the departure of Ferguson. O’Neil’s Wolves defend together and attack together. So many players are given so much freedom on the ball to be expressive. Rayan Ait-Nouri has been one of the standout players for Wolves. The left-back has the perfect blend of technical ability, inverting, overlapping, creativity and powerful ball-carrying.

Wolves are very transition heavy, focussed on sitting low, defending well and being aggressive in winning the ball back then quickly playing up to their attackers with electric pace who run in behind the defence. When you see the likes of Neto driving down the wings, that’s exactly what Alejandro Garnacho could do in this system. It would be all about creating as many transitional opportunities as possible, something which has been commonplace at Old Trafford for Manchester United fans.

Franck Haise – RC Lens

Manager Franck Haise has done a tremendous job with Lens getting them into the Champions League last season and finishing in second place. Despite a poor start to the finish after losing their two best players, Lois Openda and Seko Fofana, in the summer, Lens have risen up to 6th in the table with six games to go. Haise has managed to do well considering the unfavourable circumstances of losing two key players and managing Champions League football with a small squad.

Lens were one of the most entertaining sides to watch in 2022/23. The Frenchman’s side has some interesting tactics, so let’s dive deeper into the specifics. Haise sets Lens up in either a 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 variation or even a 3-diamond-3 (3-1-2-1-3). The principles throughout either setup remain the same. The wide centre-backs (often Jonathan Gradit or Kevin Danso on the right and Facundo Medina on the left) are given huge ball progression responsibilities. They’ll pull wide to receive the ball then either pass the ball through the lines or carry up into central areas.

This style suits one player in particular perfectly, Lisandro Martinez. The Argentinian centre-back is so similar to Lens’ left-sided Medina and they’ve been compared so often. Martinez’s ball playing ability is so good but needs to be utilised more. A setup like this would allow him to have so much licence to push up on the ball and pass through the lines.

Haise has two central midfielders with varied responsibilities. One of them (Salis Abdul Samed) is the deeper of the two and the other is a more advanced #8 (Neil El Aynaoui/Andy Diouf) who’s given creative freedom and supports in all phases of the game. The latter role is perfect for star prospect Mainoo.

This role is the core of the team, it was where Fofana would play, and he’d receive the ball deep and carry up the pitch but also float around the midfield creating for those ahead of him and making late runs into the box. That’s exactly the role which would get the best of Mainoo, making their star prospect the essential cog in their system.

Lens’ wing-backs are so important too as they help provide the width in the team and in attack they become situational wingers who’ll cross into the box. Ruben Aguilar, Przemyslaw Frankowski, Jhoanner Chavez, Deiver Machado and Massadio Haidara all have played there and it’s important they have depth in this position due to the sheer volume of running they have to do to support in all phases of play up and down the flank.

In addition to this, their ‘wingers’ are wide out of possession but in possession they come central and play as two #10s. The technical creative midfielders play here to roam around the half spaces and create chances for the striker (Elye Wahi) who runs in behind the opponent’s defence all game. These wide #10s are chosen between the likes of Florian Sotoca, David Pereira da Costa, Adrien Thomasson and Angelo Fulgini.

With Manchester United’s current squad, this would allow Bruno Fernandes to play in the final third and have much less defensive responsibility to make the most of his creativity and goal threat. Partner that with Rasmus Hojlund running in behind and you’ve got a serious combination for Haise.

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