With the imminent arrival of Frenkie de Jong on the cards, we take a look at how Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United could line up in the coming season.
Earlier today a “broad agreement” was reached regarding the Dutch playmaker, and with United in talks over an audacious double swoop for Ajax duo Antony and Lisando Martinez, the wheels of recruitment appear to be turning just in time for the Red Devil’s preseason tour.
Those wheels have seen a contract already tabled for Christian Eriksen and with his decision set to be made in the next few days, the potential exists for a swashbuckling brand of “Total football” familiar to the new manager.
That brand of football – perhaps surprisingly – starts with defending.
The new boss’ former side were relentless out of possession, pressing high up the pitch and hunting in packs to maintain control over their opponents.
Such an approach demands a high defensive line capable of smothering opposition counter attacks by way of doing as much defensive work as possible as far away from your own goal as is practical.
In their Champions League games against Dortmund last season, the bravery shown by Ajax in allowing Erling Haaland several one-vs-one situations was only possible due to the incredible recovery pace of his central defensive unit.
It is for that reason that we’ve opted for Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez as a defensive pair.
Even if Harry Maguire is to recapture his form and put his year of woe in the past, his fundamental skillset is far more suited to a deep block, in which his ability to dominate in aerial challenges comes to the fore.
In this new set-up, Lisandro Martinez (as argued in our three-part series on the hunt for a centre-back) would allow United to maintain aerial supremacy in their backline whilst also covering spaces to a top-class level.
Ahead of them, Frenkie de Jong typically lines up as a single pivot for the Netherlands International side under Louis van Gaal and while some may desire to see a tough-tackling midfielder line up alongside him, the time ten Hag and de Jong spent together at Ajax would suggest that the new boss does not see such a player as essential.
Taking to the field alongside Lasse Schone in Eredivisie club’s memorable Champions League semi-final run, the playmaker was tasked with protecting the defence as often as he supported the attack, with his midfield partner a converted attacker.
It is because of this that we’ve opted for an adventurous midfield setup, with Frenkie at its base as a smooth operator, and two “free #8’s” ahead of him.
Such a setup would allow freedom for Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes to maximise the team’s penalty box entries, be it with their sublime passing skill or their direct goal threat.
Frontman Cristiano Ronaldo demonstrated his habit of drifting out to the wings in search of the ball last season, but with two skilful offensive midfielders behind him it would be no surprise to see him more frequently playing on the shoulder of the last defender, eagerly anticipating a defence-splitting pass from either playmaker.
For that to work, there needs to be adequate space between opposition defenders and with Antony a potential new recruit, that ought to be in abundance.
Over the last few seasons United have had a frustrating tendency to clog up the left half-space, with players bunching up in one section of the opposition third and subsequently giving the opposing side a very small and manageable area to defend.
However, with Sancho and Antony both capable of stretching defences, and with the latter in particular comfortable playing out on the right touchline, opposing teams would be forced to stretch their lines in order to protect their flanks from the dangerous wide pair.
Put four top-class creative talents behind him, and another possession aficionado behind them and there is certainly merit in the curtness of Ten Hag’s answer when asked what Ronaldo would bring to the team: