If Manchester United move on from Ten Hag, who does the data say they should target?

Mark Carey and Thom Harris

It might not quite be Groundhog Day, but if there were an equivalent feeling of reliving the same period after 18 months of a Manchester United manager’s tenure, it looks like that clock-radio has just gone off again and I Got You, Babe is blaring.

Erik ten Hag is the fifth manager attempting to restore United to the heights reached under Sir Alex Ferguson, but if his 2022-23 debut season’s third-placed finish and Carabao Cup final win was a B- in his end-of-year report, you would have to say that this one is looking more like a D with a month to go.

As The Athletic have recently reported, United’s peak performance period under Ten Hag was arguably one year ago and the data supports this argument.

To gauge this, we can look at United’s ClubElo rating, which is a measure of team strength that allocates points for every result, weighted by the quality of the opposition faced. 

As you can see below, United’s team strength did rise under Ten Hag last season after a difficult start. In the past 12 months, however, the inevitable post-Ferguson slide has befallen the 54-year-old Dutchman, with his overall tenure showing little improvement.

Cast your eye across the whole period since Ferguson left in summer 2013, and it shows how rare it has been to see the club display levels observed late in his reign.

The stance of INEOS chairman Sir Jim Ratcliffe and director of sport Sir Dave Brailsford has recently suggested that no decision has been made regarding the future, but Ten Hag has been involved in planning meetings about next season.

Several of Europe’s elite clubs are going to be in the market for a manager this summer — namely Bayern Munich and Liverpool — so United’s key decision-makers will have to keep a close eye on the competition if they are to welcome another new man through the door.

There has been a rotating cast of rumoured names on many shortlists, but who might be worthy of greater attention?

While many fans have lamented the rumours that Gareth Southgate has been linked with the role because of his connections with Brailsford, it does speak to the idea that United could be in the market for a manager with a near-ambassadorial presence.

By the same token, a strong character in the shape of Zinedine Zidane has merit, as the Frenchman led Real Madrid to three successive Champions League trophies from 2016 to 2018. Zidane has not been famed for his teams playing a particular style of football, with an approach that was more pragmatic than dogmatic. However, his ability to command a dressing room and sustain a winning mentality are two huge ticks on the new-manager checklist.

At the other end of the scale, Graham Potter’s brief time at Chelsea was about as successful as the club’s financial advice, but his stock has arguably risen since being relieved of his duties at Stamford Bridge just over a year ago. 


More of a head coach than a manager, Potter has evidenced at other clubs his ability to improve players without resorting to significant transfer spending, which will surely be of interest as United look to stay within the boundaries of financial fair play rules. It might be unlikely, but if the fans wish to see a more dominant, possession-based style of play, then the 48-year-old’s CV does stack up. 

Julian Nagelsmann has been closely linked with United, as well as with a return to previous club Bayern Munich this summer. The 36-year-old’s recent successes with the German national team has restored his reputation, after being fired by Bayern last March.

Nagelsmann’s preferred style of play is versatile, flexible and, at times, pragmatic in ensuring his sides play based on principles more so than a specific system dictated by formation. 

Using The Athletic’s playstyle wheels, you can see the dominance from Nagelsmann’s Bayern in his only full season there — clinching the Bundesliga title with three games to spare.

Despite their approach being predominantly based on control (Possession, 98 out of 99) and intricate play (Deep build-up, 98 out of 99), Nagelsmann’s Bayern were equally adept at springing forward quickly (Patient attack, 49 out of 99) and punishing their opponents with relentless gegenpressing (Intensity, 92 out of 99).

Only one club registered a higher expected goals per 90 minutes value than Nagelsmann’s title-winning Bayern across Europe’s top seven leagues in 2021-22 — an Ajax side led by a certain Erik ten Hag.

If it is up-and-coming managers you are after, Thiago Motta has hoovered up his fair share of plaudits for the progressive, flexible style of play at Bologna this season. They look set to secure a Champions League spot for the first time in 60 years thanks to Motta’s principles — which include a patient build-up, asking his centre-backs to move into midfield and create overloads through the middle of the pitch.

Motta’s ideas are based on what his side do with the ball, but a natural consequence of their dominance in possession means they are defensively one of the strongest sides in Europe, with their non-penalty expected goals (xG) conceded per game of 0.8 only bettered by Juventus and Inter Milan in Serie A.


With United’s widely-known issues protecting their own goal, a manager who has overseen sustained defensive solidity could appeal to Ratcliffe and Brailsford.

Of the more pragmatic options, Thomas Frank could be a shrewd stylistic match.

Not only has the Dane overseen Brentford’s seamless rise from mid-table in the Championship to eyeing a fourth straight season in the Premier League, securing two comfortable mid-table finishes, but he has refined a rock-solid defensive system that retains the kind of aggressive, off-the-ball running and counter-attacking that will tick plenty of boxes for the playstyle seekers at INEOS.

Even after a trickier season this time around — losing top-scorer and tactical hinge Ivan Toney to suspension until January, as well as fellow forward Bryan Mbeumo for three months through injury — the underlying data since Brentford’s promotion is strong. 

They rank seventh for xG conceded per game across that three-year span, while their ‘best-of-the-rest’ pressing figures, including passes per defensive action (PPDA), point to a side keen to assert themselves and engage high despite their recent arrival into the Premier League.

Frank would bring a clear tactical philosophy; his 5-3-2 is combative, disciplined, and a nightmare to play against; only Brighton have taken more than their 35 points against the ‘Big Six’, with two wins over Manchester City, three over Chelsea, and that 4-0 thrashing of United in Ten Hag’s second game all fresh in the memory. 

Premier League experience, a good motivator and coach, and boasting long-term success on a lower budget — Frank would be a safe bet to stop the freefall at Old Trafford. 

Further down the English league pyramid, two familiar names are causing a stir.

Michael Carrick has taken charge of United before, stepping up from a coaching role and overseeing three games (two wins, one draw) as caretaker manager immediately after the departure of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in November 2021. With more than 300 appearances for the club, a promising start to his management career could make the 42-year-old a crowd-pleasing appointment. 

Having already demonstrated his firefighting skills, leading a struggling Middlesbrough side to a late promotion charge in last season’s Championship, Carrick brings stability with the ball. Since his appointment last October, only five teams have recorded a higher average possession in the second tier, while only four — Southampton, Burnley, Leicester and Leeds — can boast a higher field tilt, which measures the proportion of touches that a team takes in the attacking third. 

Not just dominating the ball, but sustaining that pressure high up the pitch, Carrick’s teams control games, but can sometimes struggle to match that intensity off the ball. They do not always press high, and often sit in a deeper block to cover the defensive deficiencies of a set of midfielders who prefer to have the ball. 

While that can invite pressure, the structure is solid enough, and has allowed Middlesbrough to win more games with their intricate attacking play than they lose due to over-ambition.

Off the pitch, Carrick has earned rave reviews with his temperament, cited by many players as a positive calming influence; former Middlesbrough striker Chuba Akpom, 28, even went as far as to describe him as the manager that he has been dreaming of his entire career. 

At a time when chaos reigns, Carrick could help to bring peace at Old Trafford.


Another former United coach, Kieran McKenna, deserves a mention.

At just 37 years old, he is thriving in his first senior managerial post, leading Ipswich Town to a storming Premier League promotion push. Ipswich are on course to become only the fourth team to reach the top flight via back-to-back promotions.

McKenna’s team are all about intensity in attack, looking to overload the final third and hit the penalty area as frequently as they can with crosses, powerful forward runs and shots. 

As they build up in a 3-2-5 shape, the prolific Leif Davis pushes up from left-back, holding the width with Wes Burns on the opposite side and peppering the box with quality left-footed deliveries. Davis leads the Championship in assists, with 17, and he and Burns both rank in the division’s top six for completed open-play crosses.


This attacking structure is well-set to counter-press — only Southampton and Leeds have won the ball in the final third more often this season, helping Ipswich to defend the counter-attack from their advanced positions. 

As we can see from the rolling xG graph below, McKenna’s December 2021 arrival brought instant results. Even with the notoriously daunting jump from the third tier to the second this season, the underlying numbers have remained strong.

No Championship team have taken more non-penalty shots or scored more goals than Ipswich; United could be tempted to strike while the iron is hot.

What does the data say?

It is perennially difficult to quantify the impact a manager can have at a club, beyond just, well, having good players, but there are ways you can measure how one has performed relative to the expectations of the club involved and their place in world football.

A simple method is to base your search predominantly on team style, providing an insight into how a manager likes their team to play rather than the success he has.

Using The Athletic’s playstyle wheel, we can get a broad idea of a team’s approach in and out of possession.

For Manchester City and Arsenal, it is possession-based. For Liverpool, it is transitional.

For Manchester United, it is… confused.

With one of the poorest defensive metrics in Europe (Chance prevention, eight out of 99), and a share of the ball that is just over average (Possession, 56 out of 99), United’s style has been based on counter-attacking (Circulate, 56 out of 99) rather than territorial dominance (Field tilt, 46 out of 99).

“I can’t play like Ajax, because I have different players,” Ten Hag said this season. “I came here with my philosophy, based on possession, but I wanted to combine it with the DNA of Manchester United, the players and their characters.

“Last year, we saw what that was. We played very good football. This season, the philosophy is not different, only I want to emphasise more on going direct. We want to press from different blocks and then go direct.”

When assessing which teams across Europe relate most closely with United’s style of play, the output does not inspire.

Fulham, Villarreal, Eintracht Frankfurt, Gil Vicente and Frosinone are a smorgasbord of sides who have each grappled with mid-table mediocrity in 2023-24 — which sounds pretty accurate to United’s outlook in Ten Hag’s second year.

In truth, this analysis is a flawed way to search for potential manager options, given that it assesses who is most similar to their current output. Flipping the analysis on its head could help find the style of play that will get United fans excited when they arrive at Old Trafford.

Ratcliffe has already spoken decisively on the issue of on-pitch identity, assuring United fans that he and his staff will be making the decisions on the playing style. 

“We will decide — plus the CEO, sporting director, recruitment guys — what the style of football is,” said Ratcliffe, “and that will be the Manchester United style of football that the coach will have to play.”

Previous conceptions of the ‘Manchester United DNA’ have been based on fast, direct, attacking football, built on dominance and high energy. So let’s keep things very simple in our search by filtering for managers whose sides rank above average for chance creation, possession and pressing — ‘intensity’ on the playstyle wheel — and below average for ‘patient attack’, to signify a direct, counter-attacking game.

Among the shortlist are two managers from the Eredivisie, the Netherlands’ top flight. Arne Slot led Feyenoord to the title for the second time in more than 20 years last season with his high-pressing, clinical attacking football. Crucially, Slot has been lauded for his ability to improve players and promote youth, with Feyenoord fielding a squad whose average age is the fourth-youngest in the division.

Similarly, Peter Bosz’s high-energy style has made PSV Eindhoven the most potent side in Europe’s top seven leagues this season, with no team creating more than their 2.8 non-penalty xG per 90. Progress to the last 16 of the Champions League has put a further positive spotlight on Bosz’s side, who, nine points clear at the top of the domestic table with four games to go, have one hand on the title.

Perhaps replacing one Dutch manager with another Dutch manager might be too on the nose, though. So if United did want to cast the net wider, there is one highly coveted man who passes the stylistic test.

Ruben Amorim has been linked with Liverpool since Jurgen Klopp announced in January that he will be leaving at the end of the season, but the Sporting Lisbon manager has recently said such reports are jumping the gun.

“I’m Sporting manager, I want to win here and I didn’t meet any club. Nothing has been agreed,” Amorim said this month. “Stop with this story. This is the last time I speak about my future.”

You can understand why the 39-year-old is in demand. Amorim guided Sporting to a first league title for 19 years in the 2021-22 season and looks set to win another, with his side seven points clear at the top of the table with five to play.

Even accounting for the imbalance of the Primeira Liga, a side who boast, statistically, one of the best attacks (Chance creation, 95 out 99) and the best defence (Chance prevention, 97 out of 99) show that their manager must be having a positive effect.

Stylistically, Amorim’s 3-4-3 has been largely based on dominance in possession, but this season’s arrival of striker Viktor Gyokeres has led to a more transitional, direct style of attack (Patient attack, 49 out of 99). It also highlights Amorim’s ability to maximise his style by adapting to the skill sets of his players.

As a manager known for fielding young players and improving individual player performance, there are reasons he is sought-after.

However the season finishes for United, this summer will be one of their biggest for a long time. Their first pre-season since the INEOS investment was agreed in December, the potential arrival of Dan Ashworth as sporting director — and big decisions to be made on and off the pitch.

If United are to twist rather than stick in the dugout, it is unlikely that the shortlist will be much longer than the names outlined here.



Willy Kambwala’s journey to the Man Utd first team – via DR Congo and a famous Paris suburb

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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