ERik ten Tag is confident his star summer target Frenkie de Jong will soon be confirmed as a Manchester United player in what is expected to be a total contract of €85m. Given that the midfielder was reluctant to leave Barcelona and is one of Europe’s top talents, De Jong’s arrival could prove to be a coup. It is also versatile. In three seasons at Ajax, the 25-year-old operated 12 times as a centre-back, 50 as a defensive midfielder and 12 in a more central berth. Arriving at Barcelona in July 2019, he again played in central defense (nine times), starting 36 times and central midfielder 93 times.
So how could Ten Hag use De Jong and who else could the manager pick in his XI if we include other current targets: Feyenoord’s Tyrell Malacia, Christian Eriksen (a free agent) and Antony and Lisandro Martinez from Ajax?
Malacia are close to signing but the prospect of Eriksen joining depends on his preferred destination, with Brentford and Leicester also being considered by the Dane. And as far as Martínez and Antony are concerned, although Ten Hag would like to sign them, United acknowledge that deals for either are difficult.
At Ajax, Ten Hag favored the 4-3-3, with the 4-3-1-2 backing up towards the end of last season. Below are potential versions of these along with an additional roster, should Ten Hag choose to alter his strategy.
Ten Hag’s Dream 4-3-3: De Gea; Dalot, Martinez, Maguire, Malacia; Fernandes (captain), McTominay, De Jong; Eriksen, Ronaldo, Antoine.
Ten Hag fields a ‘defensive’ or ‘offensive’ 4-3-3, depending on the opposition and what may be needed. In a proactive 4-3-3, De Jong’s geometric destructiveness is complemented by the more protective characteristics of Scott McTominay and Bruno Fernandes’ penchant for flying between the lines. The sometimes clumsy Harry Maguire could be risky alongside Martínez, who is expected to be a regular and whose diminutive (for a centre-back) 5ft 9in is not to be mistaken for an unfinished man in duels. At left-back, Malacia’s thirst for tackling, afterburner speed and cunning in possession mean that in time Luke Shaw could be edged out. Diogo Dalot’s selection is close: a reflection of what could be a season-long struggle with Aaron Wan-Bissaka at right-back unless Victor Lindelof and Brandon Williams (who operated there) come as a surprise.
Further ahead, Antony would edge out Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, who need to improve ball carrying, vision and his goal and assist returns which were four and two in 25 appearances in 2021-22 – down from nine and four of the Brazil international in 23 in the Eredivisie. Eriksen would be the furthest retired from the top three with Cristiano Ronaldo playing in the middle after scoring 18 goals in 30 Premier League appearances in last season’s return to the division. If there’s any doubt his 37-year-old legs could match Ten Hag’s dynamic style, Sébastien Haller, only slightly more pious and taller, was the focal point of Ajax’s latest triumph under the direction of the manager.
This line-up has Fernandes as captain – the thought here that Ten Hag will decide Maguire is no longer an automatic choice and hand the armband to one of United’s few generals on the pitch.
A 4-3-1-2 if only De Jong and Malacia join: De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Varane, Maguire Malacia; McTominay, DeJong, Fred; Fernandes; Ronaldo, Rashford
In this setup, De Jong is deep inside him and Fred to make the most of the Dutchman’s long-range passing and his penchant for carrying the ball which can disrupt the lines. The Brazilian, who was more dynamic in the latter part of last season, would operate alongside Fernandes and De Jong to form a fluid trio, with McTominay the ‘destroyer’. At the back, Maguire’s experience would hopefully help Raphael Varane’s silkier style flourish. Hopefully, because the World Cup winner has struggled in United colours, appearing to move in slow motion, a lack of spirit also costs goals. At this point, the right-back position is a Ten Hag puzzle: Wan-Bissaka needs to increase his attacking thrusts, Dalot his reading of full-back play, so the former might be better suited to this form slightly more defensive. Rashford, terrible last season, is chosen because his pace and straightforwardness make up for Ronaldo’s difficulty maintaining 90-minute levels of zest. In order not to be kidnapped, however, the United Academy product must tune its sat nav to miss the dead ends it runs too often.
A 4-1-4-1 option: De Gea; Dalot, Varane, Maguire, Shaw; DeJong; Rashford, Van de Beek, Fred, Sancho; Fernandes
It’s Pep Guardiola’s familiar formation for Manchester City and has often featured a false 9, a tactic Ten Hag can deploy given he lacks a prolific centre-forward when Ronaldo needs a break . So where Rodri is the ‘1’ in front of the City defence, De Jong is placed in that string-pulling role by Ten Hag, with the manager also asking his star to be as adept as the Spaniard at anticipating and to suffocate any adversary. incursion. Fernandes’ cute football brain makes him the lone ‘ghost’ striker, and Donny van de Beek has the chance to establish himself as a viable choice by being asked to fit in with De Jong like he did under Ten Hag at Ajax for two years (2017 -19). In defence, Varane is again named alongside Maguire and Shaw replaces Malacia as the England left-back is sure to respond positively if questioned by Ten Hag (as the 26-year-old did under a former manager, José Mourinho, and Malacia may take time to adjust.