Erik ten Hag switches between two separate groups of Manchester United players training in the Rajamangala National Stadium in Bangkok.
Steve McClaren is overseeing one of the rondos as the players try to keep possession of the ball, and Ten Hag’s other assistant Mitchell van der Gaag the other.
Theirs are the voices we can hear most loudly while the ball is recycled as quickly as possibly to keep the players on their toes. Ten Hag observes intently, walking back and forth. United’s new manager interjects only now and again, his distinctive Dutch accent piercing the humid night air, but when he does so everyone listens. No doubt who’s the boss here.
Erik ten Hag is proving himself the remedy to Manchester United’s managerial malaise
Ten Hag addresses his players in an open training session during the Red Devils’ Australia tour
There’s a feeling that Ten Hag’s moderate grasp of English is actually a benefit in these moments. He’s not a man to waste words anyway, but his instructions are short and to the point. Nor does the Dutchman try to hide his feelings if he’s not happy with what he’s seeing.
The video of Ten Hag screaming ‘what the f*** are you doing?’ when David de Gea launched a long ball forward in the closing stages of United’s win over Crystal Palace in Melbourne after young Charlie Savage failed to give his goalkeeper the option of a short pass spread quickly on social media.
Ten Hag doesn’t accept any drop in standards or any player not doing as he’s told. He knows what he wants and demands it on a daily basis as he imposes his philosophy on this United squad. That’s why he got them back for pre-season early and only gave the players three days off on the 17-day tour. It ended with a long flight to Manchester which landed on Sunday afternoon, but they will be back in training on Tuesday.
Red Devils captain Harry Maguire has looked revitalised under his new manager in pre-season
This is a man who built a reputation for hard work and meticulous planning while climbing the coaching ladder in Holland and working with Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich.
Ten Hag even dictated how long the grass should be. The players’ water bottles had to be set out in neat lines. If he asked them to run a distance in a certain time, that’s exactly what they needed to do to the second, no more or less.
When United officials met him in London to interview Ten Hag for the job, they were surprised but impressed to find him sat with a pile of data and charts laid out in front of him.
Ten Hag’s reputation preceded him and has only been enhanced in his first month in charge at United, and by what we have seen on the tour of Thailand and Australia as United finished unbeaten with three wins and a draw.
Assistant manager Mitchell van der Gaag has proved popular since his arrival in Manchester
Every aspect of the club – not just football issues – are planned out. Ideas must be explained in full, decisions justified. When MUTV wanted to film some of the players on the Neighbours set in Melbourne, that was swiftly dismissed.
Everybody is accountable, and no-one more do than the players. It is well documented that Ten Hag has imposed strict rules and punishments regarding their time-keeping. There are tighter controls on diet and nutrition. The players have been warned not to bring their egos into the dressing-room and to make sure no secrets get out. No-one is bigger than the team.
Ten Hag may be a tough taskmaster and stickler for discipline like his fellow Dutchman and former United boss, Louis van Gaal, but he seems to possess a more human side. Players are positively encouraged to speak to the manager rather than their agents if they have a problem.
Ten Hag is a stickler for discipline like Louis van Gaal, but appears to have a more human side
Van Gaal lectured the squad like schoolchildren, setting out training sessions in a formulaic way and interrupting them regularly. There was more video analysis and they soon grew bored.
Under Ten Hag, training is fast-paced and intense to try and replicate match situations and the pressing game he demands. The ball is recycled almost immediately to maintain a high tempo. Ten Hag only stops the session if he has to, and the players seem to respond better to that.
His predecessor Ralf Rangnick also wanted a high press but never really got it from this group of players. Rangnick’s problem was that his short-term appointment as interim manager undermined him from the start. It compromised the players’ respect, as did his limited success as a coach and choice of back-room staff. He was a distant figure and, by the end, was trying to distance himself still further from the mess unfolding at Old Trafford.
Ralf Rangnick had a tumultuous interim spell in the Old Trafford dugout last season
Ten Hag’s permanent appointment and more recent success at Ajax working with Van der Gaag as his No.2 has given them a stronger power base from which to start. McClaren, of course, was by Sir Alex Ferguson’s side when United won the Treble in 1999, becoming part of club folklore.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had history on his side too, but that wasn’t enough to guarantee him success at United. Ten Hag is only three years older than the Norwegian but carries a greater air of authority. Solskjaer had an arm-around-the-shoulder approach and didn’t like confrontation. He upset a number of players by trying to appease them with promises he couldn’t always keep. You can’t imagine Ten Hag doing the same. He will make a decision and then present it as a done deal, no questions asked.
Jose Mourinho certainly didn’t shy away from confrontation – just ask the likes of Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw – but was simply too abrasive in the end. Ten Hag isn’t so hot-headed. The situation with Cristiano Ronaldo must be frustrating for a manager who wants as long as possible to work with his new squad and get his ideas across, but Ten Hag has kept his counsel on tour. Repeated questions about Ronaldo have been met with short, firm answers, toeing the club line. Whatever he thinks privately, Ten Hag knows any ill-advised comments could inflame a delicate situation.
Ten Hag is not one to be drawn into giving sound bites during press conferences
He is not one to be drawn into giving a sound bite, but didn’t pull any punches after United threw away a two-goal lead in their final tour game against Aston Villa in Perth, something he said was ‘unacceptable’.
Ten Hag clearly doesn’t enjoy being the centre of attention as much as Van Gaal or Mourinho. He won’t talk as freely as Solskjaer or Rangnick.
That isn’t to say he is averse to the media. Far from it. The players too have been reminded by the new manager that it’s part of their job, something that has not always been top of the agenda at United despite the club’s massive profile.
De Gea, Bruno Fernandes, Fred, Victor Lindelof, Diogo Dalot and Anthony Elanga have all spoken to the travelling press pack on tour.
Midfielder Fred is one of many stars to have spoken to the media during the pre-season tour
Ten Hag sat down with us in Melbourne, and talked engagingly for half an hour. There was even a joke at his own expense towards the end when he was asked about Ferguson’s ‘hairdryer’ rants, and pointed out that he has a bald head.
There’s no doubt Ten Hag is more comfortable discussing the finer points of football: the set-up, the systems, the coaching, the philosophy. This is his natural habitat.
And if the perception of this United squad last season as a divided, disparate, disillusioned bunch is indeed true, Ten Hag has shown plenty of promise in his first weeks in the job that he could be the man to put things right.