Ten Hag’s Neville interview analysed: Kane, Hojlund, tactics, injuries and future

“It was a difficult start, but then we had a great season. We played very good football, very proactive football. We went into two finals; we won one final. We were third in the league. Also in Europe, we had some decent results, like we beat Barcelona. 

“So there we were, at that time in the summer, right on track as you call it. But then of course, this season is not the way we wanted. That is also clear.”

Erik ten Hag has spoken to Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville about Manchester United signing Rasmus Hojlund instead of Harry Kane, the club’s injury problems, his style of play, the club’s future — and their many struggles this season.

It is an enlightening conversation and here, The Athletic’s Carl Anka picks out the key topics, what Ten Hag said and what he means.

On Kane and Hojlund

Recruitment was a key element of Ten Hag’s discussion with Neville. The United manager gave a particularly telling answer about how United initially pursued Kane in the summer of 2023, only to pivot to Rasmus Hojlund. 

“We have had some choices made with talents like Rasmus Hojlund. I can see a striker who already proved it (referring to Kane), who we want to sign and we couldn’t get him. And then we went to Rasmus because he’s a talent.”

In September 2023, The Athletic outlined the reasons United did not sign Kane. Then-football director John Murtough was wary of getting drawn into a protracted negotiation with Daniel Levy that had no guarantee of reaching a compromise and would have given United limited time to pivot to Plan B if negotiations were unsuccessful. Joel Glazer and chief executive Richard Arnold also believed a move for Kane was not a reasonable use of resources when factoring in the striker’s age and wage requests.

Kane’s ability to succeed under Ten Hag was never in question, but the difficulty of reaching an agreement with Spurs saw United pivot to Hojlund, who has made a reasonably positive impact in his first season at the club.

A look at his shot map (below) illustrates a striker who can be dangerous in and around the six-yard box when given a proper opportunity. However, a key issue to Hojlund’s play and the team’s attack as a whole is the striker’s relative lack of service and the low number of shots he is managing per game (1.6 per 90 minutes in the Premier League).

Alejandro Garnacho is averaging 3.49 shots per 90, 10th out of Premier League players who have played more than 900 minutes. Darwin Nunez is the league leader here, averaging 4.73 shots per 90.

For United to get the most out of Hojlund, they need to generate more chances for him.

“With Hojlund, we had the biggest potential in the striker position last summer and we are very happy with him. But he also needs time to adapt and we are very pleased he showed his assets in scoring goals.

“He had a very good period where he scored many games after he showed it, but before and after, he had some physical issues, which is normal for a young player coming up. But it has a negative impact on the team results and that’s what you have to accept.”

In a transfer market with strikers in limited supply and quoted at high prices, United’s decision to pursue Hojlund over Goncalo Ramos or Randal Kolo Muani has had some success. This summer, the club will likely look to purchase another striker to reduce the goalscoring burden on the 21-year-old Denmark international.

More on United’s future under INEOS…

United’s style of play

“We thought about this (playing defensively), but one of my objectives here was to bring in a proactive way of play. The players will return (from injury) so if you then adjust, go in a very defensive style and it doesn’t fit the players we already have, then if you don’t get the results everyone will lose confidence.

“Then when the players are back, you have to return to the proactive approach and you have lost many times. At the same time, you see the proactive style. We improved our attacking game, we scored more goals and were more consistent… we are making improvements, but not enough.”

Ten Hag says injuries mean he has been unable to begin his plan to transform United into “the best transition team in the world“. His side remains a dangerous counter-attacking team, but an inconsistent front press and rudimentary man-marking system in midfield have seen them far too open when defending. United have conceded a lot of shots this season, even if many are largely low-quality chances. 

To Ten Hag, his attackers are best suited for counter-attacking against unsettled defences, and his remaining defenders are most comfortable blocking shots in and around their penalty area. With talented long passers, such as Casemiro and Bruno Fernandes, a system that attempts to generate as many transitional moments as possible should yield many goalscoring opportunities. 

However, the question on the minds of Neville and other United fans is whether Ten Hag will continue with this unconventional approach next season when the squad will be, in theory, stronger.

Ten Hag’s answer to that appears to be… maybe. 

“Last season, we had the consistent back four, we did the same and we had the most clean sheets in the Premier League. So when everyone is fit, they can deliver the way we want to defend, but it also has something to do with the possession.”

The likely return of at least one match-fit, specialist left-back next season will mean United will be better at executing this transition-based style of play if Ten Hag chooses to continue with it. The Dutchman appears to be looking at ways of refining his principles of play rather than scrapping it outright. 

“We know that, we know what it demands and what the standards are. We want to get back to wins so we have to make the next step. We have to get into a winning position and then bring it over the line.”

“Bring it over the line” has been one of the manager’s more repeated phrases since the 4-3 defeat to Chelsea on April 4. The nature of that loss, in which they were leading 3-2 in the 95th minute, may influence his thinking going into next season. The 2-2 draw with Liverpool on April 7 also saw Ten Hag mention he was looking to improve the team’s rest defence in future.  


Ten Hag really likes the word ‘dynamic’

A smaller point, but Ten Hag is fond of using the word dynamic when complimenting his side. After Saturday’s 1-1 result with Burnley, he described United as “one of the most dynamic and entertaining teams in Premier League”.  This interview brought up his other favoured use of the word; when describing Mason Mount. 

“This year, we wanted to make the next step. We bought in a goalkeeper who can play out from the back, a dynamic midfielder in Mason Mount — who has been injured all season — and a goalscorer in Hojlund who is young and needed the time.

“On one hand, we were quite confident we made the right choices and we can make the next step. But all the injuries are coming and we made so many changes in some positions like the back four.”

Mason Mount

Mount against Chelsea, a rare appearance for United (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Injuries have meant Mount has only managed 673 on-pitch minutes this season, but it is clear (another word that Ten Hag enjoys) that the United manager would like to construct a team that plays at a fluid, high tempo with players changing position when attacking. The Dutchman would also like to build a team full of intelligent, diligent and aggressive pressers when working without the ball. 

Whether Mount fits into United’s best XI is up for debate, but Ten Hag is trying to sprinkle something within the midfielder across this team. 

Manchester United’s injury problems

“We’ve now played 47 games and we had 30 combinations in the back four. They weren’t from choices you make, they were forced choices because the players were injured… anyone with even a little bit of knowledge about football will know it will have a huge impact.”

Ten Hag is not happy with how this season has unfolded. At multiple points in the interview, the United manager mentioned things that were “not good enough” or expressed a wish for greater consistency from his team. A great deal of United’s issues in 2023-24 have roots in a spate of injuries that have made his initial tactical approach for the season difficult to carry out.

Mount has missed 27 games for the club through injury. Casemiro has missed 17. Hojlund missed the first three league games of the season due to a back issue and has missed a further six games since. Backup striker Anthony Martial has managed only 629 minutes this season and struggles to sprint at top speed in the rare games he is available. 


Luke Shaw has missed 29 games due to injury. Lisandro Martinez, who has never looked close to his best form when he has played this season, has missed 14. Raphael Varane has missed 11 matches, while Victor Lindelof has missed 17. The list goes on. Barring Fernandes, who is a remarkable exception when it comes to physical conditioning and recovery, all top performers from Ten Hag’s first season in England have spent large sections of this campaign either injured or in uncertain form due to playing in a team with injuries elsewhere.

United have played most of this season without a specialist left-back, the impacts of which Ten Hag again mentioned when talking to Neville.

“When you don’t have the players at the back and the patterns, when you don’t have the left-footed players on the left side, you already have to make your adjustments.

“It changes your way of play, but also your possession and when you have less possession, you also have more shots (on your own goal).”

Necessity is the mother of invention, so goes the saying, and Ten Hag has spent multiple interviews explaining the many different ways he has needed to find solutions for an ever-growing list of problems at the club. If this season has been unsuccessful, then Ten Hag wants people to remember the size and scale of the injury crisis he has dealt with, rather than the difficulties his team has had responding to it. 

“We make the adjustments a little bit in our way of play because when you don’t have a left-footed centre-back or on the left side in the full-back position, you have to make adjustments you want to play, so we did.”

Why they’ve suffered so many fitness problems

Ten Hag repeatedly referenced the damaging impact of United’s injury record but failed to explain why so many of his players have been out this season.

“We do research, but a lot has to do with bad luck. When you are in the season and the results are not going in a particular way, you will always see that you pick up more injuries than in a season where everything goes right.”

In press conferences, the United manager has said the club “have an idea” as to why so many players have been injured, but preferred not to share what that might be. A busy pre-season tour could be one reason behind some of the campaign’s headaches. Amad Diallo and Kobbie Mainoo were injured during games in the United States and missed the early section of the 2023-24 season. After losing to Borussia Dortmund in late July, Christian Eriksen said he believed the side was getting the confidence and minutes in for a successful start of the season, but also made mention of the tours’s excessive travelling.

“There have been a lot of games,” said the midfielder to MUTV. “There has been too much travelling, to be honest — but it is nice to see the fans.”

Some injuries — such as the one Martinez sustained to his knee after West Ham United’s Vladimir Coufal fell on top of him — are best regarded as freak accidents. Still, Ten Hag’s preference to refrain from discussing a player’s injury record and date of return makes it harder to discern definitive reasons for the increase in muscle injuries this season.

Lisandro Martinez

Martinez was injured against West Ham (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

His time in England has seen him repeatedly mention the physical demands of the Premier League and how the club prepares for its rigours. Last season’s run to both domestic cup finals and the quarter-finals of the Europa League meant United played 61 games — only the 2008-09, 2016-17 and 2020-21 seasons saw them play more.

United’s academy, ‘game model’ and future

The arrival of Jason Wilcox as the club’s new technical director has raised questions about whether United might employ a new “game model,” changing from a transition-based style of play to one that prioritises possession.

Wilcox’s career history across Southampton and Manchester City has seen him try to ensure a club’s youth teams play in a way that resembles its senior team, making it easier for academy prospects to integrate themselves into the first-team squad when ready. 


To Ten Hag, such methods are in keeping with what United are trying to achieve. 

“There is a game model here. How do you think Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo are able to come up from the academy? That’s because it was one of my objectives from the previous leadership team to bring that in.

“It was already going, they were already improving the academy. You can see they won the FA Youth Cup, the academy teams are becoming champions and that is the structure that was laid out a couple of years ago. Now you see some revenues from it, and the best is by bringing players (into) the first team like Kobbie and Garnacho.”

The emergences of Mainoo and Garnacho have been two bright spots in what has otherwise been an unconvincing season, but Ten Hag also spoke of the patience required to build one of the top teams in the world and of his intention to be there when the job is complete. The United manager told Neville that he has “felt the backing from both leadership teams” and struck a confident tone about his job security.

“Initial meetings (between himself and senior club executives) are good… now we have to take things quickly because the summer is coming. It’s a very important period when you come into a window. We want to make the next step into our squad and make plans to create an environment that avoids this year’s problems in injuries.”

To Ten Hag, one disappointing season does not diminish the bright future that he believes lies ahead for United and he wants to be a part of it.

(Top photo: Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)