Many of Manchester United’s first-team squad officially reported back for the first day of pre-season on Monday.
Players will head back to Carrington in stages, with several members of the squad having been handed extended breaks after featuring for their national squads earlier this month.
That means that the likes of Harry Maguire, Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo, plus others won’t link-up with new manager Erik ten Hag just yet. But there’s still a group of many senior players who reported back including England duo Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho as well as several loan players returning after time away.
The list of those to return included David de Gea, Dean Henderson, Tom Heaton; Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones, Axel Tuanzebe, Brandon Williams, Luke Shaw; Donny van de Beek; Amad, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial as well as several younger players.
While Ten Hag will only be able to work with a limited first-team squad, it still represents the beginning of a new era at the club. And after a discouraging few years at Old Trafford, many United fans are eager to know what Ten Hag will be doing in these initial few days in order to put his players through their paces.
With this in mind, Mirror Football spoke to UEFA A coach Tim Lees. Lees has an esteemed coaching record, having worked at the likes of Wigan Athletic, Liverpool, Watford and St Louis FC previously, and he highlighted that the first day of United’s pre-season would be centred around physical testing.
Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)
“The first day is almost always physical testing, though it’s not uncommon for some players to have started some of that before their return. But overall, it’s possible the players won’t even train at all. Instead, they will come in, do a bit of gym mobility, functional movement stuff and then go straight into testing.
“That’ll consist of things such as weights and measuring body fat. It could also involve things like hamstring tests, balance tests and jump height/distance on the mat too. Then they will go into some form of aerobic test which is usually like a yo-yo test or doing laps. It’ll then be the second day that’ll see the players go into more technical and tactical work.”
One of Ten Hag’s most obvious attractions is his coaching acumen, as displayed during his five years in Amsterdam, and many believe he’s got the ability to greatly improve the players in this United squad from both a personal and collective point of view.
However, Lees touches on a familiar coaching dilemma for him that the Dutchman will face in these first few days of working with the group.
“After the physical testing, things get a bit more complex. This early period is often a balancing act between the coaching staff and the strength and conditioning team. The latter will want to periodise pre-season to minimise injuries as much as possible and make sure the workload doesn’t build up too much. This means what you’ll often see when the ball does come out is bigger format sessions. This could be anything from 5v5 matches, 11v11, more extensive running and a very light load in terms of sprints and explosive moments.
“Passing activities for example will be limited and won’t be centred around short sharp moments. They’ll most likely be longer-range passing over ten metres or so followed by longer-range running. The theory is from a physical periodisation point of view, that load, sprint acceleration and power work become more integrated later on, so as players get fitter, then you will start going to do to your 4v4s, 3v3s, 2v2s, 1v1s.”
While this tends to be the standard approach at most elite clubs, Lees prefers to try and implement his tactical principles early on, and it’s possible based on what we know about Ten Hag that he could be the same.
“For me personally, I like to build up from a tactical point of view early on,” said Lees. “So players are understanding from the outset, ‘right, for me to dominate you in a 1v1, what’s my individual movements like to do that?’ So running away to come short, coming short to run in behind etc. Basically mastering a 1v1 situation without the ball.
“Then how do we relate that to 2v2, so now we’re playing on two different lines, if one player goes high the other needs to go low, if one moves vertically the other moves horizontally. How does that relationship buld from a 1v1, to a 2v2, and then we look to evolve that further, into a 3v3 and so on.”
Though a number of key players remain absent in this first week, this period could give Ten Hag the ideal opportunity to work more intimately with some of the players who struggled at the club last season.
Sancho and Rashford are two of the more obvious candidates, and while the group is still smaller, they’d certainly benefit from more extensive drills focused on improving their attacking efficiency.
Based on what we know about Ten Hag so far, it’s possible his approach may well mirror the one favoured by Lees, with technical and tactical aspects of training being prevalent from the outset.
He has already ordered ground staff at the club’s Carrington training ground to trim the grass to 15mm so that his players can get used to his demands for slick passing when they return. And sources close to the Dutchman have told the Mirror, “Ten Hag is all about training the brain”.
“United’s players will do plenty of running – but they will run with the ball rather than just being asked to sprint up sand dunes.”