The 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine is said to have commented that if a war broke out he would go straight to the Netherlands because everything happens there 50 years later.
But when it comes to football, the Dutch have since shown that they are ahead of their time, and it is the most precious of intangibles that Erik ten Hag must now master if he is to succeed in his time at Manchester United.
Oh time. He is destined to dominate the speech with Ten Hag. How much will it take? How much of that will be paid? And when could supporters expect to see results?
The opinions of partisans and partisans differ immensely.
Gary Neville doesn’t think too much should be expected in the short term.
“I wouldn’t push Ten Hag in the first two or three years to win a Premier League title. They are currently a million miles away from that.”
In an interview with José Mourinho last month, he was generally upbeat about his own career successes. “I didn’t need to be there three, four, five years to win. It was right away.”
As for Ten Hag’s immediate predecessor, his uncertainty mirrored that of his side. Asked before the game against Liverpool in April how long he might take, he suggested that United could not afford to wait three or four years to win things. “I do not think that it’s necessary”.
After a hidden 4-0 at Anfield, his perspective seemed to change.
“We have to accept that they are six years ahead of us.”
Jurgen Klopp, of course, had been in charge for three and a half years when he collected his first trophy as Liverpool manager: winning the Champions League in 2019. Pep Guardiola had to wait for his second season at Manchester City. to win anything.
Sir Alex Ferguson had long been the point of reference for those who advocated giving managers time to succeed after his own three-and-a-half-year wait for a trophy at Old Trafford. Klopp’s example, in particular, updates that mantra for the modern age.
But there is a difference between expecting trophies and expecting progress. It is understood that Ten Hag will find it difficult to deliver the first quickly. Supporters can still expect to see signs of the latter well before then.
What was the lowest point of Guardiola’s time at City before the trophies arrived? Perhaps it was the 4-0 loss to Everton in January 2017 when his team looked beaten, bullied and shattered at Goodison Park. That left them fifth in the Premier League table after 21 games.
But even then, it was easy to see that the team was transforming. There were vulnerabilities, but the possession game that Guardiola advocated was there. They topped that table.
Manchester City had needed an own goal from Paddy McNair to secure victory over Sunderland in his first game in charge. But they also had 76.9 percent of the possession in that game. That was more than in any Premier League game the previous season.
Meanwhile, Klopp oversaw three seasons in which he did not win any trophies. But he also led Liverpool to their first European final in nine years within six months of his taking over and then returned the club to the top four in his first full season in charge.
“We want to look different,” he had said before his first match. “That is what I expect”. In that opener against Tottenham in November 2015, seemingly a dull 0-0 draw, Liverpool became the first team that season to beat Spurs, posting the highest sprint stats of the season.
The results were not spectacular. The ideas were already taking shape.
When Guardiola won the Premier League title with City, he did so as a pre-season favourite. When Klopp finally claimed the trophy with Liverpool, he did so as the reigning European champions having finished the previous season with nine wins in a row.
The point is that success was clearly marked.
So what are the bookmarks fans should be looking for in Ten Hag?
As Neville suggests, with two teams operating at such a high level at the moment, the Premier League would seem out of reach even if United’s new manager gets everything right. What will be the evidence on the pitch that Ten Hag it is do it right then?
Regaining control of football could be a start. For more than half a decade United cannot be considered a possession team. He wasn’t central to Mourinho’s spirit, certainly in big games, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer leaned towards a counter-attacking approach.
Rangnick’s emphasis was on a pressure game rather than a positional one, and the result was that in each of the last five seasons, Manchester United failed to rank in the top four Premier League teams for possession. Expect Ten Hag to try to change that.
One obvious change that could come is the way United try to build from the back. David de Gea is considered a reactive rather than proactive goalkeeper, and a very good one, but his job description could change now that Ten Hag is in his place.
Manchester City’s Ederson’s long distribution is perhaps the best of any goalkeeper in the world, but he has only attempted 7.6 long balls per game in his Premier League career. Alisson Becker of Liverpool has attempted 8.7 long balls per match in his.
De Gea goes up to 15.4 long passes per game.
That helps explain why the Spanish international goalkeeper has a poor passing accuracy of just 61.6 per cent in his Premier League career. That’s significantly different than the figures from Ederson (84.8 percent) and Alisson (83.7 percent). Wait for the gap to close.
Ahead of De Gea, defenders will need to get comfortable with the ball and commit to playing it through the lines. Only Guardiola’s Manchester City had more possession than Ten Hag’s Ajax of any team in Europe’s top seven domestic leagues last season.
He will be patient. City, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain all played more short passes than their Ajax, but the list ends there. The plan is to patiently probe, knocking opponents out of position with movement in the final third. It will require sophisticated patterns.
United have struggled against deep defences, but Ten Hag had to deal with it at Ajax. That could benefit players like Jadon Sancho, who can now look to link up with others rather than expect them to make things happen on their own through individual tricks.
This focus on possession should also lead to improved pressing from Manchester United, especially if Cristiano Ronaldo is not present. Coordinated pressing is much easier when the team has more of the ball because it can rest in possession.
Expect Opposition Passes Allowed by Defensive Action Metric to reveal a change. In the last five seasons, United have not only ranked below City and Liverpool on this score, they have never risen above sixth place and surprisingly as low as 13th last season under Rangnick.
Fans will want to see goals and wins, points and prizes. But if there is an image being built of a team pressing the opponent and possessing the ball, or at least clearly set up to play that way, it will be an indication that Ten Hag methods can work.
Weather? You’ll need a lot of that to win trophies.
But progress? That will have to come much sooner.