The ‘tactically brilliant’ coach who became a winner at Ajax
Erik ten Hag will be Manchester United‘s sixth manager since Sir Alex Ferguson retired after winning the club’s most recent Premier League title in 2013. He arrives with the pressure of returning the club to the top of European football after a near-decade of mediocrity, and in hiring him, United have opted for someone who has a track record of developing youth, playing attractive football and winning titles at Ajax. Despite the apparent fit, there’s still is an element of the unknown about him.
Ten Hag comes to United as a much-admired manager — someone who has worked under Pep Guardiola (at Bayern Munich), has helped nurture some of Europe’s best young players, and has a philosophy influenced as much by the Dutch “Total Football” school of thought as it is by Guardiola’s way of playing, with a dab of Germany’s “Gegenpressing” philosophy.
I last spoke to Ten Hag back in December. Back then he was masterminding a Champions League campaign with Ajax, but was also hinting at his growing hunger to try something different. At the time, he was being linked with all manner of top jobs, and was asked about whether he pays any attention to it.
“Don’t look in Google… I live by the day, and I’m very satisfied at Ajax,” he said. But then he paused; when asked whether he’d eventually be tempted by one of the European giants linked with him, he answered: “It would be great. We will see if it comes, if they want to sign me. I am looking forward for a plan, and I feel comfortable to do a job like this.”
Six months on, he’s landed at Old Trafford, by far the biggest job of his career. But how did he get here?
Erik ten Hag’s journey to Old Trafford
Back in December, Ten Hag said he was satisfied with Ajax’s season at that stage: They were winning the league, and were still in Europe and in the KNVB Beker (Dutch Cup). But this came with a qualification. “Satisfaction is also a danger, as the moment you get satisfied, you get lazy,” he said. “Laziness is a big threat, for me as a coach — when I have that feeling, it’ll come to my players and if my players get lazy, then we’re killed.”
Behind Ten Hag on the walls of his office are three black-and-white photos of ex-Ajax managers and legends Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal. Between them, the trio built the red-and-white castle where Ten Hag planted his flag in 2017. They are as much inspiration as they are reminders of the expectation that comes with being a Dutch coach schooled at Ajax.
Ten Hag’s playing career was as a typical, run-of-the-mill Eredivisie central midfielder. He had three spells at FC Twente, while also playing for De Graafschap, RKC Waalwijk and Utrecht. He played alongside Hans Kraay Jr. at De Graafschap and the two have remained close friends. “When we played together, Erik’s dream was to become the manager of FC Twente,” Kraay said. “But I saw already that he was tactically brilliant. If we were playing against one striker, or two strikers, our manager always told us we had to sort it out between us. He had such an eye for detail.”
Ten Hag retired from playing football at age 32 and went into coaching, working his way through the FC Twente age-grade sides before becoming assistant to Fred Rutten and Steve McClaren. In July 2009 he was reunited with Rutten at PSV, where his reputation grew, and he took charge of Dutch second-division side Go Ahead Eagles in 2012. In his sole season there, he got them promoted to the Eredivisie for the first time in 17 years. Then came the move to Bayern Munich, where he managed the reserves from 2013-15 — a spell that coincided with Guardiola’s tenure at the German giants. It was a formative experience for Ten Hag. He learned what it takes to manage and work for one of the European powerhouses, and he also witnessed Guardiola’s methods first-hand: noting how Guardiola’s team would defend and press from the front, and the intensity at which Bayern trained.
Ten Hag was snapped up by his former club side FC Utrecht in 2015. There he held a dual role as sporting director and manager and steered the club into the Europa League. One of his final matches in charge was a 2-1 victory at Ajax in November 2017 and just six weeks later, Ajax sacked Marcel Keizer after his ill-fated five-month spell, appointing Ten Hag as his successor.
Ajax were going through a tough spell. In July 2017, their promising attacking midfielder Abdelhak Nouri collapsed in a preseason match, having suffered a cardiac arrhythmia attack, which left him with brain damage. Nouri grew up playing in the same academy side as Matthijs de Ligt and Donny van de Beek. That had a long-lasting impact on the players and club.
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On the pitch, the players were underperforming. Though they were second in the league when Ten Hag took the job, they’d already been knocked out of the Dutch Cup and Europe. It took time for Ten Hag to be accepted as he was a different sort of manager to what they were used to: he was an outsider.
“[Then-director of football Marc] Overmars gave him time,” Kraay says. “He’s got a different accent from people in Amsterdam, they were laughing at him a little bit — asking how a manager from the small town in the east of Netherlands called Haaksbergen would change Ajax. Everyone, though — even those who were against him — started to see what he was doing. He’s the boss. He doesn’t want to make friends, but wants good, entertaining football and then all of a sudden, they were playing better football.”
That summer before the 2018-19 campaign, Ajax recruited experience in Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind, and combined that with their brilliant young group of players in De Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Van de Beek. They stormed to the league title — winning it by three points and ending a five-year drought — completed the Dutch double with the KNVB Beker and reached the semifinals of the Champions League. The following campaign was curtailed by COVID-19, but in 2020-21 they won the league again, by 16 points, though they struggled in the Champions League group stage and were knocked out of the Europa League by Roma in the quarterfinals.
This term, Ten Hag has them at the top of the Eredivisie with an incredible goal difference of plus-70, while they also reached the Champions League round of 16 and the KNVB Beker final, which they lost 3-2 to rivals PSV Eindhoven. But the club have had some turbulent moments too. When we spoke in December, Overmars had recently signed a new four-year-deal. Just a month later, he had resigned following multiple complaints from female colleagues over inappropriate messages. The club has been dealing with the fallout in the boardroom and in the media, but Ten Hag has managed to keep the ship steering in the right direction on the pitch.
He leaves Ajax having won two Eredivisie titles — with another potentially to come — and a record of 2.36 points per game (73.81%), the highest of any permanent manager since Stefan Kovacs’ tenure in the 1970s. When we spoke in December about legacy, Ten Hag identified three key aspects of being a successful club coach at the Dutch giants, which he’ll take with him to United.
“It would be great if you leave something here, but I work in the Ajax DNA,” he said. “You have to win here, and win in an attractive way, and do it with young players. All the three we are doing that in this moment. If you call it a legacy, it’s not about me — it’s about other people and that’s not what I’m running after. My job is to get the maximum amount out of the team we have these days, and I have to work for a better future, then you will see what it’ll bring.”
What it’s like to be coached by Ten Hag
Ten Hag is a detail-oriented figure who is immersed in his club and leaves little to chance. “He once told me, ‘When I sleep, I think about football and tactics,'” Kraay says.
“We didn’t know him that well when he joined but when he came, immediately we felt a different kind of approach,” Letschert said. “We weren’t used to staying on the pitch that long — almost two hours on the pitch. We weren’t used to making days last from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. He introduced that to Utrecht. Maybe in the beginning there was a little bit of doubt as we didn’t have the results, but he managed to get the younger talents going. Like me, they were sometimes difficult to coach, but he has a way of reaching out, talking to players and getting them to understand him.
“It may not happen on the first day, or the second day, but after a while the players understand his way of thinking and will fight for him and believe in him.”
Letschert experienced Ten Hag’s eye for detail first-hand when they went through some of his match footage. “We looked at some clips, and I remember him being very, very critical, but also noticing the positive things in my game,” Letschert says. “He’s constantly watching footage and talking about how I can make steps. The most important thing is individual attention — sitting together with players, one-on-one, having a plan for every player.” And if he needs to get angry at half-time to get his team going, he will. “But even if he is angry, he never lost his sense or concentration.”
Despite his steely exterior, there’s another side to Ten Hag, as Letschert remembers: “I remember when I was called up by Netherlands in March 2016. Ten Hag phoned me before it was announced and called me to his office. He wanted to tell me one-to-one at his desk before I read it on the internet. After he told me, he asked me to stand up and gave me a big, fat hug. Normally he’s very professional, not so affectionate, but I will always remember that.”
Ten Hag is also known to strut his stuff on the dance floor at team socials. “I didn’t expect to see that! But the players loved it,” Letschert says.
At Ajax, Ten Hag has also managed to transform the careers of older players like Tadic, who has flourished after an underwhelming spell in the Premier League. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph in December, the Serbian midfielder painted a picture of a man who is a football obsessive, but very solution-oriented.
“He identifies their strengths and how to stop them, whatever the opposition do, he has a response,” Tadic said. “He gives us such an advantage, we always feel like we are one step ahead of the other team. I think, tactically, he is the master. But he is also very good in the way he talks to the players. When you have that combination, it is why he is so good.”
When Ten Hag was asked by ESPN how his approach to man-management has altered, he said it is ever-changing: “In leadership, leadership qualities are based on the demand of the situation you are in. When I coached a young team, my approach was different to a more experienced team. When you are in a successful period, you are coaching differently to when you are in an unsuccessful period. So you always have to adapt to the situation, as a manager. You learn a lot and get more experience and you learn better how to manage situations, so I have improved as a manager.”
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Ten Hag’s philosophy
Ten Hag’s Ajax have been playing predominantly in a fluid 4-2-3-1 system this season, which can shift to three at the back, or can morph into a front four or even six at times in a 4-2-4. “Attack is the best defence and it’s difficult to score against us as, first of all, we attack with 11 and defend with 11,” Ten Hag told ESPN. “All the players in our way of playing have a job, and have to do that job with 100% discipline. Achieve that, and it’s difficult to score against your team.”
Ten Hag doesn’t rotate his players for the sake of it, either. He often keeps the faith with a familiar-looking first XI for the big matches, but the nature of the Eredivisie — and Ajax’s strength relative to much of the league — means he has the luxury of being able to shift key personnel out for matches against the smaller teams.
It is a testament to Ten Hag that he has managed to pivot Ajax away from the traditional 4-3-3 — a thought that previously would be sacrilegious — and more toward a 4-2-3-1. The two central midfielders are expected to get through an almighty amount of work, and he’s turned to rising stars Ryan Gravenberch and Edson Alvarez to do that this term. Their role is as much playmaking as it is going from box to box. The wingers are aggressive and the team is expected to win the ball back immediately after losing it: expect to see United relentlessly pressing and counter-pressing high up the pitch once he’s settled in next season.
“Some at United will worry about how he plays. He likes to play with both full-backs high on the pitch,” Kraay says. “It’s the same with his two central defenders at Ajax — Lisandro Martinez and Juurien Timber. He’ll need two central defenders who are good on the ball, but also they need pace. I don’t know if Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof have the pace.”
Any striker playing for Ten Hag will be expected to hustle the opposing defenders, but also be an aerial threat in the box, while his goalkeeper will need to be good with his feet. Like Cruyff’s philosophy, the keeper plays out from the box with his two centre-backs coming short to receive the ball.
Letschert also knows what it’s like to play against a Ten Hag side, having faced Ajax with Alkmaar. “His teams play with discipline; he wants them to play with high intensity,” he says. “You must be able to put pressure on for 90 minutes. You have to be fit, as you can only be disciplined if you are fit enough. They are very well prepared, being able to switch formations within the game.”
Ten Hag at Manchester United
This is by far the biggest job of Ten Hag’s career, but he will have done his due diligence. He has worked with an ex-Man United player (Blind) and a current United player (Donny Van de Beek) while his boss at Ajax, chief executive Edwin van der Sar, knows United inside out having won 10 trophies in his six years as a player at Old Trafford.
“In every organisation it’s important to have good cooperation. It’s always based on good communication,” Ten Hag told ESPN at the turn of the year. Until Overmars’ departure, Ajax had an effective machine which allowed Ten Hag to focus on training the team, leaving all the politics and transfer machinations to Overmars and Van der Sar.
At United, it will be different. They are a club still playing catch-up to their rivals when it comes to effectiveness in the transfer market. After years of turbulence, this is seen as a fresh start. “There’s only yes, or no, with Erik, nothing in between,” Kraay says.
He’ll want the club to target young, hungry players, with Timber and Antony expected to be high on his transfer wish list. Kraay also feels his appointment is good news for Cristiano Ronaldo: “I think he’ll make Ronaldo shine for another year,” he says. “At the moment he gets the ball 65 yards away from the opponent — he doesn’t have the pace anymore. But if Ronaldo trains one week under Ten Hag, he’ll think ‘Wow. It’s still nice to play as a striker.’ He’ll play high pressure. Ronaldo won’t get the ball 65 yards out, but 18 or 20 yards out.”
Ten Hag will likely bring some familiar faces with him to his backroom staff, including Mitchell van der Gaag and Robin van Persie (if the former United striker is able to obtain a work permit), and top of his to-do list will be to improve the squad’s fitness. Ten Hag says he’s not one who gets nervous, but having worked at Ajax he knows full well the expectations that come with such a big job and how he’ll be judged. (“You have to grab titles. It’s all about that.”)
At Ajax, there’s an almost annual upheaval as the club loses their best players. Ten Hag won’t have that problem at United, so he’ll be looking to build a dynasty. “What you hope as a manager to fulfil ambitions is to keep your team for a long period, for more years and get stronger players in to build a stronger squad who fulfil their competences,” Ten Hag said. “But you also need collective experiences, that can help a team a huge amount to be successful.”
Back in December when we were talking about Ten Hag’s next step, I asked him how he’d changed at Ajax. “I can better predict the future,” he said. “I can better read how everyone is moving inside the club and around the club.” United is an unpredictable beast and an almighty challenge. But Ten Hag will back himself to bring silverware to the club — he wouldn’t have taken the job otherwise.
“I really disagree with many people today who ask why he should go to United as ‘they’re down the drain,'” Kraay says. “He must go now; this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. The closer they are to rock bottom, the better it is to start. If they let him get his players and do his work then I’m sure, after one season, he will come quite close to the football Alex Ferguson wanted.”