An excellent record, albeit in a weaker league than England’s. A reputation for close vigilance of what his players do on the pitch and off it. A studious attention to detail and a broad mind. A sometimes gruff manner facing the media.
All those qualities could probably have described Alex Ferguson in the mid-1980s, when he was invited to leave a Scottish Premier League whose hierarchy he had shaken up as manager of Aberdeen to take over at Manchester United.
All those characteristics are in the make-up of Erik ten Hag, the head coach of Ajax, who is poised to formally accept United’s invitation to join them in June. Ten Hag is certainly wise enough to know that comparisons with Ferguson stalk everybody who manages United. He should probably learn to live with them.
So far in his impressive career, the 52-year-old has been likened mostly to the grandees of Dutch coaching. There are shades of Louis van Gaal, an ex-United manager, in his loyalty to clear principles and his avid note-taking, say long-term observers of the game in the Netherlands. There are also traits of the much-travelled, much-respected Guus Hiddink’s style in his shrewd man-management.
“An incredible person and human being,” beamed Pep Guardiola, who got to know Ten Hag on the Dutchman’s only previous stint working outside his native country, while Ten Hag was coaching Bayern Munich’s second team, and Guardiola the seniors. “For his qualities, just take a look at his Ajax team in the last few years.”
It is that body of work that has most convinced Old Trafford’s decision-makers that Ten Hag has the authority and imagination to set about the huge task of leading United to somewhere nearer the standards they maintained through Ferguson’s long tenure, which ended in 2013.
They would, most probably, be hiring a proven winner, at least in Dutch football. Ajax, four points clear at the top of the Eredivisie with five games left, should soon capture the third league title of Ten Hag’s four full seasons in charge. If they beat PSV Eindhoven in Sunday’s Cup final, he will be on course for his third domestic Double.
When Ten Hag was lured to Ajax from Utrecht in late 2017, their standards had dropped suddenly. Under Peter Bosz, they had reached the Europa League final – losing to United – that year, but the following campaign, under Marcel Keizer, began badly.
Ajax beat Juventus to reach 2019 Champions League semi-finals
Ajax picked a relative outsider to launch a rescue.
Ten Hag seemed like an outsider because he had no past association with Ajax, and while he enjoyed a solid playing career in Holland’s top division, had never represented the Netherlands national team. To Amsterdammers, he also sounds very provincial, with his out-of-town accent. He comes from the east of the Netherlands.
It was there, over three spells at FC Twente, that he played most of his football, a central defender and sometimes midfield player who from a young age would be identified as a coach-in-waiting – serious, meticulous and not shy of challenging the thinking of his own coaches. Having retired from playing at 32, he moved straight into a junior managerial position at Twente, rising to assistant coach there and then at PSV.
His attention to detail become renowned. The story goes that in his job as a head coach, at Go Ahead Eagles, he had an extra window fitted to his office, the better to see out and be seen; his eye for good order led to him insist that the one kit basket in the dressing-room was replaced with three, so that dirty jerseys were sorted by colours – home, or either away kits – for laundering.
When he joined Ajax, players found his regimen tough, but his ideas clear and they learnt that his praise had to be earned. “When you compliment some people they think they have made it, I try to avoid that happening,” Ten Hag told Voetbal International.
The list of those who progressed under Ten Hag is distinguished. At his Ajax, Matthijs de Ligt caught the eye of Juventus, and Hakim Ziyech Chelsea’s interest. He was a major ally in searching out the best midfield role for Frenkie de Jong, now of Barcelona. Sebastien Haller, the striker who played under Ten Hag at Utrecht, was delighted to rejoin him at Ajax after Haller’s unhappy spell at West Ham United. Haller promptly set goalscoring records in this season’s Champions League group phase.
Three seasons earlier, Ten Hag had very nearly led Ajax to a first European Cup final since the mid-1990s. His bold team, who had already knocked out Real Madrid and Juventus, came within a stoppage-time minute of eliminating Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur in a dramatic semi-final.
That was the game that most identified Pochettino as football’s most coveted up-and-coming head coach. It was also noted that the unlucky losing manager had taken a young side of limited resources as close as could be to an extraordinary feat.