Following numerous reports that Ajax head coach Erik Ten Hag is destined to become the next manager of Manchester United, I spoke to Amsterdam-based Dutch football expert James Rowe.
James has covered Dutch football in the Netherlands at close sight since 2005 and he gave me the inside track on the career of Erik ten Hag to date and his view on the impending appointment at Old Trafford.
CM: Can you give me a brief background on Erik ten Hag’s coaching career?
JR: He started his managerial career at Go Ahead Eagles who were playing in the second tier of Dutch football when he took over in 2012. In his only season at the club, he led the team to its first promotion to the Eredivisie in 17 years.
Not only did he win promotion with the club but he also won many admirers for the football that his side played during the promotion success.
It was a great grounding for him as a head coach and Bayern Munich came calling for him after just one season as a head coach.
Go Ahead Eagles adapted very well to life in the top flight following his departure which further highlights the strong foundations that he build during his time in charge.
In the summer of 2013, Ten Hag moved to Bayern Munich to manage their B team Bayern Munich II. The Bayern first team was managed at the time by Pep Guardiola and Erik Ten Hag had the opportunity to work with Pep.
His move to Bayern II was a deliberate and week thought out decision. His two seasons in Bavaria certainly stood him in good stead and helped him gain more experience as a coach in an elite environment.
He was tempted to return to Dutch football with FC Utrecht in 2015 and coach in the Eredivisie for the first time.
Ten Hag certainly continued from where he left off at Go Ahead Eagles by implementing an attractive playing style at Utrecht and bringing success to the club.
He led Utrecht to Europa League Qualification with 5th and 4th place finishes during his time in charge at the club.
Strong home form at Stadion Galgenwaard was a critical component of his success with the club as very rarely were points dropped at home. This was complemented by several strong performances away from home that ensured the club competed at the top end of the Eredivisie.
Pre Ten Hag, Utrecht were a bottom half team which further showcases just how good a job he was able to do at the club.
His work set the club on the path of being able to finish consistently in the top six positions to this day and led to interest from a host of clubs including Ajax.
CM: Ten Hag became Ajax manager in late 2017. How would you sum up his time in charge so far?
JR: It has been a very positive time for Ajax under his stewardship. Progress has been made domestically and in European competition as the run to the Champions League semi final in 2019 showcased.
To date, he has also won two Eredivisie titles, two Dutch cups and one Dutch super cup. He is also on track to win a third title this season (at the time of writing). Most pertinently, Ten Hag has restored the aura of Ajax. Especially across Europe.
Here in Amsterdam many of the locals have a saying that, “Amsterdam is Ajax and Ajax is Amsterdam.” Erik Ten Hag has epitomised that throughout his reign as he has given the Ajax fans many reasons to cheer and be proud of.
CM: What is his coaching philosophy and style of play?
JR: His philosophy is one of giving players responsibility. He likes to give his players the confidence and the problem-solving skills to be able to find solutions to fast-flowing in-game scenarios.
He is very thorough in his preparation and is known for having great attention to detail as a coach. His preferred formation is a 4-3-3 system. He wants his teams to dominate the ball when possible and play on the front foot. He is an attacking coach.
This season, his side have shown great resilience during some tight games at home against rivals such as Feyenoord when they won 3-2 with ten men.
Such character has also been shown on the road with narrow, vitally important wins against teams such as Cambuur and Willem II. Both of those games were won by a single goal with patience under pressure and expectation being a key aspect of both wins.
He has built a side that has enjoyed relative dominance over their rivals PSV and Feyenoord throughout his tenure. It will be a tough ask for Ajax to replace him and maintain that level of success.
CM: Based on what you have seen of him at close quarters with Go Ahead Eagles, FC Utrecht and Ajax, do you believe he is ready to step up to a club like Manchester United?
JR: Absolutely. I believe he is. If the opportunity arises to manage a historic club such as Manchester United then it would be very difficult for any manager in world football to turn down.
There are certain clubs that you simply cannot say no to and I believe that Manchester United is one of those clubs in world football.
Manchester United have to get this deal done quickly if they want him because he is the sort of coach that will succeed somewhere potentially at a rival club should United’s interest wane.
What stands Erik ten Hag out compared to Mauricio Pochettino for me is his history of winning. He knows what it takes to win league titles and domestic cups in the Netherlands which is not an easy task despite how some in the English media may have you believe.
He has to be given time to build if Manchester United secure his services. There is no point in hiring Erik ten Hag if you are after a quick fix. It will take time and given time, I believe he’ll put down solid foundations at Old Trafford that will reap rewards.
Erik ten Hag has earned his stripes as a manager. He’s won trophies and has performed well in the Champions League at one of the biggest clubs in Europe in Ajax.
He’s restored pride to the club and its supporters and there is no reason that he can’t do the same at Old Trafford.
The move would be great for Erik ten Hag as a coach and I believe that the move would be equally as great for Manchester United should they appoint the Dutchman in the near future.
By: Callum McFadden / @Callum7McFadden
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Soccrates Images – Getty Images