FC Utrecht manager Erik Ten Hag during his final Eredivisie match before taking the job at Ajax, Rat Verlegh Stadion, 21 December 2017

Glorious Reinvention: How Ten Hag earned his way to the top at Ajax

Prior to Erik ten Hag’s arrival as manager in 2015, FC Utrecht were too good to be threatened by the bottom of the table, but not quite good enough to challenge the upper ends and make a push for a European place.

Ten Hag was brought in to change that. As with his previous jobs, things were switched around: the dugouts were moved closer to the pitch, offices redesigned for greater transparency and players were given more freedom.

He also moved into an apartment close to the club’s stadium, and his silhouette was often visible at night when he was working. With a mid-range budget that arguably wasn’t enough to compete with the Eredivisie’s best, Ten Hag would use his tactical acumen to get the best out of his squad and propel the club.

Given a talented group that included the likes of Sebastien Haller, Richairo Zivkovic and Nacer Barazite, amongst others, and mixing them with gifted youth academy graduates Bart Ramselaar and Giovanni Troupee, his tactical flexibility and man-management were evident.

Ten Hag implemented some big changes to improve the team. Willem Janssen, the team’s captain who was previously an attacking midfielder, was converted into a centre-half to make way for others such as Yassin Ayoub and Sofyan Amrabat higher up the pitch.

Utrecht often played with a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield and it was Ayoub working in both boxes. They played down the middle, rarely using the wings and maintaining a narrower structure, with forwards Haller and Zivkovic frequently moving wide to receive the ball if needed.

The first season was a great success as Utrecht finished fifth (missing out on Europa League qualification in the play-offs), as well as runners-up in the KNVB Cup, where they lost 2-1 to Feyenoord. For a club that were quite unstable in the league, this was a positive return. He even added the Rinus Michels Award for the best coach of the season – a deserved honour.

By the next season, the expectation for Utrecht was to get better and it wasn’t unreasonable to suggest that they could be the best of the rest – the team behind the big three of Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord – and even qualify for the Europa League.

Once again, Ten Hag’s team was organised, knowing what their roles were and deploying that in games. Transitions were quick, the football was crisp and, despite a tough start to the season, where they failed to win six of their first seven games and suffered 5-1 and 3-2 losses to Groningen and Ajax, respectively, they ensured a strong second half of the season to finish in fourth. They then overcame Heerenveen and AZ in the Europa League play-offs to qualify for the qualifying rounds for that competition.

Chris David, who had known Ten Hag since he was a child and worked with him at Utrecht, told me about the coach’s attention to detail: “He’s tactically so strong. I’ve had lots of coaches in my career and some great ones as well and tactically, he’s the best I’ve had.

“He always prepared us so well for many different situations within the game itself and focused heavily on the tactical side of football. He used to analyse opponents so well and after matches, he always kept an eye on the next game so all the players knew what to do, what was coming and how to win games.”

Additionally, David highlights Ten Hag’s connection to his players as a vital quality: “He’s a nice person, a family person, understood our situations and always wants to hear from us. He made efforts to speak to all the players to ensure they were happy.

“He knew it was difficult because he could only start 11 players every week, but when we wouldn’t start, he always used to emphasise that he needed us as a squad and would remind us that we would get the chances we deserved. We could always go to his office and speak to him about things.”

Players recognised the changes he made and the results were there. They respected the cultural shift he brought in. Just like his time at Go Ahead Eagles, he had the power here to make big decisions and it paid off.

In 2017-18, despite beating Valletta of Malta and Lech Poznan in the opening two qualifying rounds of the Europa League, Ten Hag’s side fell agonisingly short against Zenit St Petersburg (2-0 on aggregate) and were knocked out of the competition before the group stages.

Nevertheless, there were some encouraging Eredivisie results, namely a 2-1 away win at Ajax where Ten Hag’s shift to a 5-3-2 and use of full-backs proved too much to handle. That would be the last of his highlights of a successful spell at Utrecht. Amsterdam was calling.

Dutch football’s brightest coach was to make his way to the Amsterdam Arena. Ten Hag had done well in his career thus far and while some doubted his appointment, it was a risk worth taking.

In the time since losing to Manchester United in Stockholm in the 2017 Europa League final, Ajax had slightly regressed, albeit in some difficult circumstances. Key players were sold, and Peter Bosz’s departure also affected them.

Marcel Keizer, promoted from the youth side and asked to bring that same style of football up to the first team, was unable to do that and the job seemed too big for him. The overall melancholy around the club following the collapse of youngster Abdelhak Nouri in a pre-season friendly influenced them as well.

The Amsterdammers had a difficult start to the season, being knocked out of Europe entirely in the play-off rounds. This marked the first time since 1966 that Ajax had failed to reach the competition proper of either European tournament. Not only was this a big hit on their status as a club, but it also had a huge financial impact.

Later in the campaign, a defeat to FC Twente in the round of 16 of the KNVB Cup in December 2017 put an end to Keizer’s tenure. The timing of this was particularly peculiar.

Indeed, Ajax were having a difficult campaign, but results picked up towards Christmas: a 3-0 win against PSV and a 2-1 away success against AZ just before the cup defeat to Twente led many fans to believe that Keizer could turn things around, but the sacking made many feel that Ten Hag’s appointment had been planned well in advance.

The gap wasn’t that big: Ajax were only five points behind PSV with half the season to play – surely that could have been turned around? Not according to the men in charge.

Keizer’s sacking also led to the departure of assistant Dennis Bergkamp, who had had disagreements with Overmars in the past following the sacking of Peter Bosz as well as the technical direction of the club.

He had also been there since the start of the revolution and, when you factor in that he and Overmars had known each other for so long, this exit left a sour taste.

Bergkamp was a huge advocate of Keizer, but Overmars wanted to make him an assistant after Bosz left. In the end, Bergkamp won, but the victory didn’t last long. Also gone was Hennie Spijkerman, associated with the first team’s coaching staff since 2011, making this one of the biggest decisions of Overmars’ tenure.

• • • •

Matthijs De Ligt and Frenkie De jong of Ajax lifting the Eredivise Title, Vijverberg Stadium, May 2019

READ: Where are they now? Ten Hag’s Ajax side that reached the Champions League semis

• • • •

The risk, from Overmars’ perspective, was huge. If Ten Hag failed, he failed, and the tumultuous nature of Keizer’s sacking only raised the pressure. The man from Haaksbergen had plenty to win over.

There often isn’t a good feeling of those who join Ajax from outside Amsterdam, but recent history had shown that the most successful Ajax coaches had come from outside the city.

Ronald Koeman was from Zaandam, north of Amsterdam, and he won two league titles and a cup. Bosz, from Apeldoorn, put Ajax back on the European map in his sole season in 2016-17. Ten Hag had to do something similar.

The lack of available candidates made Ten Hag an easy option and his good relationship with Overmars, who had been in contact with him since their days at Go Ahead Eagles, made him an easy choice. By Christmas, Ten Hag was ready for a new start.

The core of the side was great: Andre Onana had great potential, Matthijs de Ligt was a future star, a midfield consisting of Donny van de Beek and Frenkie de Jong was something to cherish, while in attack, David Neres and Hakim Ziyech had magic. The best part was that they were all young, and improving youngsters was Ten Hag’s expertise.

He just needed the time and support, and that’s what he got. Many were still pessimistic. Maybe Ajax should’ve looked abroad. Maybe this generation of fine talents would be wasted. But Ajax stuck with their man after a difficult start.

Stubborn but with an unprecedented work ethic, demanding but with an incredible emotional awareness, this is Ten Hag, De Tukker, the man charged with helping Ajax return to the top.

By Karan Tejwani

This was an abridged extract from Karan Tejwani’s excellent book Glorious Reinvention, which chronicles the fascinating story of Ajax Amsterdam’s rebirth in recent years. It’s published by Pitch Publishing and is available to buy from all good bookshops. 

A must-read for any Manchester United fans that want to know about Ten Hag’s work at Ajax and what the new boss will bring to Old Trafford. Buy it at Amazon.

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