Erik ten Hag has come under increasing pressure at Manchester United this season following the side’s indifferent form, but it’s worth remembering why the club hired the Dutch manager from Ajax in the first place.
Ten Hag was known for his attack-minded style of football when he arrived at United in the summer of 2022, leading Ajax to the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2018-19, where they dramatically lost against Spurs.
But recent results have led to questions about Ten Hag’s style, with Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher saying: “No-one can explain what Manchester United try to do in terms of how they play,” following their defeat to Manchester City in October 2023.
We’ve taken a look at quotes from the man himself and those who worked with and against Ten Hag before he arrived in England in an attempt to explain his philosophy.
Erik ten Hag
“We prepare our team thoroughly, on the basis of our own strengths,” Ten Hag said before Ajax faced Tottenham in 2019. “We need to have respect for the opposition – we take that into every match. That is how we do our work.
“We want to be confident on the pitch, but we can’t be naive. We have lots of matches under our belt.
“From analysis last season we had maybe a lack of experience. We looked on purpose at the Premier League, Daley Blind and Dusan Tadic. They had to bring it to our squad and that’s what they did.
“I don’t have superstitions. I believe in my team, the players on the pitch and the plan we have gone through together. They can make their own independent decisions if something changes on the pitch.
“We have achieved something, but we want to do more. We don’t want to rest on our laurels. The team is good. We are very fit, very eager and very fresh. We can certainly perform at our best, we know that.”
“Erik [ten Hag] is rightly regarded as one of the most exciting coaching talents in world football at the moment because of the work he does with Ajax,” Klopp said in December 2020.
“Of course, it is a wonderful club – one of the stellar names of European football – but in this moment it is clear they have outstanding leadership of the organisation and Erik is a big part of that.
“They have had to adapt in recent seasons after losing a few players to rival clubs. I remember from my own experience at Dortmund how that feels and what a challenge it is.
— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) November 11, 2023
“First of all, I have to say, that he’s a very kind man,” the Bayern Munich chairman said in December 2018. “It’s not always easy to be on good terms with Dutchmen as Germans. We have witnessed this with Louis [van Gaal]!
“But Erik is a very pleasant guy. I also think he’s capable of doing big things as a coach and he’s proving this now.
“I think this Ajax team is the best one they’ve had for 10 years. Around the last years, they were not one of the top international teams, but he is leading them gradually back at a high level.”
“He was very important. He did a great job. He wants to improve us every day, he wants to help us,” Tadic told Omnisport in 2019.
“I think he also told his team with [Alfred Schreuder], with Richard [Witschge], with Aron [Winter], with Carlo [l’Ami], with Bjorn [Rekelhof] and also a lot of compliments to our medical staff also, they did great to keep us fit.
“And also like all coaches they did amazing for us because they want to make us better.
“What is the biggest thing about Erik I think is his fanaticism and that he wants to improve us every day and he really likes football and this is really great for players because always they want to help you improve.”
📆 #OnThisDay in 2019 😍
— Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) March 5, 2022
“When we lose the ball, we must win it back immediately,” Onana told AFP in May 2019. “He is focused on that, he is always telling us that if we have control of the ball, we have the ability to push back any opponent.”
“Johan Cruyff’s philosophy and spirit still flows around in this club,” former United man Blind told BT Sport in May 2019. “Erik ten Hag is doing very well now. He wants us to play attacking football but most of all without any fear.”
Erik ten Hag
“I learned a lot from Guardiola,” Ten Hag said in February 2019. “His philosophy is sensational, what he did in Barcelona, Bayern and now with Manchester City, that attacking and attractive style sees him win a lot.
“It’s this structure that I’ve tried to implement with Ajax.”
— Kristof Terreur (@kristofterreur) March 6, 2019
Pierre van Hooijdonk
“What he is managing to do with such young players is remarkable,” former striker Van Hooijdonk told TV station NOS in May 2019.
“The likes of [Mattijs] De Ligt, [Frenkie] De Jong and [Donny] Van de Beek have only just come out of the academy and are already playing like veterans. Ten Hag deserves huge credit.”
“When it comes to Ten Hag’s favoured style of play, the Cruyffian influence is unavoidable,” journalist Magee wrote in The Independent in 2019. “There is a reason that his approach has been dubbed ‘Total Football 2.0’.
“If the original premise of Total Football was that outfield players should be flexible, adaptable and to some degree interchangeable in their positioning as they sought to create and exploit space, Ten Hag’s side live up to their billing.
“Their full-backs, usually Nicolas Tagliafico and Joel Veltman, push high and double up as auxiliary attackers, while their wingers, David Neres and Hakim Ziyech, are equally capable of roaming in-field dangerously.
“Dusan Tadic, revitalised after leaving Southampton, has thrived across Ajax’s front three in something of a free role.”
Ajax Passing Combinations ⚽️🇳🇱
Quick tempo passing combination for 8-10 players.
Begin with two touch and a walk through before increasing tempo.
Good one to nail down for a GCSE or A Level moderation. ⚽️⚽️⚽️ pic.twitter.com/hqrH96E0lW
— WannaTeachPE (@WannaTeachPE) January 4, 2022
Erik ten Hag
“I watch Bayern play every weekend,” Ten Hag told SZ in April 2019. “Bayern have become my club. Since Pep, football in Germany is different, I looked at almost every training back then, and I took a lot of methodical lessons on how to transfer his philosophy to the pitch.
“I want to have possession and hurt the opponent. It’s about possession, about movement, about vertical attacking patterns, about pressing, wingers moving into the middle to make room for the full-backs. Everyone is attacking, everyone is defending.”
In an interview with the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, future United winger Antony said of Ten Hag: “Every player under his guidance becomes a better footballer through his training.
“Since my arrival, he has given me a lot of confidence and believed in what I can do. I am grateful to him for that. I respect him very much.”