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Managerial replacements series: Erik ten Hag

Ajax have risen again as producer of talent and collector of silverware, but could the face of it handle the big job at Old Trafford?

Heracles Almelo v Ajax - Dutch Eredivisie Photo by Rico Brouwer/Soccrates/Getty Images

We’re now going to look at managers that aren’t currently available but could be in the near future. Reports after the victory over Spurs suggest that the Manchester United board are desperate to give Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season, at least.

With the favourite to replace him out of the way after accepting a move to Tottenham Hotspur, Solskjaer may see out this season even if the results aren’t satisfactory in the coming weeks.

This installment will be looking at someone who worked as an assistant to former United coach Steve McClaren at Twente and is currently working under United legend Edwin van der Sar at Ajax. If he’s to ever consider the job, he knows just the right people to get in touch with.

Erik ten Hag

To the casual observer, Ajax might seem like this parochial club. The idea of Ajax probably goes something like this: they always play a 4-3-3, they always dominate possession, they always give youth a chance over older heads, and they have Ajax people throughout their structural hierarchy. Yet, almost none of these things are entirely true of the Ajax side that took Europe by storm three years ago.

That side played a 4-2-3-1 formation (also the classic Ajax and Dutch formation but perceived as a 4-3-3 over time). We’re going with this cause that was their formation out of possession and that’s the formation that is usually highlighted on our television screens. They were and still are far too fluid in possession to be reduced to any formation in possession but we’ll get to how Ajax play and have evolved over the three years a little later.

This is the manager in his own words:

In their second leg victories against Real Madrid and Juventus in the 2018/19 Champions League campaign, they didn’t have the lion’s share of possession and the most noticeable aspect of their play was their game in transition.

Data analyst and Dutch football enthusiast Kees van Hemmen had gone into great detail on former Ajax player Frenkie de Jong’s role in helping his sides be so effective in transition. He would use his excellent carrying abilities to turn seemingly harmless situations in settled possession into excellent transition opportunities. He’d create disorder in the opposition.

He was also one of the many sprightly young talents that was part of the Ajax exodus in coming years but most followers of Ajax will tell you that it’s the ripe figures of Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind that have been at the heart of this shift in Ajax’s fortunes.

Dusan Tadic was signed from Southampton and Daley Blind from Manchester United. Both of them could’ve been seen as Premier League players that had been underutilized during their time on the island, and even as flops by those with a more cynical disposition.

They also broke the long-standing salary caps that were in place at the club and were a deviation from former figurehead Johan Cruyff’s youth policy. One of the reservations that many United fans had with Antonio Conte taking the hot seat at Old Trafford was his affinity for Premier League has-beens during his time at Inter Milan, yet here you have another manager who has seen the value of these players.

This was how the manager described the need for these older heads:

And this is how he summed up the situation around Kasper Dolberg, Dusan Tadic, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar vying for the centre-forward position and why Dolberg wasn’t seen as his primary striker:

This brings us to the manager who is getting his face sculpted on Ajax’s Mount Rushmore alongside the legendary figures of Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, and Louis van Gaal. He’s an outsider who had no real affiliation with Ajax as a player or coach before getting the big job. Mark Overmars saw promise in him after having worked with him at Dutch club Go Ahead Eagles and the rest is history.

Despite veering from so many traditions, he seems to have captured this idea of Ajax. ‘Rebuild’ has become an exasperating buzzword under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign. Since the exploits of 2018/19 (around the same time Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took the United job),

Ten Hag has actually rebuilt what the FiveThirtyEight model would argue is an even better side as the recent demolition job of Borussia Dortmund attests to. The model has them as 4th favourites to win the Champions League this season. Ryan O’Hanlon, who writes the No Grass In The Clouds newsletter, has delved further into this.

Ten Hag wasn’t there for a restitution job. He’s revolutionized the club and those above him have helped the process but all of these digressions have come under his leadership because he demanded that. The manager remains the most important conduit at any football club. He’s also showcased that he’s capable of managing change, crisis (the tragic circumstances surrounding Appie Nouri’s cardiac arrhythmia attack), and during a time of stability.

There was great resistance when he joined the club.

This is how he put it across:

Let's now segue into some of the tactical principles that his sides have showcased over the years.

Off the ball runs, minimum width, and getting chalk on those boots

More than any formation, the most notable characteristic of Erik ten Hag’s sides are the off the ball runs that his players make. In an older piece on Donny van de Beek, we’d looked at how he could potentially solve big coaching and spacing issues among the current United players.

The current crop of United players have an unhealthy preoccupation with the ball and it’s not been rectified in all these years, which leads to spacing issues. Only Edinson Cavani and Donny van de Beek have a natural understanding of the spaces to pick up.

As Jamie Tartt corrects Roy Kent in season 2 of Ted Lasso, moving into space helps pull defenders away and while Donny van de Beek is one the best players in Europe at this, it wasn’t just him but all the Ajax players under Erik ten Tag that have this instilled in them. Ten Hag himself calls this off-ball movement ‘minimum width’, which allows the player on the ball to have more time and options.

Our data analyst friend Kees, who was consulted on this piece, confirmed that this is deliberately coached into all his teams and is redolent of the most important and old school total football principles. But that’s not the only total football principles that are noticeable among Ten Hag’s Ajax.

Like Guardiola’s (Ten Hag worked with Guardiola at Bayern) wingers, Ten Hag’s wingers are often seen hugging the touchline. As Cruyff would put it, wingers need to have ‘chalk on their boots’. There was a time when width was also the most recognizable trait in a United side. Sighs!

This season, the fiery Brazilian Antony and Dusan Tadic have been slaloming past defences by staying high and wide but Ten Hag’s side aren’t that rigid. When one of them goes central, the full-backs know when to go on the overlap and are often on the underlap. Noussair Mazraoui, the right full-back, often spends more time in the opposition penalty box than his own.

Where Ten Hags sides are very different is in the centre-forward areas. Those who’ve only caught Champions League games might think that Dusan Tadic has always played the false 9 role in his teams but it was actually Klass Jan Huntelaar who featured up top in most games in the Eredivisie three years back and it’s been Sebastian Haller this season, a player Ten Hag worked with at Utrecht and could also be considered a Premier League flop. He’s currently the top scorer in the Champions League.

That’s perhaps the most fascinating thing about Ten Hag — the bits that aren’t from the Ajax rulebook. Ajax often go direct and Haller’s often seen flicking long passes for some of the onrushing forwards.

This season, another player in Steven Berghuis has added some creativity from the attacking midfield role that once belonged to Donny van de Beek. To those unaware of Dutch football, Berghuis might seem like the new kid on the block but the 29-year-old was captain of Feyenoord before joining the club from Amsterdam in a 4-year-deal. This goes back to the age myth that’s been labelled on his Ajax sides.

In Gravenberch, Tadic, Haller, Berghuis, Antony, Blind, and Mazraoui; Ajax at times have seven attacking threats. There aren’t many sides in Europe that can say that about themselves. Where the side from 2018/19 had to be on the ropes at times in that Champions League run, this side is more ball-dominant. That might not even be the most enjoyable aspect of this current side.

They’re also an excellent counter-pressing team, reminiscent of some of Jurgen Klopp’s earlier sides. They’re like Duracell bunnies when someone from the opposition recovers possession of the ball.

But this change didn’t happen overnight. Ajax have been leaky in the seasons in between these glorious periods. English football fans might recall the 4-4 game against Chelsea at the Bridge and some of their ties against Liverpool last season.

Once again, having consulted Kees for this, he suggested that part of this had to do with the backline. Ajax have gone for a far more aggressive backline this season with Jurrien Timber and Lisandro Martinez but retain some of the ball-playing ability from Daley Blind, who often drops deeper in the build-up phase.

The influences are clear but Ten Hag’s sides are very much their own thing.

With the tactical broad strokes out of the way, let’s wrap this up.

Could Ten Hag help United become the great entertainers again?

He’s got European pedigree, he’s an excellent tactician, knows how to modernise a club, and there aren’t many cases of players falling out with him despite his strict approach and sobering personality. Matthias De Ligt was his captain as a 19-year-old and Daley Blind was his coach on the pitch. He believes in having a leadership group and isn’t afraid to give his players some agency on the pitch.

He’s also worked with many of Mino Raiola’s players and never really had a problem, which can only be a good thing based on Manchester United’s recent history.

He almost ticks every box but the Manchester United job is a difficult one and nothing can really prepare you for it. And the win-now expectations cause of Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival makes it difficult for any manager to come in and really instill their authority. That goes for any player with that sort of station in the game. As Simon Kuper put it in the Barcelona Complex, FC Barcelona had become FC Messi for the better part of the last decade.

He could maybe ease this transition by getting some of his players from Ajax to United. United look like they could use a right-back and Noussair Mazrouai is going to be a free agent next summer. A defensive midfielder has been at the heart of United discourse all season and in Edson Alvarez, Ten Hag knows someone that could fill that need.

He’s not going to take the job mid-season cause he’s got a real chance of winning the Big Ears with Ajax this season and has previously refused offers from Bayern Munich, a club he’s worked for.

His glowing reputation might exceed expectations that might’ve been tempered under Solskjaer. His first season could be like the year before the 2018/19 season or those in between 2018/19 and 2021/22. There might be growing pains.

But one thing’s for certain. If Erik ten Hag were to join Manchester United, captaining the ship to glory wouldn't be a guarantee but it will almost always be a party.