The interview was filmed on the eve of the 2020-21 season and the Johan Cruyff Arena is as eerily sparse as it would be on matchdays.
Erik ten Hag strides through the corridors, past the celebratory canvases that adorn the walls, and out onto the pitch. He is sitting at a social distance from the interviewer and masked cameramen. A sign of the times.
With the subtitles, Ten Hag could be mistaken for addressing MUTV at Old Trafford. The steep stands are full of red seats and whenever Ten Hag is introduced by Manchester United he could rehash some of the answers verbatim from nearly two years ago.
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At the time he spoke, Ajax were still the reigning champions but the 2019-20 season had been suspended and they were denied another Eredivisie title. Ten Hag sailed down the River Amster last week with three Eredivisie winner’s medals.
“The beginning is always difficult,” Ten Hag, sporting a sky blue polo, explains. “You don’t know the club yet. You don’t know the balance of power or the players.
“Before you introduce your ideas to the squad and they accept them that takes time. A coach can’t perform magic. Although some media and people seem to think they can. ‘Put your team out there and it’ll be fine.’ “Ten Hag could recite that answer in the No.7 suite Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer strode into.
Ten Hag took over at Ajax midway through 2017-18 and the following season they ended their five-year championship drought. In Daley Blind’s 2018 unveiling video, they sang about ‘four years of hurt’. In M16 it is double that.
Ten Hag is midway through his first week as United manager without stepping foot in Carrington. That is a significant change from David Moyes, allocated a July 1 start date as he served out his notice of him at Everton. Ten Hag has time to get his feet under the table before stepping onto the grass for pre-season.
“In order to get your team to function there are so many aspects you need to train over again and again,” he stresses. “Before you get there, you need to find the right balance. That takes time. With ups and downs.
“And with downs, people start to criticize. That’s part of the deal. You need to deal with that. But it’s important to follow your own path. That doesn’t mean you don’t listen to other people but if you, as the coach of Ajax, start to let all these different opinions influence you, you end up going in all directions and the players won’t understand.”
As the biggest clubs in football-centric countries, Ajax and United should share core principles. The scrutiny in Holland is as intense as a bicycle ride over the Amsterdam cobbles. United is a club where Moyes aged 10 years in 10 months. Stress is inevitable and Ten Hag might joke he has already lost his hair from him.
Staff at United derided Moyes’s attempt to mimic Sir Alex Ferguson. Solskjaer appointed Ferguson’s former assistant manager and goalkeeping coach, the son of United’s old strength and conditioning coach, retained one teammate in his backroom staff and added another. Ashley Young seriously liked his presence to Ferguson’s as Solskjaer tried to turn back the clock.
That does not wash with Ten Hag. “I think I am who I am. I’m not a copy of somebody else. As a coach, you can follow somoene’s example from coaches who inspire you but the main thing is that you work in a way that fits your personality. Otherwise , you’re playing a role and players see right through that and you’ll lose authority.”
The interviewer asks Ten Hag if he is an ‘extremely attacking coach’. “No. Because there are moments and situations where I coach differently and let my team play differently.
“It has to fit the DNA of Ajax. It might be different at another club but even Ajax sometimes have to master other strategies in order to be successful.”
Ten Hag is shown clips of Ajax’s most stylish attacks, including the back-to-front move away at Juventus, part intuitive, part practice.
“It starts with Matthijs [de Ligt]. Everyone is involved except [Daley] Sinkgraven and Donny van de Beek on the left. But they have important roles too.
Throwback to talking football with Ten Hag!
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“Look at Donny there. Keeping it wide – minimum width, we call it – to lure the defender and create space. Space to execute the teamplay. So everybody is involved.
“This is what you hope to see. You enjoy this. You want to win, but in a certain way. You want people to have a good time. That goes for me, too.”
Van de Beek’s second goal in a 4-0 stroll against Utrecht in November 2019 also features. “I really enjoy this,” Ten Hag enthuses. “Of course, there is individual class but it’s mainly the teamwork, the piercing ball from Quincy [Promes] to [Zakaria] Labyad. Zakaria, the third man. And Donny at the right time, that’s the best part.
“But don’t forget what precedes it. It starts with a throw-in – we practiced this. And then Hakim [Ziyech], who connects with Quincy, then Dusan is involved. The off-the-ball runs, the positioning, the one-two between Quincy and Dusan and then the third man.
“It’s textbook. It’s frivolous. But the foundation is teamwork.”
Just what United need.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.