‘He’s tactically brilliant’ — The secrets of Erik ten Hag’s Ajax success and how he’ll repeat trick at Manchester United


When Erik ten Hag takes a break from the demands of managing, he will often turn to a book and he has a keen interest in tomes on sports psychology. Among his own collection of him, the 52-year-old enjoys The Winner is Seen, by Dutch sports psychologist Peter Blitz and Effect by Norwegian skater Johann Olav Koss.

Ten Hag will hope some of the ideas have rubbed off on him when he starts working at Manchester United. As the curtain comes down on an era at Ajax in which he has returned the club to the pinnacle of the Dutch game, his task at Old Trafford will make what came before look like child’s play.

Rebuilding United is a monumental task and one of Ten Hag’s first jobs will be to lift the morale of a squad sapped of belief and confidence. That collection of sports psychology books might be well-thumbed once his first pre-season is over.

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Ten Hag’s focus is now gradually shifting to United, having secured his third Eredivisie title with Ajax on Wednesday night. That was the perfect farewell to Amsterdam and tomorrow he takes charge of his 215th and final Ajax game, away at Vitesse.

He will leave the club in a much better position than when he took over. Author, Dutch journalist and Ajax fan Karan Tejwani describes Tan Hag as “easily the best Ajax coach since Louis van Gaal”, which is quite a compliment in Amsterdam, even if it doesn’t sound like it in Manchester.

Van Gaal left Ajax a quarter of a century ago and it’s taken until Ten Hag’s arrival for the club to re-emerge as a true heavyweight on the European scene.

The rebirth of Ajax is the subject of Tejwani’s new book, Glorious Reinvention, which was released — to perfect timing — a couple of weeks ago. It sounds like the title of a book on United ready to be written in five or six years’ time.

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Tejwani knows his subject as well as anyone and unsurprisingly Ten Hag is a central character in the story. But the chapter on the manager does not come until the 149th page, which shows the groundwork had been laid in the executive offices before his appointment, although the success accelerated with his arrival in December 2017.

“You could say he’s one of the most important pieces in the jigsaw. He was one of the most significant,” Tejwani tells the Manchester Evening News.

“The work had started before him when Edwin van der Sar and Marc Overmars became the two figureheads at the club, and Overmars was more on the football side and Van der Sar more the commercial and marketing side.”

Ajax had got their football structure in order before appointing Ten Hag, while United are still in the process of ironing out a set-up that has led to their worst ever Premier League campaign.

“There are quite a few similarities to the Ajax of the early 2000s, you can use similar words about it,” explains Tejwani. “Whether it’s bad mismanagement, a focus on the commercial side rather than the football.

“Ten Hag’s success at Ajax came as a result of changes to the football structure, they were willing to spend more, invest more in the academy, to invest more in players from abroad, it’s similar in regards to management structure where they failed and needed they realized to get more football minds in to be successful.”

Ten Hag’s first six months at Ajax were difficult. He failed to overhaul PSV Eindhoven in 2017/18 and they won the title in an away game at the Amsterdam Arena.

There was also unhappiness from some players, including Donny van de Beek, about his methods. Van de Beek was even accused of leaking negative stories to the media — something that Ajax and the midfielder denied.

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Van de Beek had to be patient for his chance, but it eventually arrived and he was one of the shining lights in Ten Hag’s first full season, when Ajax reached the Champions League semi-finals and won the domestic double, claiming their first Eredivisie title for seven seasons.

Ending a significant title drought is his target in Manchester as well and after the failure of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s light-touch man-management, the United squad can expect a very different approach from their new manager.

“I spoke to a lot of players to learn more about him and they all said similar things, that he’s very meticulous, very detailed with his tactical work, he’s not a brilliant man-manager, he’s a bit more conservative in that regard, but he can promote his message across the squad,” said Tejwani.

“He’s tactically brilliant, which we’ve seen in his Ajax teams in the last few years, he’s had to make two different Ajax teams and he’s been successful with both of them.

“Looking at it from a media perspective, he doesn’t come across as very open, he doesn’t give away much in the media, and I suspect that won’t change in England, he’ll be facing more pressure.

“In the initial weeks, I expect him to be quite reserved, keeping things to himself rather than being too open.”

For United, part of the attraction of Ten Hag was that he has worked in a football structure at Ajax and could fit seamlessly into a new approach at Old Trafford, with more power granted to football director John Murtough and technical director Darren Fletcher.

Recruitment was a major part of Ajax’s revival and Ten Hag had a close bond with the now-disgraced Overmars. Tejwani believes he may have stayed for another year had Overmars not had to resign in February after allegations he’d sent inappropriate messages to female colleagues.

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Striking up a similar relationship with Murtough will be vital to Ten Hag’s chances of success at Old Trafford and getting a similar hit rate to Ajax on transfers is essential.

“The main difference between United and Ajax is that Ajax now have a proper footballing structure where every transfer is discussed at length, the scouting process is very detailed,” said Tejwani.

“If a player is signed in the summer a lot of the information about him will be known in the previous December or January, they will know this is the player they want to go for.

“There’s a lot of planning to make those signings successful. That has to happen at United for him to have a good transfer record.”



Karan Tejwani’s book on the rebirth of Ajax is out now

So, what are the chances of Ten Hag overseeing a Glorious Reinvention of Manchester United as well? Good, according to Tejwani, but there might need to be a degree of patience as well.

“I think it will go quite well, but it could take a while to get to the point where it starts coming good, it could get worse before it gets better,” he said.

“It will take time, a lot of it will be determined by how United perform in the transfer window. As long as he’s supported well enough, this has to be the right appointment, he needs support from the top.

“If he gets that I expect him to do very well, he’s one of the brightest managers in the game, there’s no doubt about that.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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