With various positions under threat or in need of a new manager to fill in a vacancy, it isn’t a surprise to see Erik Ten Hag’s name thrown into the mix more times than not.
Taking Ajax to a new level under his reign so far – an unlikely Champions League semi final to his name – Ten Hag’s side look to be accelerating forward even more with a 4-0 win over Borussia Dortmund sticking out. Linked with Newcastle United, Manchester United and Barcelona, will the eclectic Dutchman favour a move away from Amsterdam to test himself further afield?
Ten Hag, as a player and manager, has stayed true to his roots and succeeded in his native country – a stint with Bayern Munich’s second string side the outlier on a career dominated by the Eredivisie. Ten Hag has prospered since making the transition into football management after his playing career ended, starting off at Go Ahead Eagles before working his way up to managing the biggest side in The Netherlands in Ajax.
He first came onto most people’s radars, and the radar of Ajax presumably, with his endeavours at Utrecht. Securing a 5th placed spot for the Dutch side after two mid-table finishes, Ten Hag also managed to get Utrecht to an unlikely KNVB Cup final which they unfortunately lost to Feyenoord. He went one better the season after and managed to get his Utrecht side into Europe, winning a play-off to clinch a spot in Europa League qualification. Falling short against Zenit Saint Petersburg to reach the group stages, the Ajax hierarchy had seen enough to appoint Ten Hag as their new manager.
Ten Hag has only gone from strength to strength at Ajax, winning everything imaginable domestically with the Dutch giants. His Ajax side has won the Eredivisie in every full season he’s been boss, taking PSV all the way after his appointment mid-way through the 2017/18 campaign but missing out. Their success away from domestic silverware is what will impress most non-Dutch football fans, reaching an unlikely Champions League semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur before a Lucas Moura masterclass denied a spot in the final. A 4-1 away win at the Bernabeu is another stand-out from this heralded Champions League campaign, Ziyech and Tadic running riot in Madrid against Real.
How has Ten Hag managed all this instantaneous success at the Johan Cruyff Arena? The football philosophy Ten Hag encourages his Ajax side to adopt has worked a treat, deploying a 4-3-3 formation in most matches under his tenure. With the likes of David Neres and Anthony on either flank both tricky Brazilian attackers, the wingers for Ten Hag are crucial. Adopting a 4-2-3-1 in recent matches too, the Dutch manager isn’t afraid to switch things up and use different approaches to get a win.
There is a certainty, however, with his sides – expect goals. Donny Van De Beek benefited tremendously under the Dutch manager’s style of play, a Van De Beek yet to be fully realised at Old Trafford. Ten Haag has had to readjust his side when bigger clubs come calling – De Ligt swapping Amsterdam for Turin also – but these players leaving hasn’t derailed Ajax’s success story.
If anything, Ten Haag’s current crop of players is the best group he has assembled. Leaning on a physical striker to bolster his Ajax side, Sebastian Haller joining from West Ham, this group of players is a frightening prospect for any potential opponent. Ajax are top of the Eredivisie unsurprisingly, but only shipping two goals from 10 matches played is an impressive feat all the same. Jurrien Timber looks to be the next De Ligt at the Johan Cruyff Arena, the young defender already capped for the senior Netherlands side. Moreover, Ryan Gravenberch remains one of the most promising midfielders in world football – only getting better under the guidance of a manager who continues to encourage his game, instead of stifling his true potential.
In wins over Cambuur, Dortmund and PSV, 18 goals were scored with none finding their way past Ajax shot-stopper Remko Pasveer. The clean-sheets are impressive, notably shutting out Haaland, but the goals aren’t all coming courtesy from one out-right goalscorer. From Steven Berghuis, Anthony, Sebastien Haller and even Daley Blind, the entire side are contributing and performing with a freedom Ten Haag has delivered for them.
The question hanging in the air is, has the 51-year-old achieved all he can as manager of Ajax? Another unlikely Champions League success this season looks to be on the cards, but is he becoming too familiar to the Ajax dugout? Ten Hag, when approached about leaving his native Holland behind, seems comfortable remaining in his homeland for some time to come. Something ‘extraordinary’ would have to tempt the Dutchman away from the Johan Cruyff Arena, it’ll be interesting to see if he views the clubs interested as possible ventures to pursue.
If he does decide to leave behind Ajax, there’s no doubt that he’ll be in a new job before you know it. In Manchester United, he could bring the good times back to Old Trafford. Newcastle United could present him with an opportunity to splash the cash, taking over a sleeping giant and being their new saviour. Barcelona could see him take over one of the biggest clubs in world football, getting the best out of their Dutch talent in Frenkie De Jong and Memphis Depay. This is all speculation for the time being, Ten Hag fully committed at bringing even more success to the Dutch capital in the meantime.