Erik ten Hag becomes the new Manchester United manager. Will Guardiola’s apprentice return the club to its former glory?

Published: 14-05-22
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    Where did Erik ten Hag come from?

    Erik ten Hag was born in the small Dutch town of Oldenzaal near the border of Germany. Ten Hag began his football career at Bonboys in nearby Huxbergen, where he got on the nerves of local youth coaches from an early age. As time went by, the habit of arguing with everyone stayed with him. One of the coaches who worked with young Erik suspended him for several games for arguing too often. Between the ages of 12 and 13, he moved from Bonboys to the Twente Academy branch.

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    Learned from Steve McLaren

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    The dutchman graduated from football at the age of 32. He immediately got a job as a coach in the Twente system, where he spent three years. Ten Hag climbed through different age group teams with painstaking attention to detail until he reached the role of assistant coach of the first team. In 2008, Steve McLaren, the ex-England coach, joined the club.

    A day after his appointment, McLaren arrived at a training camp, met a new assistant, and got shocked by Erik’s level of preparation. He remembered how Erik brought a huge folder with a detailed schedule for the six weeks of preseason. Every minute of every day was planned out; it had everything from watering breaks to cooldowns and individual exercises. He has never seen anything like it before or since.

    The obsession with detail often appears in the testimonies of people who have encountered ten Hag during his career. One of the players recalled how Eric made the whole team go to training wearing the same socks. One day he stopped a class to explain why shirtfronts of different colours should be stacked in two separate piles instead of one.

    Looks like Manchester United is hiring a robot. In March 2019, Ajax destroyed Real Madrid with a score of 4:1 and advanced to the quarterfinals of the Champions League. However, ten Hag didn’t celebrate the victory on the plane from Madrid to Amsterdam. Instead, he was watching the supercuts of the actions of the Fortuna Sittard club, which Ajax was to play with over the weekend. Amsterdam club won with a score of 4:0.

    All decisions in the career of ten Hag were made to improve and learn more about the game. In 2012, he decided to lead an adult team on his own for the first time and signed a contract with Go Ahead Eagles from the Dutch second division. The club hadn’t competed in the Eredivisie since 1996, but Eric brought them to the elite level in their first and only season. All the stories of that period are also associated with the coach’s obsessive approach to business.

    At the time the team captain was Marnix Calder, who was made to understand that everything was very serious from day one. During the pre-season, he approached the coach to ask for a day off for the upcoming workout due to personal reasons, hinting that the lesson wasn’t that important. Colder remembered how “he raised his finger and said, ‘Marnix, every training session under me is important’.”

    The player noted that ten Hag prepared for each opponent and wasn’t going to take any chances. In his desire to control every aspect Eric screwed up on the less important things. He came to one of the team meetings wearing his sweatpants backwards. “He had his papers in his pockets. I don’t understand how he didn’t notice because he had to put them in the back of his pants,” Marnix laughed. Eric calmly finished the meeting, changed his clothes, and went to practice.

    After the promotion with the Eagles, ten Hag was expected to continue developing the project in the first league or get a promotion; instead, he got a job in the reserve team of Bayern in the fourth division of Germany.

    He was driven by the desire to improve. In Munich, he had the opportunity to follow the methods of Pep Guardiola and learn from him. No less important, there he faced the realities of working in a top club without huge pressure from the press or the fans’ expectations.

    In 2015, Erik returned to the Netherlands and led Utrecht in the country’s top division, where he gradually boosted his soft skills, got used to communicating with the media, and learned to manage a team of first-rate professionals. “He was a little awkward. It’s not that ten Hag didn’t know how to communicate, but he mumbled at the beginning of each phrase – it was very distracting, no one could focus on the essence,” said keeper Robin Reiter.

    The goalkeeper noted that this passed over time. However, Erik fully only managed to master the art of public speaking in recent seasons with Ajax. At Utrecht, he brought the players’ brains to a boil with habits borrowed from Guardiola; the coach could stop the session every 10-20 seconds to make a comment or adjust the process. Doing “well” isn’t enough for him; only “perfect” is allowed.

    How will Manchester United play under ten Hag?

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    Of the four managers who have been actively sent in recent weeks to become the head of Manchester United, Erik ten Hag, Mauricio Pochettino, Luis Enrique and Julen Lopetegui – the Devils chose the most daring option.
    The Ajax coach has no experience working with world giants in the top leagues and with accomplished stars, so the club takes risks but expects rewards for bravery. Erik taught smooth attacking football to the Dutch champions, and in 2019 he bulldozed the European elite and almost brought the team to the Champions League final.

    Expectedly, ten Hag won’t simply copy-paste tactics and approach from Amsterdam in the new place. Coaching art’s essence is finding the right balance between defence and attack, proactivity and reactivity. When it comes to Erik and United, it’s all about maintaining an established playing philosophy and adapting it to the team’s roster.

    For example, Guardiola at Bayern was expected to press Catalan tiki-taka onto the players. There were many similarities, but Pep betrayed himself when it came to details. He preferred wingers with high-quality dribbling, rather than flank attackers in wide areas, which made Robert Lewandowski switch from the false nine to a more traditional extended attack. The same can be observed when comparing Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool: the intensity and pressure are present, but instead of the classic striker, the Reds have a player in a deeper position in the centre of the attack.

    Ten Hag is a year older than Guardiola, but he hasn’t worked in the top European championship yet. There’s a great temptation to question his qualifications because beating Willem and Heracles every week isn’t the same as fighting on several fronts with the best clubs in Europe and England.

    Ajax’s results in the Champions League undermine this argument; the manager can compete with the continent’s elite clubs.

    In the season of 2018/2019, Ajax surpassed Real Madrid and Italian champions Juventus. In the group stage, the Netherlands drew twice with German champions Bayern Munich. Since then, three years have passed, and the club won six out of six group stage victories. Then they unexpectedly lost to Benfica in the 1/8 finals, but the level of disappointment from relegation shows how far the Ajax have come with ten Hag.

    Erik wanted to leave Amsterdam in style after winning the Dutch Cup final with PSV. Ajax lost 1-2, and the cup went to Eindhoven, although the championship leader was the clear favourite. With the Champions League elimination by the Lisbon Eagles, it may seem that ten Hag can’t prepare the team for the most important matches of the season.

    It’s easy to accuse Manchester United of appointing a loser, but any top coach knows that getting to the finals is much more difficult than winning it, as luck plays a big role in a match. For example, in the Champions League semi-final with Tottenham, only the most desperate fan would bet on Spurs before the 55th minute of the second half. The Devils were considering Klopp before he joined Liverpool, and the Reds’ success under the German makes United fans understandably jealous. Notably, before his Champions League triumph in 2019, Jürgen lost six consecutive finals.

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