Erik ten Hag, the Ajax coach targeted by Manchester United, has a reputation as a control freak. He analyses opponents from head to toe, even if he already played against them twice in the season. He sends his players video clips of opponents, provides tips and is in constant conversation with them, even about which newspapers they should read or what time they should be in bed.
He imposes strict rules. When he began his coaching career at youth level, Ten Hag immediately shortened his pupils’ holidays: whoever dared come back too late had a problem.
But the lines of communication always remain open, including those players considered “difficult”, such as Eljero Elia, Marko Arnautovic and Hakim Ziyech. He spends an endless amount of time with them, immerses himself in their culture and continues to send encouraging messages after their paths have parted. But there are no exceptions made, no privileges for anyone.
If there are tough strictures off the field, however, there is plenty of room for creativity on it. Ajax’s right-back Noussair Mazraoui regularly pops up in the central striker position, the left-back Daley Blind is a false 10 and the right-winger Steven Berghuis has been transformed into an all-rounder in midfield. The central defender Jurriën Timber and the goalkeeper André Onana cut out opponents with ease.
But the distances between players must be accurate to the millimetre when losing the ball. The defence and midfield must almost be able to smell each other and attackers lead the way in retaking the ball, even if that is the Champions League’s second-highest scorer this season, Sébastien Haller, the Serbia captain, Dusan Tadic, or the Brazilian international Antony.
The 52-year-old Ten Hag lives for football like a monk, not an ounce of fat on the body, dimples in his cheeks. His wife and children live a two-hour drive from Amsterdam, in the Twente region in the east of the Netherlands where his roots are. Only on days off does he drive home. Along the way, he will telephone friends but the talk rarely strays from the game. “That head is always full of football,” says his childhood friend Leon ten Voorde.
Ten Voorde has known Ten Hag since he was four. They went to school together in Haaksbergen, played football together at the local amateur club, Bon Boys, and were altar boys at the same time. “I was better in the latter, Erik in a lot of other stuff, I have to admit,” says Ten Voorde.
They were competitive. Ten Voorde describes once riding into Ten Hag when he was threatening to win a cycling race and broke his own arm. No hard feelings. That evening they went together to watch Twente, the big club in their region. In stark contrast to his adult self, the young Ten Hag did not take personal discipline seriously. He was often late for appointments, was outgoing and sociable, Ten Voorde says. But he did take football very seriously, especially when he turned professional.
A lack of speed made him work harder, position himself smarter and more aware of the importance of teamwork. Ten Voorde says: “You could back then already see a coach in him, he was always captain. When we watched football at a young age he always knew what should happen. He’s always kept that know-it-all attitude. When we discuss with friends who the most talented tennis player is, everyone says Federer, but you already know that Erik is going to say Nadal. The annoying thing is that he can also substantiate it well.”
He is loyal to his old friends, even since his rise as Ajax’s coach: every Sunday evening he asks them how Bon Boys have done. With a win he sends an applause-emoticon, after a loss: “How could that happen?”
In the urban west of the Netherlands there has long been scepticism about the coach who comes from a small village in the rural east, and only played eight games in the Uefa Cup; who was an assistant for a long time and then made remarkable career leaps as head coach. With Deventer’s Go Ahead Eagles he won promotion to the top flight, but left to coach Bayern Munich’s second team. “Erik has always looked in other kitchens to see how they work,” says Ten Voorde, “then created his own vision.”
They are still benefiting from that vision at Utrecht. Ten Hag drastically reformed the club that finished 11th in the Eredivisie the season before his arrival and recorded fifth- and fourth-place finishes under him before he joined Ajax at the end of 2017.
Rick Kruys is currently Utrecht’s caretaker coach and was an assistant to Ten Hag. “A world opened up for me,” he says. “What he does is very complex but also super cool. I started watching football very differently.”
At Utrecht, Ten Hag came in front of the camera for the first time every week. His skittish facial expression, suspicion of the interviewer, know-it-all attitude and stiff manner of speaking often with a hoarse voice made him the target of ridicule. He never wanted to do media training. It could be seen as a weakness in England, because his improving English is not good either. An interview with the Italian Sky Sports channel before a match against Roma went viral. His “It’s fantastic how [Italians] expire football” soundbite haunted him for a long time.
The former Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal rates Ten Hag highly but advised him not to go to Old Trafford were he to be formally offered the job, because they are “a commercial club”. It seemed like a slur from Van Gaal to his old employers, but it could be asked whether Ten Hag is likable enough for a club as image-conscious as United.
That all the signals point to United favouring him will be due not to his image but to his astonishing results with Ajax, especially the dream Champions League campaign in 2019 when Real Madrid and Juventus were beaten in impressive style and only Tottenham blocked Ajax’s path to the final in the last second. In the Eredivisie, he is seeking a second league title in a row and a third in four seasons.
United will also have listened to those who have worked with him. They praise Ten Hag for his clarity, honesty, involvement and loyalty. The Den Haag winger Elia says he would never have played in the 2010 World Cup final for the Netherlands had he not worked as a young player with Ten Hag and another coach, Fred Rutten, at Twente, adding: “And I probably would have had a better career if I had worked with Erik later on.”
Elia, who went on to play for Werder Bremen, Juventus, Southampton and Feyenoord, says: “He was always involved with me, in every way. Not only as a football player, he was also controlling my private life, wanted me to develop as a person, to read newspapers, and to watch the news. After I had refuelled my car once during the night, Erik asked the next day why I was out so late. Not as a police officer, but more as your favourite teacher who cared deeply.”
While teammates had to train once a day, the young wingers Arnautovic and Elia had to train three times at Twente. “In the end we often played foot volleyball against Ten Hag and Rutten. We had better technique, were fitter, but sometimes they won. They were more focused, collaborated better, played more effectively and had more will to win, they explained.”
The two laterThey kept in touch, although their backgrounds and interests off the field are completely different. Elia, now 35, is working on a rap album and clothing line and changes haircuts almost every month; the most eccentric thing about Ten Hag is his goatee. The accumulation of wealth or adulation in the media are not Ten Hag’s concerns. “He must have a ‘click’, like with Marc Overmars [formerly director of football] at Ajax,” Ten Voorde believes. “Someone with whom he can fully implement his vision.” Elia adds: “It always takes a while before he bends a club to his will, because he professionalises everything. I hope he gets as much time as [Ole Gunnar] Solskjær did.”
It appears United will have to provide certain guarantees to Ten Hag before he would sign. The Ajax coach is too lauded and wanted internationally to give control away easily.
For Elia it is clear Ten Hag has outgrown the Netherlands, pointing at the increasing criticism of his expressive behaviour on the touchlines and for his direct views to the media when he suspects that one of his players is being harmed. “All the top coaches do it because they want to win and protect their players. As a coach you also have to be a bit irritating. Erik really has the full package now.”