It’s not been 100% confirmed yet, but with each passing day Manchester United fans will be getting an ever-clearer picture emerging over their club’s next manager: barring a last-minute surprise, it’s going to Erik ten Hag.
The Ajax boss looks an exciting managerial mind, and looks like he could represent a major change in direction for Man Utd if he does take over, with his philosophy and style looking more in keeping with the set-up and ethos of clubs likes of Manchester City, Liverpool or Barcelona.
Some Red Devils fans will have been expecting Mauricio Pochettino, though it looks like his underwhelming spell at Paris Saint-Germain is going to cost him, so what about this slightly left-of-field appointment?
To get an idea of what United fans can expect from Ten Hag, we spoke to Dutch football journalist Jan Willem Spaans, a freelance writer who has also authored a book on Liverpool and Netherlands defender Virgil van Dijk.
Read on as he gave CaughtOffside his insights into the man now expected to take on one of the biggest jobs in world football…
COS: It looks like Ten Hag is the favourite for the Man Utd job – how big is this for Dutch football and how is the story being perceived in the Netherlands at the moment?
Jan: It mainly seems to be the English media linking him to United. There seems to be a common acceptance that Ten Hag is leaving Ajax at the end of this term, but there’s little coverage of his next step, except Louis van Gaal advising him not to take the job at Old Trafford. The Premier League and indeed United have considerable following in the Netherlands, so should the move materialise, his dealings in Manchester will be followed closely. After Ronald Koeman lost his job at Barcelona earlier, it would be good for Dutch football to have someone managing at an elite club in Europe.
From a Man Utd perspective, what can they expect from Ten Hag in terms of his tactics and philosophy?
Ten Hag favours a possession-based game and seems to be a coach more than a manager – I don’t think he has had the final say over transfer dealings in Amsterdam. He tends to take a bit of time to get things right – there were calls for his head at Ajax after a few months and the nation’s best-selling newspaper continued to give him stick for pretty much anything they could think of for a long time. If he goes to United, he’ll work on winning and keeping the ball until his players are sick of it, and then just some more of the same.
And what about man management? Ten Hag will be dealing with some big egos at United, perhaps unlike anything he’s had to deal with at Ajax – do you think he’s up for that challenge?
That’s quite hard to tell. Ten Hag got a tune out of Hakim Ziyech and Quincy Promes, two players who haven’t always been easy to manage for other coaches. Early signs are that he’s succeeding in getting Mohamed Ihattaren back on the right track after the youngster went through a very difficult spell in his life. Ten Hag is an intelligent figure, so my guess would be that he would find the right way to approach seasoned superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo.
Louis van Gaal recently advised that Ten Hag should join a football club, not a ‘commercial club’ like United – do you agree that he might do better to wait for another offer in the future?
Manchester United obviously aren’t in good shape right now. Expectations are high, but I don’t think a title push is realistic with the current squad. If he continues to play a peripheral role in transfer dealings, he’ll be relying on those higher up to bring in quality players. I could see trouble there, yes.
Van Gaal is another Dutch manager in United’s history, but his methods didn’t really seem to work at United – why do you think that was, and is there anything Ten Hag can learn from in order to avoid the same mistakes?
I’ve never set foot in Carrington so be aware that my words here aren’t worth a lot, but my impression is that Louis struggled to sell his ideas to the big names at United. Having said that, none of their managers post-Ferguson have managed to mount a serious title challenge, so I’m sure the problems at the club are deeper than the man in the hot seat.
Ten Hag worked under Steve McClaren at Twente earlier in his career, and McClaren apparently rates him very highly. What do you know about his earlier coaching career and how it’s shaped the manager he is today?
Erik ten Hag rose to fame when he got Go Ahead Eagles their first promotion to the top flight in 17 years, after which he left Eagles to take charge of Bayern Munich II. His only season at Eagles was a steep learning curve – the club employees still fondly recall his maniacal attention to detail. For example, he had a window placed in his office so his players and him could see each other in the corridor and would be more likely to approach each other. He returned in Holland and successfully worked at Utrecht, before Ajax lured him away.
The set-up at Ajax seems superb from top to bottom – how much has that helped Ten Hag and how much might it be difficult for him to work in a slightly more chaotic set-up at United?
Ten Hag certainly benefited from a blossoming academy and excellent work from DoF Marc Overmars – well, as far as footballing matters were concerned anyway. Life for him will be a lot tougher at a club where he’ll not have superb prospects and astute signings handed to him.
What do you make of Donny van de Beek’s struggles at United and could Ten Hag be the man to revive his career?
I just don’t see how any of Donny’s managers at the club had any plans with him at all. Wherever Erik ten Hag goes, he’ll always try to fit a dynamic, industrial yet skilful midfielder into his team. His imminent arrival at Old Trafford can only mean good things for Donny.
Who are the star players of this Ajax team and could any of them be good signings for United?
Antony is the obvious star figure in this Ajax side, but in all honesty I can’t see him coming to Man Utd as long as they can’t offer Champions League football, for all their financial pull they would have to put that on the table. Noussair Mazraoui (this summer) and Ryan Gravenberch (next summer) could be very handy additions considering they would both join on free transfers. Yet if Ten Hag would get to take one player with him, I reckon he’d pick Jurrien Timber, a tremendous, versatile centre-half who is only 20. His partner Lisandro Martinez would also seem a useful addition to United’s not-so-sturdy defence.