The shrill blast of Erik ten Hag’s whistle was a common sound at FC Utrecht’s Zoudenbalch training ground.
Especially in the early days, it was almost impossible for training games to get any flow before the new coach intervened after spotting something he wanted to change, a movement he wanted one of his players to make or just to simply remind them of the playing principles they had to adhere.
Those sessions could extend for hours, leaving players feeling “mentally drained” at the level of micromanagement. Doubts crept in. But within a few weeks, a 2-0 home win against Groningen where “everything fell into place” convinced players that his methods were revolutionary.
“You could tell he was at a very high level tactically from the start,” former Utrecht goalkeeper Robbin Ruiter tells i about his first experience of Ten Hag’s methods.
“Especially in the beginning it was every 20 seconds during training games it was ‘Stop!’ You would have stop and he’d explain what he wanted. But a few weeks later, everyone knew and the impact on the team was so positive so no-one needed to stop. Every single detail was covered – not just the opponents but our own team.
“You could tell Erik was special, something very different. His level of obsession with football is something else, it is 24/7 for him. He was a great coach and a great person.”
As reported by i last week Ten Hag is heading to Manchester United with an announcement possible as early as next week after the Ajax manager accepted the club’s three-year contract offer.
With Ten Hag comes change. Manchester United’s players won’t have experienced anything like Ten Hag’s three-hour training sessions, which are an essential part of laying the foundation for the unique high-tempo style that he will look to impose on a group that have underachieved this season.
“The sessions were long and intense,” Ruiter says.
“It wasn’t physically tough, it was mentally tough and totally different to anything we’d experienced before. In the beginning a lot of players had doubts about the way we trained. It wasn’t normal.
“We’d come from a coach who gave us a lot of freedom and a lot of fun – laughing and joking around – and we went to a coach like Erik who was putting us through three hours on the pitch where you don’t think you’re doing much.
“Players were thinking ‘What the f__k are we doing?’ But slowly, you realise you’re getting better at a team. We had a game and a lot of things on the training ground came together – it gave us a big boost. From that point we all believed in the project.”
A football obsessive, he has been carrying out extensive due diligence on the Manchester United project. The hierarchy agrees with his assessment that a culture shift is required, and they’re understood to be “all in” on a style which he has developed over a long coaching career taking in time at Go Ahead Eagles, as a Pep Guardiola understudy at Bayern Munich before returning Ajax to European relevance.
Quite what that means for a squad that has failed to respond to Ralf Rangnick’s methods is unclear. The club are prepared to back him if he feels changes are required. A source close to him says he doesn’t want to “rock the boat” when he first goes in, but assessments will be made. Change is inevitable.
And when you look at what he does and the mess Manchester United are, it’s clear this is a long-term project.
At Ajax, his greatest team specialised in sharp, one-touch football utilising “maximum width” – luring defenders into positions before utilising the space left behind. He says he likes his teams to “shock and awe” opponents with their quick starts.
But what really animates Ten Hag is the movement of his players when they don’t have the ball. Manchester United’s players can expect extensive coaching on their positioning, and the runs they’re expected to make to create space for others.
“In order to destroy opponents, you need off-the-ball runs,” he says. “Creating space for each other is really important.”
In an Ajax club interview from last year, Ten Hag sits in the middle of an empty Amsterdam ArenA and is shown five of the best team goals scored by his team and asked to comment on them. The big screen flickers on to show a superb, slick move against Willem that culminates in a brilliant finish by Jan Huntelaar.
Ten Hag, though, chooses to wax lyrical about Dusan Tadic, who is not in the shot, occupying the thoughts of the opposition defenders by sticking close to the far post. “That run is stressing out opponents,” he says. Ajax play “frivolously”, he says. “But the foundation is teamwork.”
He will need time for all this to sink in. “The beginning is always difficult. You don’t know the club yet,” Ten Hag said of his time starting out at Ajax.
“Before you introduce your ideas to the squad and they accept them that takes time. A coach can’t perform magic, although the media often expect them to.”
Ruitter agrees, pointing to slow starts at Utrecht and Ajax as proof that expectations need to be appropriate. “I think it’s a good fit but it depends on the time he will get,” he told i.
“That’s the difference between Utrecht, Ajax and Man Utd. Utrecht is a nice club but compared to Ajax, it’s a small club. And Man Utd is probably a bigger club than Ajax.
“If you look at the way Erik started at Ajax, there was a lot of criticism. He maybe isn’t the best presentation-wise and they were not that sure about him at first, they didn’t think he would make a difference. It was similar at Utrecht but he proved it. Would Man Utd fans rather have a coach who is good in press conferences or someone who plays amazing football, wins things and gets the best out of his players?
“If you give him the time, you give him the freedom to do what he wants to do I’m sure he will make the best out of Man Utd that he can.”