In the middle of last week, Ajax created an earthquake in the Champions League when they beat Real Madrid 4-1 at the Bernabeu and advanced to the quarter-finals. The architect of Ajax’s miracle was a coach perhaps unfamiliar to most: Erik ten Hag.
The journey to the light of coach Erik ten Hag:
Tall, slim figure. Bald. Favorite clothes are suits that are designed to fit and respect the figure, at first glance Erik ten Hag makes people inevitably think of Pep Guardiola, the coach who led Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Man City. Minus a few details: Hag’s pitiful face and sharp eyes.
Hag – a version of Pep Guardiola
But Hag never bothered when people compared him to Pep, both in terms of looks and football philosophy. Hag is the other way around. Because Pep, for many years, is a strategist that Hag greatly admires. Between them, there was even a time full of attachment.
In the period 2013-2015, Hag was the coach of the Bayern youth team. And Pep, as we all know, was Bayern’s first team coach from 2013 to 2016. Before joining Bayern at the invitation of this club’s sporting director – the legendary Matias Sammer, Hag worked as an assistant in the youth team and then the team. a Twente, assistant coach at PSV and led Dutch second-tier club Go Ahead Eagles for one season (2012-13).
During the period leading the Bayern youth team, Hag really impressed when he helped this club to rise to the third place. But Hag’s most valuable achievement during his time in Munich was the opportunity to learn from the best. Learn from Sammer and of course, from Pep. Between Hag and Pep there is an important common point in football philosophy: controlling the ball.
Not only football philosophy, what Hag has gathered from Pep, but also the scientific, detailed, meticulous and professional way of working of the Spanish coach. In the summer of 2015, Hag parted ways with Bayern II, stating that he “had a wonderful and happy time here and will always remember every precious conversation with Pep”.
Revolution at Utrecht
The period of “studying” ended and Hag officially came to light with his hometown club Utrecht, also the team he used to wear as a player. But what Hag did at Utrech, whose operating budget was only 1/30th of Ajax, had numerous financial problems, and the facilities were poor, for more than two seasons, from 2015 to 2017, really. exceeded all expectations. In two seasons, 2015/16 and 2016/17, Utrech entered the group to compete for the Europa League, ranked fourth overall – also the highest position behind the Ajax – PSV – Feyenoord trio.
The fussballstadt, nearly two years ago, described Hag as a “revolutionary” who helped Utrech transform. Utrech at the time Hag took over in the summer of 2015 was a world away from what he had been in Munich. The training ground is not up to standard, the players are often injured by the unprofessional medical team, the club doesn’t even care what the players eat and drink. It is worth mentioning that Utrech is the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, but fans in the region rarely show interest in the football club that represents the city.
If you’re a fan of the Game Football Manager, then Hag’s situation at Utrech in the early months was similar. Start everything, from the very basics. Build club culture, bring professionalism to the team and of course scour the player market to find cheap “goods” that fit your philosophy.
Hag’s revolution, at Utrech, started at the training ground. Utrech training ground is not up to standard, like a wild lawn. Hag decided to ask the city government for help. Utrecht has a new, clean, beautiful setting because it’s part of a local golf club.
The training ground has been completed, it is time for Hag-branded training jerseys to come into Utrecht’s life. Instead of just practicing one session/day as before, now with Hag, it is 3-4 training sessions with divided intervals in each day. The diet suitable for athletes was also applied by Hag’s assistant – a nutritionist – immediately.
Meanwhile, on the training ground Hag and his associates closely follow every movement and ball handling situations of the players so that they can give advice and only get up at the right time and accurately. Hag’s basic and most important requirement for players, in tactical training sessions, is to “control the ball” with short and standard passes. Shooting from long distances is not recommended, players must always create a block of 3 close together to ensure control of the ball, which are other basic features of Hag’s philosophy.
Hag’s efforts and dedication affect the players themselves, making them not only “impressed” but also feel “must” fight for a coach like Hag. The positive signals came almost immediately Hag’s Utrecht with its attractive and controlled football has continuously created victories on the pitch, so impressive that the fans who used to turn their backs on the team have ” forced” to return to cheer on Utrecht.
From 11th place in the 2014/15 season, Utrecht finished 5th overall and reached the Dutch Cup final in Hag’s first season. Hag’s team also introduced a series of talented young faces such as Sean Klaiber (21 years old), Giovani Troupée (17), Soufyan Amrabat (19), Bart Ramselaar (19) and Yassin Ayoub (21) – all both of them grew up from Club Academy. Before Hag, for five years in a row Utrecht Academy failed to “recommend” any young shoots to the first team. The difference is too obvious.
In the second season, Utrech ranked 4th overall and won tickets to the Europa League after a super impressive comeback against AZ Alkmaar (0-3 first leg loss, 3-0 second leg defeat and defeating the opponent in the series. 11m gun) in the play-off final. Utrech’s development roadmap, thanks to Hag’s total revolution, remains on track. Full of optimism!
And the miracle with Ajax
What Hag did at Utrecht, making him the No. 1 candidate for the Ajax head coach in the summer of 2017. 2016/17 was a season full of ups and downs for Ajax. They lost in the championship race with PSV, placing only second overall. In the Europa League, Ajax reached the final but lost to Mourinho’s MU. And then, Amsterdam Arena witnessed a strong “blood change”, putting an end to the 2 and a half year reign of coach Peter Bosz.
Bosz was fired, along with two first-team coaches and two assistants. “Out” with Bosz is Dutch football legend – sporting director Dennis Bergkamp. Despite many rumors linking Ajax and Hag, the person chosen by the Amsterdam club for the position of head coach was Marcel Keizer, formerly the club’s youth team coach. But the network selection Keizer soon turned into a nightmare as Ajax started the season underwhelming, soon trailing PSV in the title race.
In early December, Keizer was sacked and Ajax started scouring again for a replacement. Ajax’s list of candidates at that time included Thomas Tuchel, the former Frank de Boer and the coach they sacked half a year ago, Bosz. But this time, Hag was the chosen one. On December 21, 2017, Hag was officially appointed as Ajax head coach, just a month after he helped Utrecht beat Ajax in Amsterdam with a score of 2-1.
When Hag was appointed by Ajax, he was criticized by former club players. The number one reason is because Hag’s CV has no connection to the football philosophy and the club’s identity. But besides the Ajax BLD, there are at least two illustrious figures of the club that support Hag. The first is Marc Overmars, co-owner of the Go Ahead Eagles club, who also gave Hag his first coaching job in his career. The second is sporting director Van der Sar. Ajax’s appointment of Hag is largely the credit of this former Ajax, Juventus and MU goalkeeper.
And as they say “then history”! With Hag, Ajax could not topple PSV in the Dutch championship race last season even though only 4 points behind the opponent in the end. But with Hag, Ajax achieved a win rate of 72.4%, the highest in the past 30 years. And with Hag, Ajax has just had a classic victory, defeating Real Madrid 4-1 at the Bernabeu, knocking down the Champions League record and braving the quarter-finals.
How far will Hag’s youth team go this season? No one is sure, but Hag’s journey to the light and the next miracles of Ajax, is definitely what football fans are looking forward to!