A quick scan of Erik ten Hag’s career path will tell you that the Dutchman has a recent obsession with silverware.
Since being appointed Ajax head coach in December 2017, the well-respected, likeable 51-year-old has won five major trophies to put the flagship club of Dutch football back on the map. Ten Hag has led Ajax to two Eredivisie titles, two KNVB Cups and the Johan Cruyff Shield. He also guided Ajax to within seconds of the UEFA Champions League final in 2019.
With Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer currently finding himself in a perilous position at Old Trafford – Saturday’s 2-0 defeat to Manchester City marking the Reds’ fourth Premier League defeat in their last six matches – there has become a growing clamour from a number of United supporters for the club to sack the Norwegian and replace him with Ten Hag.
At this moment in time, United are not prepared to pull the trigger on Solskjaer, despite his position proving to be increasingly at risk. That is because the club has no succession plan in place to move on to its next chapter. There was no foresight to even consider question marks over the former striker’s suitability. After all, the summer recruitment drive was supposed to turn them back into title contenders.
Right now, United are light years away from being title contenders. Under Ten Hag, however, the grass could prove a little greener.
In the three seasons that proceeded Ten Hag’s arrival at the Johan Cruyff Arena, Ajax had finished second in the Eredivisie for three successive years. Admittedly, finishing second in a league as competitive as the Dutch top flight is hardly a failure. But for a club the size of Ajax, essentially the giant of Dutch football, it was. His first half-season saw Ten Hag continue that trend, with the club finishing second again, but it was during the 2018/19 campaign when Ajax exploded back into life.
Playing an attractive brand of football, which was good enough to take them all the way to the last four of the Champions League, before collapsing at the hands of a famous Lucas Moura hat-trick for Tottenham Hotspur, Ajax regained top spot in Dutch football and won the KNVB Cup. A famous double was the reward for Ten Hag’s hard work.
Their Champions League campaign also featured landmark victories, with both Real Madrid and Juventus falling victim to Ajax’s brilliance in the knockout stages. What made the Dutch giants’ run to the last four all the more impressive was that in the summer of 2018 they recorded a net spend in the transfer market of just £31.8million – pocket change for most clubs who reach the Champions League semi-finals.
Therefore, Ten Hag, within less than 18 months of landing the job, took Ajax from experiencing a dry spell to a league and cup double and the last four of Europe’s elite club competition. Not bad.
In effect, Ajax have won the Dutch title in all three of the three full seasons Ten Hag has so far overseen at the club, but they were denied the 2019/20 title, when at the top, because of the Covid-19 pandemic. They won it last season and look a good bet to retain their crown again this season, especially when you consider that they are top of the pile after 12 games, scored 35 goals and conceded just two.
Erik ten Hag has turned Ajax into a force to be reckoned with. (Image: Rico Brouwer/Soccrates/Getty Images.) Using a blend of exciting youth and experience, Ten Hag has become a boss with a clear winning mentality. At this point, you may be thinking the Dutch league is dwarfed by the Premier League and that the 51-year-old couldn’t cut it at Old Trafford. But it isn’t just domestically where Ajax are thriving.
In the Champions League this season, Ajax have won all four of their group games, scoring 14 goals, conceding just two. Seven of those 14 goals have been put past Borussia Dortmund. If that isn’t enough to prove that Ten Hag has the credentials to manage an elite-level club, nothing will.
The only grey area, if it is even worth mentioning amongst his excellence, may be his lack of experience with players with big egos. At Ajax, the squad has been built around promising youngsters and players that probably wouldn’t be recognisable to the regular football supporter.
At United, everywhere you turn, there are big-name superstars, many of which are the poster boys of their national teams. Or, in Cristiano Ronaldo’s case, the biggest name in the world. But why should Ten Hag’s lack of experience with players with major egos put United off?
Yes, it can be argued that United need a world-class, elite-level manager, someone of the mould of Zinedine Zidane or, for the sake of argument, Antonio Conte, given the past links. But Ten Hag is about much more. He built Ajax back up through his own vision and he could replicate that at United. He is the profile United will want.
Any managerial appointment, whether it’s Jurgen Klopp or Steven Gerrard, is a gamble. But moving for Ten Hag is one that United should risk taking.
United, with respect, are a far bigger club than Ajax. But Ten Hag’s outstanding work in his homeland should get the Reds purring. His style of play is entertaining, he likes to shore things up defensively and he is a winner.
United’s options are limited, but Ten Hag could be just the ticket.
Sign up to our United newsletter so you never miss an update from Old Trafford this season.