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Erik ten Hag: The former altar boy tasked with reviving Manchester United

New Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag has spent the last two decades developing his coaching reputation (Adam Davy/PA)
New Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag has spent the last two decades developing his coaching reputation (Adam Davy/PA)

Erik ten Hag’s journey from altar boy in his native Holland to manager of Manchester United is the culmination of a career path carefully considered and acted upon.

To some Ten Hag’s appointment at Old Trafford might seem swift considering he has not managed in the top five leagues of European football.

But the 52-year-old has been on a relentless upward coaching curve over the past two decades.

A varied football education, and most prominently his work at Ajax since 2017, convinced the United hierarchy that Ten Hag has the skill set to oversee the return of glory days enjoyed under Sir Alex Ferguson.

For too long now United have been a team in urgent need of salvation – mediocre on the pitch, directionless in the dugout and with no sort of silverware for five years.

So maybe appointing a former altar boy who is said to live for football like a monk makes perfect sense.

Erik ten Hag was born on February 2, 1970 in Haaksbergen, a town of less than 25,000 inhabitants close to the German border, and his roots and family remain there.

Soccer – UEFA Cup – Group A – Manchester City v FC Twente – City of Manchester Stadium
Erik ten Hag (left) worked alongside former England manager and ex-Manchester United assistant Steve McClaren at Dutch club FC Twente (Martin Rickett/PA)

FC Twente are the major team in eastern Holland and Ten Hag had three playing spells at a club appropriately nicknamed ‘The Reds’.

He also played for De Graafschap, RKC Waalwijk and Utrecht and made 336 appearances in a 13-year senior career.

Extremely versatile in being able to operate anywhere in defence or central midfield the vocal Ten Hag was an onfield coach from his early days, even if some senior team-mates did not always appreciate orders barked from the back.

Ten Hag spent a decade learning the coaching ropes at Twente, where he was head of training, and at PSV Eindhoven before his first managerial post at Go Ahead Eagles in 2012.

Tottenham Hotspur v Ajax – UEFA Champions League – Semi Final – First Leg – Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Erik ten Hag (right) lost a Champions League semi-final to Mauricio Pochettino (left) in 2019 but has beaten the former Tottenham manager to the Manchester United job (Mike Egerton/PA)

The Deventer-based club won a first promotion to the Eredivisie for 17 years, but Ten Hag promptly resigned to coach the Bayern Munich second team and join Pep Guardiola in Bavaria.

“I learned a lot from Guardiola,” Ten Hag said in February 2019 of his two years in Munich.

“His philosophy is sensational, what he did in Barcelona, Bayern and now with Manchester City, that attacking and attractive style sees him win a lot.

“It’s this structure that I’ve tried to implement with Ajax.”

Ten Hag rejoined Utrecht in 2015 and led them to fifth and fourth place finishes in the top flight, taking the club into Europe.

He was named the Eredivisie’s best manager and Ajax came calling in December 2017 after the Amsterdam club had dismissed Marcel Keizer.

Ajax have since won two domestic doubles and made significant strides in Europe.

But for Lucas Moura’s hat-trick heroics it would have been Ten Hag, and not then-Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino, leading out his side against Liverpool in the 2019 Champions League final.

Ten Hag, however, has had the last word in that private battle by beating Pochettino to the United job.

Louis van Gaal File Photo
Louis Van Gaal lost his record as the Ajax manager quickest to 100 wins to Erik ten Hag (Adam Davy/PA)

Built on a 4-3-3 formation and staying loyal to the Dutch principles of ‘Total Football’ where every player is comfortable in possession, Ten Hag has turned Ajax into an attractive and domestic winning machine.

Players have improved considerably under his coaching methods, something that has been sorely lacking at United in recent years.

He took Louis Van Gaal’s record as the Ajax manager quickest to 100 wins. Ten Hag needed only 128 games to reach the milestone, nine fewer than Van Gaal.

But perhaps it is Ten Hag’s ability to change the culture of teams as much as trophies won that sealed his move to Old Trafford.