Long before he joined Ajax at the end of 2017, Erik ten Hag was considered the crown prince of modern Dutch coaching – a man who connected classic styles with that of a progressive ‘laptop coach’, someone who mixed data and statistics with what he saw on the pitch.
Ten Hag’s best attribute was understanding people, getting into the minds of footballers and seeing things the way they see it.
He once said to Voetbal International: “You need to know about the man behind the player. And I tell you what, I can read this from the way a player moves, the way he responds when losing the ball, when he concedes or gets fouled.
“I can make a picture – a broad stroke picture – of the man. And I can use this in my management. I choose a different approach per player. But that’s only the start. You also need to look at the dynamics in the group. How they relate to one another. And I can see before the game what kind of match we’re getting.”
Headstrong and still slightly stubborn, Ten Hag’s habits can be linked back to his upbringing in Haaksbergen, in the Twente region, close to the German border. De Tukker, as people from that area know him, was born into a family of entrepreneurs.
His father, Hennie, started as a housing agent in 1967 and became a magnate, having nine branches around the country and over a hundred employees. But success wasn’t to be given to him and his two brothers; it had to be earned and those values were ingrained from a young age.
Experience to work in the field of business was necessary for his brothers, while for Erik, there was a goal-oriented path into sport. While his family didn’t necessarily want to see him work in football, instead preferring a full education, they supported him when the choice was made. FC Twente was his first love.
Ten Hag’s playing career was solid, if not spectacular. A fine centre-half, he had three separate spells at Twente with time spent at De Graafschap, Waalwijk and Utrecht in between and the KNVB Cup win in 2001 with the Enschede club – when Ten Hag was captain of the team – was his only major honour. The cup win was special for Twente, coming just a year after the Enschede fireworks disaster at the S.E. Fireworks depot which killed 23 people.
What Ten Hag may have lacked as a player, he made up for with his intelligence and awareness – proving to be a vital part of any team he played for. He retired in 2002 at the relatively young age of 32, having made more than 200 appearances for his boyhood club. Soon, he would move into coaching and as a successful man-manager with a strong emotional awareness he had qualities from an early age to have a good career.
Despite retiring from his playing career, he didn’t leave Twente, working there in a coaching capacity with the club’s youngsters before being bumped up to the role of Fred Rutten’s assistant with the first team. He was intrigued by the mindsets of professional athletes, wishing to learn more and improve in his craft.
As a youth coach, discipline and integrity were top priorities, while team building and working for each other were his main objectives. He maintained values of old – those he was raised with himself: shoes had to be black, training vests had to be folded, not thrown around. These habits were non-negotiable.
Among his personal library, books on sports psychology such as De Winnaar is Gezien (The Winner is Seen) by famous Dutch sports psychologist Peter Blitz and Effect by Norwegian skater Johann Olav Koss are favourites. Ten Hag developed a close bond with Rutten, who would depart for Schalke in 2008 and when Steve McClaren joined as his replacement, the Englishman was quickly impressed by his new assistant’s work.
Upon joining, McClaren was immediately given six sheets of notes and suggestions on the team he took over, and a day later, more came in to help him acclimatise to the task in hand. That season, they get into a title fight with AZ Alkmaar, led by Louis van Gaal, but fell short by 11 points, finishing in second. They did, however, qualify for the Champions League – a decent return for the club.
That was the sole season the pair worked together and after more than 20 years of supporting Twente, playing for them, working for them and assisting the first team, Ten Hag left on a sour note, joining PSV Eindhoven, where he would reunite with Rutten as his assistant. The case would go to court, as Twente hoped to be compensated for the signing of Ten Hag, but the arbitration committee ruled otherwise.
His role at PSV was similar, working with the first team and also keeping an eye on the club’s emerging youngsters. He played an important role in the development of an emerging Memphis Depay, then with the youth teams at PSV, who according to Ten Hag, needed the freedom to work his magic.
So good was his work with PSV that he would soon be given a head coach role in 2012 – 10 years after retiring – and that came with Go Ahead Eagles, who were boosted by the investment from Marc Overmars and looking to make the jump up after several years in the Eerste Divisie.
Upon joining, he made changes to the club’s facilities – little details that had a big impact on his work – and his attention to detail caught the eye of many around the Netherlands.
This is an extract from Karan Tejwani’s book, Glorious Reinvention: The Rebirth of Ajax Amsterdam, which is published by Pitch Publishing.