Erik ten Hag would be perfect to banish the gloom at Tottenham… he was schooled by Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich and took Ajax to within a whisker of the Champions League final playing modern Total Football
- Ajax coach Erik ten Hag has emerged as a front-runner for the Tottenham job
- Daniel Levy is looking for an attack-minded coach and the Dutchman is perfect
- His Ajax side thrilled Europe during their run to the semi-finals in 2019
- Their easy-on-the-eye brand of football has ensured dominance in Holland
- Ten Hag was Bayern Munich’s second-team coach when Pep Guardiola was boss
- He could drag Spurs out of the negative cycle inflicted by Jose Mourinho
If Daniel Levy truly wants to banish the ghost of Jose Mourinho, replace all the off-field negativity and on-field dullness in one fell swoop, then he could do far worse than Erik ten Hag.
This disciple of Pep Guardiola and scholar of the Ajax school of playing gorgeous football could easily be described as the perfect antidote to the stifling conservatism favoured by Tottenham over the past 17 months.
So it’s little wonder there has been an enthusiastic reaction from Spurs fans to the news that Ten Hag has emerged as a leading candidate for the vacancy.
Levy has reportedly set up talks with Ten Hag as they step up their bid to find a permanent successor to Mourinho before the Euro 2020 finals begin in June.
Ajax coach Erik ten Hag has emerged as a leading candidate for the vacant Tottenham job
Ajax have been dominant in Holland under Ten Hag, winning the Dutch Cup recently (pictured), and the time could be right for him to take on a fresh challenge
Spurs sacked Jose Mourinho last week after just 17 months in the role with the manager criticised for their negative and defensive brand of football
Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy is known to want an attack-minded coach
It is claimed that the talks do not mean the 51-year-old will definitely be offered the job, with Levy assessing his options after failing to land his top two targets.
Levy has missed out on Julian Nagelsmann, who is bound for the top job in German football at Bayern Munich, and Brendan Rodgers seemingly does not want to leave the upwardly-mobile Leicester City for a Spurs side on the decline, but Ten Hag would be an exciting alternative.
Given his contract at Ajax expires at the end of next season and given they have already secured the Eredivisie title and are out of Europe, negotiations could be wrapped up nice and quickly if Ten Hag is keen on north London.
Ten Hag, who is also being linked with the Eintracht Frankfurt job, has probably achieved all he can achieve at Ajax with their stunning run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2019 the pinnacle.
It was, of course, Tottenham who left the Dutch club heartbroken with an against-all-odds turnaround in Amsterdam, progressing to a final against Liverpool thanks to Lucas Moura’s 96th-minute goal.
But that came after Ten Hag’s vibrant side had enacted their own stirring comebacks to send Real Madrid and Juventus spinning out in the previous rounds.
Their 4-1 win over Real in the Bernabeu, overturning a 2-1 first leg deficit, was described by Ten Hag, and without any exaggeration, as ‘pretty close to perfection’ as the reigning European champions were sliced open time after time.
Ten Hag’s Ajax produced one of the great comebacks to knock Real Madrid out in 2019
They followed that up with a stunning win over Juventus in the quarter-finals two years ago
It was Lucas Moura and Tottenham that left Ajax heartbroken in a thrilling semi-final that year
The current campaign has been a stroll domestically for Ajax. They have led the Eredivisie since a 13-0 win over VVV-Venlo in mid-October, have lost just twice and average almost three goals per game.
Ten Hag’s side are on the brink of mathematically sealing the title and completing the Double having won the Dutch Cup the other week. The only dark cloud has been the disappointment of losing to Roma in the Europa League last eight.
One glance at Ten Hag’s astonishing record in three-and-a-half years as Ajax boss – 119 wins from 163 games, a ratio of 73 per cent – certainly points to a new challenge being required.
Ten Hag makes no secret of Guardiola being both his mentor and inspiration. Given Manchester City’s current dominance of English football, that is an exciting prospect for any Spurs fan.
He was able to absorb Guardiola’s methods first-hand during two seasons as coach of Bayern’s second team between 2013 and 2015.
Ten Hag had the opportunity to absorb the coaching methods of Pep Guardiola at Bayern
It’s little wonder Ten Hag openly credits Guardiola as his mentor and inspiration
The pitches at their Sabener Strasse training ground are all laid out adjacent to one another with no barriers, accommodating everyone from the first team down to the under-eights.
In 2019, Ten Hag said: ‘Guardiola’s philosophy is sensational and he has demonstrated this at Barcelona, Bayern and City. His structured attacking play is very attractive and I aim to implement this at Ajax.’
That he has done, creating a side that are very pleasing on the eye and score a lot of goals. But they are also tinged with a certain pragmatism which means Ajax also have the meanest defence in the Dutch top-flight this season.
There’s nothing kamikaze about their attacking approach, which is just as well given how Tottenham’s Carabao Cup defeat to Guardiola’s City on Sunday exposed the gulf between the two teams. It can’t just be an exact copy.
But even taking into account the obvious step up in quality between the Eredivisie and the Premier League, we can still expect a brand of football in stark contrast to the defensive and reactive approach of Mourinho.
Ten Hag favours a 4-3-3 in the majority of games with one characteristic being a central midfielder dropping back to form a covering third central defender, allowing the wing-backs licence to push forward in support of the attack.
His Ajax side have been dominant in Holland this season and are on course for a Double
The emphasis will be on building out from the back, the players forming neat passing triangles and rectangles to shift the ball forward.
Doing the rounds on social media is a clip of Ajax playing out from the back in the Champions League quarter-final against Juventus a couple of years ago.
Though the move ultimately breaks down, with the shot blocked, the rolling shape moving upfield and slick one-touch passing is exactly how Ten Hag would like his teams to play.
Erik ten Hag CV
2012-2013 Go Ahead Eagles
2013-2015 Bayern Munich II
HONOURS AT AJAX
Dutch Cup 2018-19, 2020-21
With the wing-backs up in support, the wingers often tuck inside, overloading the defenders while constantly offering an option for the pass.
Similarly to Guardiola, who told his great Barcelona team to win the ball back inside six seconds, Ten Hag favours an aggressive press to pin the opposition back.
It helps explain why Ajax dominate possession in pretty much every domestic game they play and a good few in Europe too.
Despite the formation, there won’t be any of Guardiola’s false nine approach seen this season. Ten Hag does still favour a conventional centre forward, with Sebastien Haller, signed from West Ham in January, now performing the role.
Ten Hag’s system would be good news for Harry Kane if he stays at Tottenham because it is expected the forward holds the ball up and creates opportunities as well as finishing them.
But if Kane and others go, the Dutch boss would face a similar rebuilding mission to the ones he faces on an almost yearly basis at Ajax.
Almost inevitably, their run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2019 led to Europe’s ravenous elite swooping for key men such as midfielder Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona) and defender Matthijs de Ligt (Juventus).
Twelve months later, Hakim Ziyech had gone to Chelsea and Donny van de Beek went to Manchester United. There’s rarely any continuity at Ajax from one season to another but it’s been ever thus.
Ten Hag became used to rebuilding jobs at Ajax, with Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong among those players poached by bigger clubs
But Ajax always have a steady stream of talent coming through, such as Ryan Gravenberch
Ten Hag’s Ajax record
Wins 119 Draws 21 Defeats 23
Goals scored 435
Goals conceded 147
Goals per game: 2.67
Win percentage: 73.01
Luckily, Ajax’s academy has always ensured a steady stream of new talent and Ten Hag hasn’t hesitated in bringing youngsters through.
Midfielder Ryan Gravenberch, striker Brian Brobbey and defender Devyne Rensch are just three examples and Spurs fans, like fans of any club, would relish their own academy graduates being given a decent chance.
The great unknown, of course, is whether Ten Hag’s approach would work in the tougher environment of the Premier League but Ajax’s exploits in the Champions League offer optimism that it would and entertain both Spurs fans and neutrals alike.
He hasn’t been afraid either to adapt to a more balanced 4-2-3-1 formation in certain matches either, though the principles of attack and movement have remained the same.
The fact a midfielder willingly drops back into defence, wing-backs become wingers and centre forwards double up as playmakers is a clear nod to Ajax’s Total Football legacy.
It explains why Marc Overmars, the Ajax director of football, went against convention by bringing in Ten Hag as an Ajax outsider after he exceeded expectations at Utrecht, finishing fifth in 2015-16 and fourth in 2016-17.
Interestingly, it was Overmars who gave Ten Hag his first managerial post at second-tier Go Ahead Eagles in 2012. Overmars was a shareholder in the club at the time.
His stock has risen considerably since then and Tottenham would surely be an interesting next step.
Of course, one sticking point may be his outspoken views on the European Super League so favoured by Levy, who refused to condemn such an overhaul of the European game even as the project collapsed last week.
Ten Hag didn’t hold back in his criticism of the ‘disastrous’ European Super League last week
Ten Hag said: ‘Disastrous. I am for innovation and I always want to listen to that. But this was a closed competition in which a few clubs determine who can participate.
‘Other clubs were excluded. Solidarity was hard to find. 12 clubs wanted to determine everything.’
Spurs won’t be in any half-baked Super League next season but this coach directly influenced by Guardiola and Johan Cruyff could at least throw open the curtains and let the sunlight back in after the gloom of the Mourinho era.
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