Ten Hag accepts his toughest challenge as Man Utd manager
Erik Ten Hag has never shied away from a challenge, but the biggest task of the Dutchman’s coaching career awaits after accepting the role of Manchester United manager.
Ten Hag, 52, will leave Ajax at the end of the season having restored their pride at the top table of European football in the Champions League and dominated domestically in his four years in charge.
Performing a similar turnaround in United’s fortunes after nearly a decade in the doldrums will be a higher mountain to scale.
But Ten Hag boasts an unblemished managerial record from his unconventional route to one of the sport’s most prized jobs.
An unremarkable playing career included three spells as FC Twente, where he won his only major trophy as captain in the 2001 Dutch Cup.
It was at Twente where his journey as a coach began too, working alongside former United assistant and England manager Steve McLaren.
“I thought I knew football before, but going there and experiencing that… I knew nothing about football,” McLaren told The Athletic of his experience with Ten Hag.
“I have to sit up in the stands to see the patterns of a game, but he could stand on the touchline (and see them). He always knew the answer to everything, how to change shape, change positions.”
In his first role as a manager in his own right, Ten Hag got Go Ahead Eagles promoted to the top-flight of Dutch football.
Yet, instead of testing himself in the Eredivisie, he took the bold decision to take over Bayern Munich’s reserve side in the fourth-tier of German football.
His two years in Munich coincided with Pep Guardiola’s time as boss at Bayern with Ten Hag keen to soak up as much knowledge as he could from the Manchester City manager and the culture of working for a European giant.
“During my time at Bayern Munich, among other things, I saw how things work (at a big club),” Ten Hag said reflecting on his time in Germany.
“Every detail can be picked out for analysis. The media, people in general, always find something if you look for it. A hundred things can go right, if one thing goes wrong, people highlight it.”
That level of scrutiny is now what he will have to get used to and a club where plenty has gone wrong in recent years.
Despite boasting one of the largest wage bills in world football, United have not won a trophy for five years.
Barring an unlikely resurrection in the final weeks they will not even by playing in the Champions League next season.
The more storied names of Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho are among the five managers to have come and gone at Old Trafford since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 sent the club into a spiral.
Ten Hag will have to succeed where they failed while going up against an array of the world’s best coaches in the Premier League such as Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and Antonio Conte.
But he could also be the right man at the right time for a long-needed cultural reset at United.
Money has been thrown at their problems in the transfer market for many years to no avail.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s return in August was designed to help a star-studded squad mount a title challenge this season, but they are instead 23 points behind Manchester City.
After a productive spell back in the Netherlands with Utrecht, Ten Hag has continued the Ajax tradition of using the club’s academy as a sustainable model for success.
Frenkie De Jong, Matthijs De Ligt and Donny Van de Beek were stars of the side that reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2019 before being sold on.
A newly-assembled squad won all six Champions League group stage games this season, including thrashings of Borussia Dortmund and Sporting Lisbon.
United’s greatest days under Ferguson were built upon a mix of forming their own players and improving the imports they did splash out on.
Ten Hag has to recover that lost trait as the starting point on a long road back to challenging for major honours.