From running in the woods to video analysis, cutting grass to lining up water bottles, the extraordinary detail that set Erik ten Hag apart from the rest is explained as Sky Sports' Adam Bate speaks to those who have followed his journey to Manchester United up close
Thursday 21 April 2022 14:44, UK
Erik ten Hag will go to Manchester United as an outsider tasked with implementing cultural change at one of the world’s most famous clubs. But that is a job that he has done before.
At Ajax, they mocked his accent. He was a Tukker - a man from the east of the country, a region known for a down-to-earth approach. There were those in sophisticated Amsterdam who did not believe the great Ajax had anything to learn from him. They were wrong.
Two domestic doubles and one kick away from a Champions League final later and there is an acceptance Ten Hag has brought some of the best football that Ajax has seen in years. His methods have delivered success, his manner has won over the doubters.
The ascent to perhaps the biggest job in football might feel swift but his progress has been steady, methodically planned to maximise his skill-set. At 52, he has been a youth coach and a head of education, an assistant at home and abroad, and a manager at various levels.
In a series of interviews with former team-mates, those who played with him as a teenager and were later captained by him, with players who he led to promotion in his first head coaching role, a picture emerges of an original thinker, a motivator and a disciplinarian.
This is the making of Erik ten Hag.
Raised in north Haaksbergen, a small town not far from the city of Enschede, life was idyllic in those early years. Jumpers for goalposts, football until dark. Ten Hag was good enough at it to shine when playing for Bon Boys, the local club where he is still a member.
Leon ten Voorde, a childhood friend turned journalist remembers a cheerful boy and a rebellious teenager, not the strict disciplinarian obsessed with detail. But Ten Hag was captain of Bon Boys, nevertheless. Leadership was in his genes, according to Ten Voorde.
Boudewijn Pahlplatz recalls it the same way. When Ten Hag was picked up by FC Twente, the biggest club in the region, Pahlplatz played alongside him for the youth team, the reserves and eventually the first team, across two different spells at Twente.
"After that, we even worked together when he was the head of education and I was a coach," Pahlplatz tells Sky Sports. They last spoke in the summer at a reunion to mark 20 years since Twente won the KNVB Cup for only the second time in their history.
"When I came back to Twente, I was not really fit any more because I had some problems with my muscles and Erik was the captain. He was an average player, but he was a good team player. Even when he was playing, he was already a coach, always knowing better."
In a team that included Netherlands international Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and those such as Pahlplatz who had enjoyed greater success at PSV Eindhoven, not everyone appreciated this central defender who was barking orders at them from the back.
"That was not always popular with the players because he was not the best player. When you are not the best player, it is hard for the better players to accept it. But he was thinking like a coach and the truth is that he always had the best tactical thoughts.
"Twenty years on, you can see that he was right all along."
The playing journey with Twente that had begun when they were teenagers ended for Pahlplatz and Ten Hag in 2002, but the latter moved seamlessly into a coaching role with the U17 side. He did that for a season before assuming control of the U19 group.
There were early signs of his dedication. Wout Brama, now back at Twente but then an academy player, recalls wondering what they were up against when Ten Hag's first decision was to cut their holiday short by two weeks. Impact was quick. Progress was steady.
"He built his career very carefully," says Pahlplatz.
2002-2003: Twente U17 coach
2003-2006: Twente U19 coach
2006-2009: Twente assistant manager
2009-2012: PSV Eindhoven assistant manager
2012-2013: Go Ahead Eagles manager
2013-2015: Bayern Munich II manager
2015-2017: Utrecht manager
2017-2022: Ajax manager
Ten Hag was later an assistant under Fred Rutten, then Steve McClaren, before following Rutten to PSV for three seasons. It was in the summer of 2012, aged 42 and after a decade of coaching, that he took his first head coaching job with Go Ahead Eagles.
"It has been step by step, developing his own philosophy and his own way of playing. That is very good. These days you see too many old players who immediately want to run a first team. That is very hard. You have to be so good that it is only for some players."
The opportunity at Eagles was not an obvious one. This was a club that had been relegated from the Eredivisie in 1996 and stayed in the second tier for the subsequent 16 seasons. Standards had slipped, expectations had dipped. Ten Hag soon changed that.
Sjoerd Overgoor was not optimistic when he found out Ten Hag would be his new head coach. The young midfielder was trying to make his way in the game after being released by Twente as a teenager. One of the men responsible for that decision? Ten Hag.
"He had been the head of the youth academy at Twente when I was sent away and told that I was not good enough," Overgoor tells Sky Sports. "I had a contract at Go Ahead Eagles so you can imagine how I felt when it was announced. But it went completely differently."
At the end of that season, there were celebrations on the pitch and in the stands as the club's 17-year wait to play in the Eredivisie would soon be at an end. Nobody there was in any doubt about the identity of the man who had been the main factor in that success.
"It was the most special day of my career," says Overgoor. "I am not a great player, but because of Erik ten Hag I played in the highest division. He is the best coach that I have ever had. He was the reason. You don't see coaches that good in the second division."
Bart Vriends was part of the Eagles team, arriving on loan from Utrecht that winter to strengthen the defence. That season is fresh in his mind because he has been working on a documentary about it, the central figure interviewing team-mates - and Ten Hag.
Every player tells him the same thing. "What really came out from those conversations with everyone involved was that Erik ten Hag changed the professionalism at the club in just a couple of weeks at the start of pre-season," Vriends tells Sky Sports.
"This was a small mid-table second division club in a small city in the east. It grew into something else when he was in charge. He changed the mentality in the club. He changed the mentality of the players and the people who worked there. From day one, actually."
Ten Hag is fastidious. One of the first things he noticed was that the woman in charge of the kits at the club would bring out drinks and set them out on the table inside the dressing room. "She would put the drinks there just randomly," says Vriends.
This was a problem for Ten Hag.
"He wanted the drinks put out in straight lines. Everything had to be perfect in his eyes. People needed time to get used to that."
There are so many stories like this.
"We had one man whose job it was to look after the pitch," says Overgoor. "Every day Erik would be coming to him and saying that the grass had to be two millimetres or something like that. That was a big difference for everyone at the club. He changed everything.
"Remember, this is not a big club in Holland. We did not have the best facilities but he made them the best. A lot of coaches come to clubs like Eagles and have the attitude that they have to deal with it. He did not deal with it. Instead, he made it better and better."
Detail was everything, as Overgoor found out in pre-season.
"We did a lot of ball work, but a few times in the afternoon we would have to run in the woods in groups. He would say that we had to run a certain distance in two minutes. We wanted to prove ourselves to him so our group did it in one minute and 50 seconds.
"He said, 'No. If I tell you to run for two minutes I don't want you to take two minutes and 10 seconds but I also don't want you to run for one minute and 50 seconds. Two minutes is two minutes. He was like that. If you did not stick to the plan you had a problem."
Some of the stories about Ten Hag make him sound like a tough taskmaster, but there was another side to his coaching. He was an innovator intent on raising standards. That meant placing demands on players, but also providing them with a better environment.
Vriends had arrived from Utrecht. "A bigger and more fashionable club back then." But the attention to detail was still a surprise to him. "He put beds in the dressing room so we could rest and sleep in between the two training sessions. That was really new at that time."
Video analysis helped take things to another level. "It was the first time that I had experienced that. Remember, this was 10 years ago at Go Ahead Eagles. After matches, we would go to his room individually and be shown our clips. He was never satisfied."
One seemingly trivial example is cited by both of his former players, clearly leaving an impression. "He put a window in his office door," remembers Overgoor. "We were all saying to each other that he was doing that so he could see what we were doing."
Ten Hag later revealed the real reason.
"He said, 'No, if the door is closed and there is no window it is difficult to come in because maybe I am busy and people will not want to knock. Now people will see if I am free and that makes it easier to come in.' These were the details that he thought about.
"That was really impressive to me. It was something I had not seen before." Vriends agrees. "He had put this big glass window in just so that it made things more transparent, helping with communication. It is a little example of how he changed the thinking."
Ten Hag had to do more than change the thinking, he had to change the results. That process also began in pre-season but took rather longer to perfect. Before the wins started to come, there were hours and hours of work put in on the training ground.
"We played a lot of 11 against zero," recalls Overgoor. The team would line up as they would for a game but with no opposition in place, practising how they intended to move the ball around the pitch. It is a favourite of coaches but not too much fun for the players.
"Every time we would start with the goalkeeper and he would talk us through the patterns of how we could attack. He wanted diagonal balls. Every time that we played a straight ball he would stop us and make us do it again. He was very strict in terms of what he wanted.
"After four weeks of 11 against zero we were thinking, 'What is this? It is so boring.' But after a couple of months of the season, there were matches where we knew what we had to do and everyone was seeing it the same way. It was really clear and it was working."
By the time that Vriends arrived in January, Ten Hag had established his idea and the mood had changed. "There were really interesting coaching sessions," he says. Overgoor agrees. "We became confident in our style of play and it became better and better."
That style was 4-3-3. "Like at Ajax," adds Overgoor. "Sometimes he made changes at half-time but nothing weird. Maybe one midfielder had to come 10 metres deeper to gain more ball possession. That is his big quality. He knows how to change it to become better."
Perhaps influenced by having been released at Twente, Overgoor thought Ten Hag had a problem with him at first. "He would shout at me," he recalls. "I thought that he did not like me. Other players recognise it too and they said the same thing to me."
It took a conversation to clear the air. "I asked him what I was doing wrong because he was always shouting at me. He told me that I was the sort of guy who was happy with 90 per cent but if I was angry I could give even more and would improve.
"Once he told me that, I knew that when he shouted he just wanted more. I had been negative but it turned into a positive. He believed in me but felt I had more to give."
Man-management was usually reserved for football matters.
"A lot of the time it is only about football, not about family or something else. Every day he wanted to talk about football and improve, improve, improve. But he knew what every player needed and that is a good thing to have as a coach."
Vriends remembers it the same way. "I have not seen him a lot with a relaxed kind of vibe, up for a laugh or a chilled training session. He is always really serious. But I guess that is just the standard of top-level football. It took us a while to get into that. But it worked."
He can be hard with players but players are always very positive about him - even players who don't play or players who leave to go to another club.
Harsh but fair is a mantra that wins respect in the dressing room. "Every single player in that squad, even the ones on the bench, were really happy with him actually," adds Vriends.
Pahlplatz also notes that ability to unite a squad.
At Ajax, a club that has had its divisions in the past, the atmosphere among the group has rarely been a problem.
"He was always good with players. He always protects them. He can be hard with players but players are always very positive about him - even players who don't play or players who leave to go to another club. They all say he is a good coach and a good person."
Following promotion with Go Ahead Eagles, there was some frustration Ten Hag decided not to continue the journey with them in the Eredivisie and instead moved to Bayern Munich, taking their reserve team while Pep Guardiola coached the seniors.
"I was surprised and a little bit disappointed because I knew he would make me a better player," says Overgoor. "But he was too good for us so it was normal that he would leave. It is the same with players. If they are too good, they leave. He was too good to stay.
"We were lucky because in the first year of the Eredivisie we had nine of the same 11 players, so in that first year without him we played exactly how Erik wanted us to play. That is why we stayed in the highest division that year, I think."
There is less surprise at the success that Ten Hag has enjoyed since. "I knew he had it in him. We knew he was special. He went to Bayern Munich and then to Utrecht."
Vriends even played a part in him moving there.
"I remember the board at Utrecht contacted me because they wanted some information about this guy who they wanted as their new head coach. I was only positive about it. They took him and it was a massive success. It did not surprise me at all.
"I guess I should have been paid for that. I would be rich."
Ten Hag has had to evolve since those Go Ahead Eagles days. At Utrecht, he moved away from his 4-3-3 formation to utilise two strikers instead. It worked again. They finished fifth in his first season and fourth in his second - taking the club into Europe.
"I think he just adapts to the players that he has," says Vriends. "We had wingers on the sides and played an attacking, dominant, passing game. At Utrecht, he changed formation to suit the players that he had. He did not really stick to this Dutch style of football."
At Ajax, he did return to that 4-3-3 formation but put his own twist on things - on and off the pitch. He had to convince a club, one with a very clear philosophy about how things should be done, that he had ideas of his own. It took time but that is what he did.
"At the beginning there too, people needed to get used to him," says Vriends. "He was this serious man from the east of the country with this funny accent. It did not really seem to fit with Ajax at first. But within weeks it was all good. He changed the mentality.
"I think he actually changed the standards at the club."
A recurring theme of Ten Hag's career has been proving people wrong. That will be a challenge at Manchester United for various reasons. Patience is a virtue but the Premier League is full of sinners. Will he be given the time? Even his admirers doubt that.
"If you have a board who do not have patience it could be done after a few months," says Overgoor. "But the board trusted him at Utrecht and at Ajax and you see what happens next. It was the same at Eagles. It was up and down. After that, it was up, up and up.
"At Ajax, they had the patience. I don't know if Manchester United has that patience if the results do not come in the first few months because there is so much more going on. If he is given the time he will do the job. He has shown everywhere that he is good enough."
Those training-ground methods might be an issue, says Pahlplatz.
"He does a lot of repetition. That was almost a problem for him in the beginning at Utrecht and Ajax. He trained them very hard and very long to get his philosophy into the players. That takes hours. The Utrecht and Ajax players were not used to that.
"He brought a new philosophy and that was a struggle for him at first. He demands so much of the players. Afterwards, you can see that it pays off. At the beginning, to convince players of his ideas is difficult. But you see how he has Ajax playing now, it is unbelievable."
Overgoor does not expect those 11 versus zero sessions to be repeated. "He had to do it with us because we were not as good and needed some patterns to build on. He does not make Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind do 11 versus zero, they have more freedom.
"I don't think he will be telling Cristiano Ronaldo what to do."
That thought is a reminder that Manchester United is different. Pahlplatz remembers his conversations with McClaren at Twente. "He used to tell us how it was with the media there. It is 24 hours a day at Manchester United. It is something you have to get used to.
"There are only a few Dutch coaches who have been at the biggest clubs in the world like Manchester United. Louis van Gaal was there, Leo Beenhakker and Guus Hiddink at Real Madrid, Johan Cruyff and Ronald Koeman at Barcelona. This is the level we are talking.
"He knows German football. He knows Dutch football. How will he cope with English football and all that comes with it?
"That is the interesting question. Will he deal with it?"
Attractive football that players understand
Not afraid to push young talent
Good relationship with players
Does not love the limelight
Man Utd is a commercially huge club
Will he stick to 4-3-3? Premier League demands flexibility
Fresh from spending an hour with Ten Hag reminiscing about their time together at Go Ahead Eagles, Vriends is convinced his old boss will adapt, just as he has to every previous challenge.
"I sound like his agent but I think this is a really wise choice by Manchester United to go for him. It seems like a tough club to manage but I do think it is a wise decision.
"His success has not surprised me at all. He is still the best manager that I have seen in my career and he has taken every step since then. For me, that season together was huge. One to remember. For him, it was just the beginning of his coaching career."
It was the making of Erik ten Hag.
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