AMSTERDAM (AFP) – There are few clubs with a history to match that of Ajax, but they are in the process of writing a new chapter in Amsterdam with Erik ten Hag taking them to within sight of a first treble since the days of Johan Cruyff.
On Sunday, Ten Hag’s spellbinding team secured the first leg as they beat Willem II 4-0 to win the Dutch Cup.
The battle with PSV Eindhoven for the Eredivisie title resumes this weekend, and by then Ajax could be through to their first Champions League final since 1996.
They take a 1-0 lead into their semi-final second leg against Tottenham Hotspur tonight, with young stars like Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek mesmerising Europe on a run that has already seen them defeat Real Madrid and Juventus.
Those players have dominated the headlines, but the work done by the 49-year-old Ten Hag has been remarkable, and entirely in keeping with his progress up until now.
His career as a player was unremarkable by comparison, with the 2001 Dutch Cup the only major trophy he won on the field. The midfielder captained Twente to victory on penalties against PSV Eindhoven.
“He was the captain, he led by example and he always had a lot of confidence,” Scott Booth, who played in that Twente side, told AFP.
Booth, a former Scotland striker, scored in the penalty shoot-out that day. He remembers Ten Hag as “not international class, but a very good club player.”
“He was loyal to the club and to his team-mates, he loved the game and he loved talking about the game.”
Ten Hag was close to Fred Rutten, his coach at Twente, and after ending his playing career aged just 32, he later became Rutten’s assistant at PSV.
Prior to that, though, he had a spell as an assistant to Steve McClaren at Twente, helping lay the groundwork for the Englishman to go on and win a first ever Dutch title with them in 2010.
These days, Ten Hag’s playing style draws comparisons to Pep Guardiola.
“When we lose the ball, we must win it back immediately,” goalkeeper Andre Onana told AFP.
“He is focused on that, he is always telling us that if we have control of the ball, we have the ability to push back any opponent.”
In his first season as a coach in his own right, Ten Hag won promotion with Go Ahead Eagles, but he left them for a job with Bayern Munich’s reserve side in the German fourth tier.
His time in Bavaria coincided with Guardiola’s first two years as Bayern coach.
“I still remember very well that when I quit the Eredivisie to go and coach in the German Regionalliga, lots of people in the Netherlands were sceptical,” he told German daily Bild.
– ‘Winning the lottery’ –
“I never regretted that decision. To work at a club as big as Bayern, with strong characters like Pep Guardiola or (sporting director) Matthias Sammer was like winning the lottery.”
Ten Hag lapped up the opportunity to watch Guardiola’s training sessions up close before returning to the Eredivisie with Utrecht in 2015.
After two top-five finishes and a Dutch Cup final appearance, Ajax saw Ten Hag as the ideal man to take over midway through last season when Marcel Keizer was sacked.
Europa League runners-up in 2017, Ajax were knocked out of both European competitions in the preliminary rounds last season, but Ten Hag steered them to a second-place finish. The foundations were laid for this season’s run.
“What he is managing to do with such young players is remarkable,” former striker Pierre van Hooijdonk, now a leading pundit, told TV station NOS.
“The likes of De Ligt, De Jong and Van de Beek have only just come out of the academy and are already playing like veterans. Ten Hag deserves huge credit.”
If they go on to win a first treble since 1972, when Cruyff was starring on the field, then Ten Hag will go down as a legend at a club that has had so many great names down the years.