Erik ten Hag seems to be leaving Ajax after this season. If not to Manchester United, then to one of the other European top clubs that are looking for a new coach in the summer. De Tukker leaves a huge void with the people of Amsterdam. It is up to the club management of the Amsterdammers to find the candidate who can build on that success. But there are not many football professors like Ten Hag. That’s not what Ajax needs either.
Ajax is not in the best phase since the appointment of Erik ten Hag. The protagonist will no doubt deny it, but since the rumor has increased with interest from Manchester United, the champions are in trouble. This did not result in a loss of points for the team from Amsterdam against FC Groningen, although more and more Eredivisie teams seem to be able to arm themselves against the ‘Ten Hag line’ at Ajax. Change is never easy, especially after a successful period such as Ten Hag has with the team from Amsterdam. But selection is not only an art within the selection. That also applies to the person in the trainer’s seat.
Ajax and Ten Hag
Ajax already seems to be preparing for the departure of the successful trainer. Apart from the elimination against SL Benfica, Ten Hag has still managed very well with the team from Amsterdam this season. The lead over PSV in the Eredivisie may be minimal, the team is still on track for a title prolongation and can also win the KNVB Cup in a (different) direct duel with the Eindhoven team. In addition, with a continuous contract until the summer of 2023, it is still possible that Ten Hag will also be Ajax’s trainer after this season.
If you are to believe the news about the filling of the managerial position of Manchester United, that chance is about as big as a new Ajax contract for Noussair Mazraoui. They are the first world problems of the Dutch national champion, who in the meantime can focus on the succession of the successful trainer. It seems like a dream of every trainer, to be at the head of the largest club in the country, but many a trainer bit himself on the Amsterdam couch in the past.
In addition, the main candidate to make Ten Hag forget is currently under contract with the arch-rival. Arne Slot has already left no room for it: as long as he still has a contract with Feyenoord, the club and fans do not have to be afraid of an early departure of the coach. In theory, Ajax does not have to ring the bell at Slot before January 2024 (six months before the current contract expires, ed.). The question is: to whom?
You can now also draw those lists. Frank Rijkaard is asked and once again says that he is enjoying his football pension. Frank de Boer is suggested, but that name causes more frowning than with the former national coach after the painful elimination against the Czech Republic. Ronald Koeman will undoubtedly be on the list, just as the name of Wim Jonk (FC Volendam) will be thrown by someone now that his football enemy Marc Overmars is no longer the technical boss in Amsterdam.
However, the assignment for Ten Hag’s successor will be more difficult than the assignment that Ten Hag received when he took the reins in the Johan Cruijff ArenA. Before the arrival of the successful trainer, Ajax was in a negative spiral, one that Ten Hag managed to turn around, partly due to a number of talents that had broken through and targeted reinforcements. Ajax again participated with ‘the big boys’, but based on past performances, it is still a name that European opponents take into account. As a result, there is one ‘but’ to say about Ten Hag’s time so far: the success formula to also structurally reach the final phase of the competition in Europe has still not been found.
And no, that is not due to the strength of the opponents. In fact: until now it has been shown that Ajax can better hit a stronger team, for example Real Madrid, than a Getafe (Europa League elimination from last season, ed.) or SL Benfica. That conclusion is, especially for a club that pretends to be ‘the best’, quite painful for the dominant game that Ten Hag likes so much. After all, it proves: the moment the opponent adjusts well to the Ajax game and covers the dangerous zones, Ajax will attack more instead of playing differently and there are always opportunities against the team from Amsterdam.
However, there is an explanation for that. Due to his time at Bayern Munich and his preferred style of play, Ten Hag is often compared to Manchester City coach Josep Guardiola. They are ‘football professors’, men who think about the game day and night and thus, especially in competitions with a knockout model such as the Champions League, often play into the opponent’s hands. That Guardiola has so far failed to win the Billionaire Ball for City, and the same goes for Paris Saint-Germain, says more than the fact that success cannot be bought. You can map out as many walking lines as you want, when the first whistle sounds, you find yourself in another world.
Ten Hag has one important disadvantage on Guardiola: de Tukker himself never reached the absolute top level, so that Ten Hag does not build a team from individual quality, but from defensive stability. Offense can only be the best defense when you have a defense to build on. At Ajax, that reliability has been lost in recent weeks due to the injury of Remko Pasveer and the temporary loss of Jurriën Timber. What that teaches is that, outside the first eleven, Ajax actually does not have the right players to give the football that Ten Hag has in mind, also on the field. As a result, Ten Hag often has to explain situations with which he has had no experience as a football player.
Guardiola is the other extreme again: the former defensive midfielders had a glittering career as one of the pillars of FC Barcelona before he started his coaching jobs at Barça B and the A-selection and was able to apply again later at Bayern Munich. As a result, Manchester City often has an overly complicated performance in top matches, while at Ajax it sometimes looks like you’re watching another club without the ‘usual suspects’. Or often the case in recent weeks: the big names don’t give up in the matches against ‘the little ones’, but also against the big boys.
Ajax therefore needs someone who can stand between those two worlds, the high school football of the European top and the fighting mentality of a middle-class player. John Heitinga is one such ex-footballer. The Ajax school he has had as a player, the international experience he gained as a player for Atlético Madrid and Everton, or the starting place in the final of the 2010 World Cup are not even the main arguments for this. That was the reaction of the Young Ajax coach to the return of Mohamed Ihattaren. Where the Netherlands ran the polonaise through the return of the (fallen) child prodigy, Heitinga was not impressed.
And why should he? When we think of Heitinga, the first thing we think of is the row of clubs he has on his resume or the sometimes bone-dry statements the defender made. But we often forget the most important thing: that Heitinga played football for most of his career with a broken knee and still played at the highest level. That’s not just an endorsement of the talent the former defender had. It mainly circles the negative side effect of ‘The Gods Sons’.
Because if the Ajax players are put on the football field by, for example, Getafe, by SL Benfica or even by Go Ahead Eagles, Ten Hag doesn’t know how to solve it either. Not a few weeks ago. Not against Benfica and also not against FC Groningen, although it ended there with a fizzle for the team from Amsterdam. One variable always remains the same for the team from Amsterdam under Ten Hag: if the game does not go well, the mentality plays up. You can’t dribble or combine that. Even extremely high pressure does not help. Just that bit of John Heitinga mentality, which as so often remains the missing factor. It is not surprising that a football professor from the countryside cannot take care of that. You also have to be a Godson with a broken knee for that.
POLL: John Heitinga as Ten Hag’s successor?