Manchester United have spoken to Erik ten Hag as they kick off the interview process for appointing a new permanent manager this summer.
The current Ajax boss is among the leading candidates, with the club also set to speak with Mauricio Pochettino, Julen Lopetegui and Luis Enrique.
90min understands that United are ultimately looking to make a decision while the international break is still ongoing – club football resumes on 2 April – and, even if nothing is publicly communicated at that stage, it will be internally known.
Ten Hag had already impressed United officials during the initial search and, at this stage, is widely considered the favourite to get the job. There do, however, remain a number of Pochettino admirers within the corridors of power at Old Trafford.
A centre-back who turned professional with local Eredivisie club Twente in the late 1980s, Ten Hag had a modest but consistent and lengthy playing career in the Dutch top flight.
He left Twente for De Graafschap in 1990, but returned just two years later, only to leave again in 1994. This time, Ten Hag spent single seasons at Waalwijk and Utrecht, re-joining Twente in 1996 where he firmly settled and spent the remainder of his career.
Ten Hag was part of a De Graafschap side that won the Dutch Eerste Divisie in 1991, while a KNVB Cup triumph with Twente in 2001 came just a year before his retirement at the age of 32.
After hanging up his boots, Ten Hag spent a decade learning his trade as a coach before stepping into his first senior management role.
It began where his playing career had finished, Twente. He was handed control of the club’s Under-17 team straight after retiring. The following season, Ten Hag took over the Under-19s for the next three years, before then being appointed first-team assistant coach in 2006.
He initially worked under Fred Rutten, then former Manchester United assistant manager Steve McClaren, who made the switch to Dutch football after his time as England boss turned into a disaster. But Ten Hag left at the start of Twente’s Eredivisie title season in 2009, re-uniting with Rutten as an assistant at PSV Eindhoven.
Following PSV’s KNVB Cup win in 2012, Ten Hag, by now 42, landed his first head coach role when he was appointed at famed second-tier club Go Ahead Eagles – recruited by Marc Overmars shortly before the ex-Arsenal winger became director of football at Ajax.
Ten Hag guided the team back to the Eredivisie for the first time in 17 years, but then took his career to Germany to work with Bayern Munich II at the same time as Pep Guardiola was in charge of the first-team. By his own admission, that relationship has influenced Ten Hag’s style ever since.
He returned to Dutch football in 2015 with former club Utrecht, taking them into the top half of the table and then into the Europa League. Ten Hag was reunited with Overmars at Ajax at the start of 2018 when he was recruited to replace Marcel Keizer in Amsterdam.
That season didn’t finish with an Eredivisie title, but Ajax did qualify for the Champions League and were within a kick of reaching the 2019 final, having crushed Real Madrid and Juventus on the way. His development of talents like Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek, as well as bringing new life out of established players like Dusan Tadic, earned Ten Hag the awe of Europe.
Despite the breakup of his team as assets were sold off for big money, Ajax have continued to thrive under Ten Hag and took maximum points in this season’s Champions League group stage.
Ten Hag’s work at Ajax, now in its fifth season, has seen him often considered for the biggest jobs and has built him a reputation as one of the best coaches around.
After the Eerste Divisie title in 2012/13, it wasn’t actually until 2019 that Ten Hag secured his first major trophy as a head coach. It came in the form of the KNVB Cup with Ajax, but was quickly followed by Eredivisie success– the club’s first Dutch title since 2014.
He was unable to follow it up in 2019/20 due to the season being cancelled amid the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, although his team was leading the table at the point it was voided. Ajax continued their dominance with another domestic double in 2020/21.
Having keenly watched Guardiola at work in Munich, Ten Hag has tried to replicate the style and structures he has seen from the revered Spaniard.
In a 2019 interview, he explained, “I learned a lot from Guardiola. His philosophy is sensational, what he did in Barcelona, Bayern and now with Manchester City, that attacking and attractive style sees him win a lot. It’s this structure that I’ve tried to implement with Ajax.”
The tactical versatility and fluidity long associated with Johan Cruyff and ‘Total Football’ has also been a mainstay of Ten Hag’s Ajax side.
Ten Hag has had success with two similar but slightly different styles at Ajax. His 2018/19 side was characterised by the ‘double pivot’ in central midfield, an adaptation of a more traditional 4-3-3. It gave his team solidity from a defensive perspective, but also ensured there was effectively a front four when on the attack. The system had additional support from attacking full-backs.
With the breakup of the 2018/19 side came a switch to the kind of 4-3-3 system more typically associated with Ajax and Dutch football in general, wherein the movement of players in fluid positions intends to create overloads in key areas of the pitch.
At Utrecht, Ten Hag was also known to use back three and 4-4-2 diamond formations.