Erik ten Hag asked for patience when he was announced as Manchester United manager, stressing that his entire focus was on finishing the season at Ajax before he had questions about his impending career switch.
After winning the Eredivisie title with the Amsterdam club on Wednesday evening, he can no longer knock away such questions, with an away match at Vitesse this weekend the setting for his last day in the Ajax hot seat this weekend. Ten Hag will want to use Sunday’s game to reflect on how far his side has come under his tenure, but for many it will be one of the first steps on his journey to United.
The 52-year-old celebrated his third Dutch title at the highest level mid-week, an impressive achievement, especially when you consider that Ajax had not won the league title in five years before bringing them back to the top of the domestic game.
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“We have brought a certain culture to this club. A winning mentality,” Ten Hag told reporters on Wednesday evening when he was asked to think about his transformation from Ajax.
There isn’t a manager in world football who wouldn’t want to implement a winning mentality as part of their blueprint, but Ten Hag’s rhetoric is excused as he has managed to do just that in the Dutch capital. The ultimate challenge for United’s new manager will be to repeat such a transformation at Old Trafford, and that is much easier said than done.
In basic terms, winning games builds confidence, which in turn builds momentum and belief. Having a star-studded side matters little when your opponents are more confident and all fight harder for the same shared goal.
United have seen such improvements in form before, most notably when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed agent, but to make such runs regular they also need to be perfectly accommodated with other changes behind the scenes.
At Ajax, Ten Hag not only achieved this by restoring confidence with his motivational approach, but also got his squad to revise their fitness regime to better cope with the grueling schedule.
The Dutchman also looked at ways he could radically change the club’s loyalty to the 4-3-3 formation, paying tribute to Johan Cruijff’s famous approach but modernizing it with a greater emphasis on individual roles and adaptability based on who their opponents were.
“The philosophy and spirit of Johan Cruijff is still flowing at this club,” said Daley Blind of Ten Hag’s tactical approach in 2019, which focuses on ball possession, compact defense and intensive individual training so that players understand their role.
With reports suggesting that Ten Hag has asked his new United side to return early for season preparation as he is unimpressed with their fitness levels, it certainly indicates he is well aware of the deep-seated problems that continue to plague the club.
If he wants to push his desired culture on the club over time, he will have to do a lot more than just win matches from the start and be given enough time to implement a clear strategy change.
Whether he actually gets that time, however, is another matter.