In the past, we had the Big Interview series and had prominent football icons like Johan Cruyff, Louis van Gaal, Guus Hiddink and Bert van Marwijk, among others. Time to add Erik ten Hag to that list. I truly believe he is a world class coach and he deserves this interview here. Thanks to VI Pro.
Ajax is the best of the country again. Finally!
“All compliments were nice and just as well. But we knew we needed silverware. And with the double, the first since 2002, we finally rewarded ourselves with something tangible. In top sports, its about winning! This is the crown on a tremendous season.”
How much does this mean to you?
“A lot! Firstly, it’s hard to win the title in The Netherlands. Look at PSV. They won basically everything. And they could focus on the title fully, which we couldn’t. But in May, we were still fighting on three fronts. It was all about PSV and Ajax and we couldn’t slip up. If you look at the points PSV won, they normally would have the title. And for me as a coach, it’s a milestone isn’t it? I am proud of the players, the staff, everyone. It’s the success of the collective and our challenge will now only get bigger.”
And also in the manner Ajax likes: dominant and attractive football…
“That is partly why we are proud and happy. It’s not just winning. It’s winning beautifully. And people will talk about this team in 20 years time I think. That is partly why we do this. And it needs to lead to titles.”
Who had expected this last year?
“Also in our darkest days, I knew I could get this team to play at this level. I was convinced of it. But that the players would be this good and the team would develop as it idid, I didn’t expect that. I don’t think anyone expected this.”
A year ago, your VI interview sounded bitter. There was disappointment in Amsterdam.
“Well it was a tough season. The pain of Nouri’s situation was huge. Is huge! That placed a wet and cold and heavy blanket on everyone. Everyone loves that kid and this had a tremendous impact. And it was tough to turn that around. We did win games and we played ok, but we didn’t win a trophie. But I saw that our management was building something amazing in the background. Marc Overmars, Edwin van der Sar, Henk Veldmate and Said Ouaali were performing magic and when negativity was at its peak, we kept on believing in our vision. I believe in staying true to your vision. I despise opportunistic behaviour.”
Last summer was the big turnaround, working on a new team?
“Well that started much earlier. In March 2018, I was in Southampton with Marc Overmars to talk to Dusan Tadic. My analysis about last season was clear. We lacked balance in the squad, in that important age group of what I call the middle category. Players with experience, but also with desire. We didn’t have any. Well, Tagliafico but he was a new signing too, basically. And Nico is a born winner, a fighter and so important with his mentality. We had to make steps in mental strength and this is how our blueprint for a new season started.”
Ajax needed to make a step, which is why Overmars signed you, correct?
“Something had to happen but it’s not easy in Amsterdam. There is a vibe of “we know it all” here. And they did linger too long in the historic successes. Football has developed and Peter Bosz as an example, was successful in making changes. But…he still left. There was too much resistance and that culture needed shaking up. Which is why Alfred Schreuder and I were brought in. We were coaching from outside of the club and that always brings resistance. And that is ok, but I always felt support from the key people in the club. By the way, my mission wasn’t merely “make Ajax champions”, my mission was also to make Ajax Europe prof. To introduce modern elements of the game. After 1,5 years we won the double and made it to the semis of the CL. That is just great.”
You did break with the old 4-3-3 system?
“But I wasn’t the first to do this. I do remember that Adriaanse got a lot of flak when he started fiddling with the house style, but the qualities of the players determine the system, not the other way around. And it’s not even about systems. It’s about what you do in possession, when you lose possession and in those turn around moments. And you need to be able to change that up.”
This season, the so-called Double 6 was the solution?
“Well like I said, the players’ qualities determine how you play. Take Frenkie de Jong. We have really been looking to find ways to use his skills in the best manner. Where can he play best, for the team and to showcase his talent. Everyone was screaming: Frenkie is the biggest talent, etc etc. Well yes. But, where? In midfield? Ok, but which role? His quality is that he makes the forwards perform better. He is a wanderer, an adventurer, he’s always on the move, like a shark. With the ball, often, but also without the ball. So if you put him on 6, he’s away too often. But you need to give him freedom, otherwise you can’t the best out of him. It wasn’t an easy puzzle, so I dediced to play with two number 6s and only one attacking mid. And in this way, we can also dominate the half space, and force opponents to choose. So on the first day of pre-season, that is how we started. And we started without Frenkie, by the way, as he wasn’t fit at the start of the pre-season.”
Did you plan for him and Donny van de Beek to be the two 6s?
“Yes, this goes to show that plans are just plans, the reality needs to want it as well, haha. And in reality, Donny is also a player who likes to be on the move. For both Donny and Frenkie it is a strength. So Lasse fulfilled the role perfectly! And Lasse wouldn’t be the ideal #6 by himself. He really needs a dynamic player with him and they have a click now. Denmark also plays with a double 6 and Lasse does really well for them to.”
And then there was Hakim Ziyech…
“Yes, last summer we were convinced Justin Kluivert would stay and Hakim would leave. And it became an interesting jigsaw, yet again. We had Lasse and Frenkie for the 6 role and I had Tadic, Neres, Ziyech and Donny for the other midfield role… But these seasons are long and we knew we needed all players. The competition was huge and then sometimes a player is benched who feels he should play. It’s part of playing in the top. Lacazette, Lukaku, Gabriel Jesus, Gareth Bale, Dybala, they all spend time on the bench. But the fun thing is, all the players (Donny, Neres, Hakim, Tadic) can look back on a tremendous season! And all this humbug was created mainly by people outside of the club. Internally, we never really had any issues. We never were distracted and we demonstrated that we had a squad of first team players… Everyone played their part: Huntelaar, Dolberg, Veltman and also the youngsters.”
And Tadic as central striker!?
“That worked so well versus Bayern. Just perfect. And he kept on developing. Dusan is such an amazing player. He can play on either wing, on the #10 spot but I never thought he’d be my #9, hahaha.”
That must be a bummer for Dolberg. Is he on his way out now?
“Certainly not. Kasper is tremendously skilled, but he has not had a single injury free pre-season. And it is so hard for a player to not be able to have a solid pre-season. Dolberg is a fighter and we still saw some brilliance of him this season, didn’t we?”
But he is not your primary striker? He is not a starter?
“But no one is, in my book. And I told them this. There is a hierarchy, yes, but whether you’re 19 or 29, you play when you’re the best for the position. And Kasper is still young, this is all part of his development. And Klaas Jan as well, he could think “I’m the #3 striker, I’ll relax a bit” but he is as hungry and keen as when he was 23… I think, because I didn’t know him back then. But we extended Klaas Jan’s deal, because he’s crucial for us as well.”
Also important, the interchange between coach and players improved this season.
“I think that started last season already, but this season we did get a boost. When Keizer and Bergkamp left, that was a shock for some. Earlier in the season, the team had to deal with what happened to Nouri, and this season, we came back from a well deserved break and we started fresh. And don’t forget, players like Blind and Tadic do something to a squad when they come in. And Matthijs became my skipper. Cool as a cucumber, very mature, a real leader. And a good communicator. Dusan is my vice captain. A tremendous duo.”
Which other players are your strongholders in the squad?
“Definitely Daley. Not a big talker, not the extraverted leader, but the tactician of the squad. My right hand man on the pitch. He sees everything just quicker than any of the other player and he always makes the right decision. I use him as my extension and he only needs three words to know what I want. Klaas Jan is important with his experience and Andre Onana as well. That is rare, that I mention a striker and a goalie. Usually they’re quite individualistic. But they are people persons. They manage, they talk and coach. And then there is Lasse Schone. Lasse is control personified. He’s relaxed, calm and collected. A wonderful guy. A technician pur sang, but also a sober team player. Very intelligent player and everyone here loves him. He can hang with the teenagers and he can mingle with the board, you know?”
And Frenkie and Ziyech as the leaders on the pitch?
“Exactly! Frenkie is so important as a player. He became our conductor on the pitch, he determines the rhythm of the team. He takes care of the yield of the attacks, finds team mates, opens up spaces and then Hakim… The classic individualist, in the good sense of the word. You need him to make the difference and at times you need him in the team structure too. He can see the team cohesion and he sees the bigger picture. Whenever resistance is at its highest, Ziyech shines. We have many players who can create but in the final third, no one is as good as Hakim.”
How do you operate with these players?
“We find each other when need be. Blind, De Ligt, Tadic, I will always keep them in the loop. And then we have different team talks, in difference combinations. We look at things from multiple perspectives. Tactics, group dynamics, agreements we make on and off the pitch, you name it.”
Can you name an example?
“Well, before the Groningen away game, I decided to go a day early and spend a night in a hotel close to Groningen. When we played Vitesse a week later, the players came forward and said they would appreciate that again. Leaving a day early and staying in a hotel, like we do with European games. One of the key aspects of coaching, is listening. Verbally and non-verbally. My task is to find out: what makes my players perform best? Within the boundaries we put on them as a club, we are open for the preferences of the players. I do this with my staff as well.”
Last season, your analysis was hard and critical. What is your current view of what needs to improve?
“Good ain’t good enough. We need to get better. Push boundaries. In July, we start at level zero again. Trophies are all in the cabinet and we need to start again. We do have a good foundation, but on the first day, we have zero points, like all other teams. We need to try and keep the quality of the squad at this level and if possible improve it. We signed Razvan Marin, a player with tremendous dynamics in his game. Our speed up front is another aspect we need to improve. Neres is quick, and Dolberg too but Kasper is playing in the axis and doesn’t have the space to run into, usually.”
With Frenkie, De Ligt and potentially Ziyech leaving, you will need to build a new team.
“Yes that is what might happen. We are prepared. But there will also be surprises, you can’t stop that. But Ziyech was expected to leave last summer and stayed, so who knows. He might not leave…”
Do you fear an exodus?
“I don’t fear it, but we need to plan for the worst. If you ask me, who do you fear for when he leaves, I have to say Tadic. What a season and what a tremendous yield we got from him. We have the commitment of Onana, Tagliafico and Mazraoui that they’ll stay. That is a good sign.”
How will you deal with the players who leave?
“Replacing Matthijs de Ligt is the biggest challenge. We have some options in mind. We signed Marin for Frenkie de Jong. But both De Ligt and De Jong are special and can’t just be replaced. This applies to Ziyech as well. Neres can play from the right but he’s a different type of player. Hakim is a real playmaker and we’ll probably need to go and find one if he leaves.. Or, can we find him in our youth system? We are mapping all of this now.”
Martin Odegaard was the ideal replacement for Ziyech?
“But even him, who is probably gone to Spain, he can’t just replace Ziyech. He too is different. We will see what happens and probably need some time to solve the new jigsaw.”
Quincy Promes is coming from Sevilla. That is a similar coup as signing Tadic and Blind.
“Yes, I think we are becoming more and more interesting also for big name players in his age category. Our image has gotten a boost and players will enjoy playing the sort of football we play.”
Your image got a boost too. The media are now lining up to smother you with compliments. What does this do to you.
“During the season, not so much. Simply no time for that. All energy and focus goes to the team and the process. I do enjoy successes, but briefly. It’s not who I am. I want to stay sharp. Some people start to believe in the stories about themselves and I try to remain realistic. In media, some people painted me as a loser, last season. This season, I saw in some media the word “legend”. I have to laugh about both. It’s ridiculous. I do monitor the messages in the media for the impact it can have on the team. Good or bad, it will reach me and the dressing room and then I need to manage it. Simple.”
Always: control control control…
“That is the job. I need to know what stimuli people get and need and what they’re influenced by. And where new people show up, new ideas are coming in too and people started to get scared. In Amsterdam, there is also the superiority. The “We are Ajax!” mantra. I see the benefits of this, don’t get me wrong, but I also see the danger. We introduced a modern approach and it worked. The performances on the pitch are crucial in this. Through the successes, people started to buy into it.”
How long will you be coach here?
“Who knows. I have the intention to stay, and to be honest: I haven’t thought about leaving at all. My contract is extended and I have no intention of leaving but you know how it is in football. I do have to stay critical about the circumstances in my job. The available funds, the vision and values, you name it.”
What is a realistic expectation for next season?
“We want to be part of the group stage in Europe. Even if it’s the Europa League. We all want to be playing Champions League football but it is not an automatic thing anymore. We are still a Dutch club. Domestically, we need to play for the title. Full stop. The resistance in Holland is not good enough. We are so much better than the rest, with PSV. And in that battle you can’t afford a single misstep. We want to build an attractive team, play offensive football and win matches. But playing for three prizes in May, that is unique and you can’t expect that to happen again, just like that.”