Manchester United’s newly appointed manager Erik ten Hag has risen to the top of the list of talented managers in Europe. Known for his impressive stint at Ajax, ten Hag led the Amsterdam-based club to three league titles, two cups, and a historic Champions League campaign, reaching the semi-finals in the 2018/19 season.
Despite these spectacular feats at Ajax, in this article, we are going to look into ten Hag’s previous job at FC Utrecht, and how he led the club from the bottom half of the Eredivisie to European football.
Utrecht’s Pre ten Hag Struggles
Utrecht is a mainstay in the top division of the Netherlands. They are the only club outside the Big Three (Ajax, PSV, and Feyenoord) to not have suffered relegation from the Eredivisie. Although the club has never won a league title, they have won the KNVB Cup three times in their history.
Between 2011-2015, Utrecht was very mediocre, with mid-table finishes, and an embarrassing Europa League qualifying tie defeat to Luxembourg side Differdange saw the club at one of its lowest points.
Severe financial struggles also meant the club’s professionalism had dropped. All of the factors led to many fans of the club falling out of love with the club.
The ten Hag Era
Ten Hag joined the club from Bayern Munich II with an aim to make Utrecht the “best of the rest” in the league.
Uniquely, ten Hag was not only the manager of the club but he was also given the role of technical manager. With a minuscule budget, low standards, and a club lacking a connection with the fans, ten Hag had his work cut out.
The Dutchman did not waste any time, instantly sorting out the club’s training ground by hiring the groundsmen from the local golf club. From then on, the club’s focus had switched.
Players had to train multiple times a day, with ten Hag analyzing each player’s movements, technique, and decision-making skills. Diets were tracked to make sure players were living a healthy lifestyle in order to achieve peak performance. Utrecht was finally taking the first steps into modernizing the football club, thanks to ten Hag.
Ten Hag’s tactics also raised interest. In the Netherlands if you do not play 4-3-3, you get looked at funny, rather than playing this formation, ten Hag went his own way.
Instead of having one particular formation, ten Hag preferred having basic rules that could be implemented no matter which tactic he opted to play. Ten Hag wanted his team to take advantage of half-spaces, and work the ball into the box rather than taking shots from distance and passing sideways.
Another tactical tweak implemented by ten Hag is that he would get his striker to defend from the front, cutting off passing lanes to trigger a press to win possession back. Ten Hag showed his tactical flexibility at Utrecht, being able to adapt depending on the opposition and the situation his team was in.
FC Utrecht’s Impressive Rise
With the players buying into ten Hag’s attention to detail and relentless work ethic, it looked like the side was heading in the right direction.
Ten Hag also brought in many new players, despite having a very limited transfer budget, a mixture of loan signings, and the promotion of youth academy players helped give the team a fresh look.
Players such as Sébastien Haller, Souyfan Amrabat, Urby Emanuelson, and Zakaria Labyad were signed during ten Hag’s time at the club. The variety of young, experienced, and good value for money players shows that if ten Hag is backed and given the players he wants, he can bring success to a club.
In ten Hag’s first full season with Utrecht, they finished fifth in the league and reached the KNVB Cup final, losing 2-1 to Feyenoord. The following year saw the club finish fourth and qualify for the play-offs for a spot in Europe next season.
Utrecht faced AZ Alkmaar in the European play-off final. After a 3-0 first-leg defeat, ten Hag and his men needed a miracle at home, and that is exactly what they got. An amazing 3-0 comeback victory meant that the game went to penalties, which Utrecht won meaning they had reached the Europa League qualifiers.
The Manchester United Comparison
Although Manchester United is quite obviously far bigger than Utrecht, ten Hag’s time at the Eredivisie has given him some valuable experience that he may very well end up using at Old Trafford.
With the Glazers famously known for being tight with cash, ten Hag may have to look out for hidden gems and cheap buys in order to improve a squad that many feel needs fully overhauled.
As the 2021/22 season finally closes its curtain, it’s been a performance to forget for the Red Devils, who have lacked quality, professionalism, trust, and a will to win. Ten Hag will be determined to return these qualities to the club, and I don’t think he would have joined if he did not believe he could.
The next few seasons at Old Trafford will be watched closely by all eyes. If ten Hag is backed by the United board and the players buy into his ideas, a red resurgence may return to Manchester.
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