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The Legacy of Erik ten Hag

Posted: May 13, 2022

And so it's official; Welcome to Manchester United, Erik ten Hag. The procession of managers continues in the post-Ferguson era, as Manchester United attempt to return to the days of glory past. When Sir Alex Ferguson left in 2013, he told the fans to back the new manager, who, incidentally, was his own pick. David Moyes was plucked from Everton and installed into the hottest seat in the Premier League. There was excitement and trepidation in equal parts for the new era. But surely, winning mentalities don't evaporate overnight?

Nearly nine years later, only two major trophies have arrived on the red side of Manchester. Meanwhile, their city rivals have established dominance over the league. There's a long road to travel for United to return to the top again. And Erik ten Hag is the latest shepherd tasked with guiding the herd.

Endless Procession of Manchester United Managers

Erik ten Hag is Manchester United's ninth managerial appointment since Sir Alex Ferguson's departure. He is set to be the fifth permanent manager of the 20-time English top flight champions. He follows in the footsteps of David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Moyes, for years, kept Everton near the top, overachieving. Thus, for Ferguson, he represented a good choice. However, United's immediate underachievement under his management turned the fans against him. The previous season, United won the Premier League title with almost the same squad. Yet, they unraveled under Moyes' management.

Maybe the players were punching above their weight under Ferguson. Maybe the change to Moyes' style of management was too drastic for them. He lasted less than a year. And United finished the season in seventh place. After Ryan Giggs' short stint as caretaker, Louis van Gaal took over.

The Dutchman arrived from the national side, whom he had taken to a penalty shootout away from the 2014 World Cup final. And an eventual third-place finish. Under Van Gaal, United finished fourth in 2014/15 and fifth in 2015/16. The second season also brought FA Cup glory, but it wasn't enough to save the manager's job.

In came Jose Mourinho for another crack at the Premier league. A sixth place finish in 2016/17 was allayed by Europa League and EFL Cup trophies. The following season, United were the second best side in the league, finishing a distant second in the league. Mourinho's third season syndrome saw his downfall. And in came Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as interim manager. The former Molde and Cardiff manager saw enough of an upturn to earn a permanent contract. Under his stewardship, United finished third and second in the league. However, that is as much due to opponents' weaknesses than as a result of their own doings. Eventually, a 5-0 thrashing at Liverpool brought an end to Solskjaer's time at the club. Following the Norwegian's departure, Ralf Rangnick joined as interim manager plus long-term consultant.

And so, it is now the turn of Erik ten Hag.

The legacy at Ajax

As a player, ten Hag was a decent centre-back. He never played for his country, but carved out a career in the Eredivisie, notably for Twente. He was appointed as manager of the Eerste Divisie side Go Ahead Eagles by then shareholder Marc Overmars. Ten Hag would later join as the manager of Bayern Munich II, where he spent two years.

In 2015, he returned to the Netherlands to take charge of FC Utrecht. He led to Europa League qualification.

His biggest achievements, however, have been at Ajax. He reunited with Overmars in Amsterdam, where he made use of the club's incredible academy. Under his guidance, Ajax have produced a number of top academy graduates who have gone to play for top clubs and their countries as well. He transformed young players with potential into quality internationals excelling for Europe's best clubs. This includes the centre-back Matthijs de Ligt, midfielder Donny van de Beek, goalkeeper Andre Onana, right-back Noussair Mazraoui, Edson Alvarez and Lisandro Martinez.

Young players who have come up during his tenure include Sergino Dest, Ryan Gravenberch, Jurrien Timber, Mohammed Kudus, Brian Brobbey and Devyne Rensch. He has also helped to revive and improve more experienced players. These include Hakim Ziyech, Nicolas Tagliafico, Dusan Tadic, Quincy Promes, Lasse Schone, Steven Berghuis and Sebastien Haller.

The Magical 2018/19

If a manager is remembered for only one season, it would be 2018/19 for Erik ten Hag. The previous season, PSV had pipped them to the league title. And the four-time European Cup winners had fallen in the Champions League qualifying stages. Ten Hag built a dynamic young squad. And he almost took Ajax to the pinnacle of European football.

Ajax were placed with Bayern Munich in their Champions League group, and the Dutch giants came through that group unbeaten. Their two games against the serial German champions finished 3-3 and 1-1. They were impressive. But the expectation was that their pairing against Real Madrid would be the end of their European run.

The 13-time winners' 2-1 victory in the first leg in Amsterdam further solidified that feeling. Ajax, though, had other ideas. They roared back with a 4-1 win at the Santiago Bernabeu. It was a performance for the ages. And everyone sat up to take notice of Erik ten Hag's team. Not many teams go to the Bernabeu and win. But Ajax's early salvo did Real in. Ziyech, David Neres and Dusan Tadic put Ajax in control. Marco Asesnio's reply created some tension. But a Lasse Schone strike eased nerves.

Real Madrid was done; now, another European champion stood in their way. Juventus, strengthened with the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo, were formidable opponents. A 1-1 draw ensued in Amsterdam. And then encore happened. Ajax won the away leg.

Strikes from Donny van de Beek and the young captain Matthijs de Ligt cancelled out Ronaldo's early goal. One could sense the possibilities of something incredible. Tottenham Hotspur were seen as overcome-able opponents. Like the last two rounds, Ajax again won the away leg 1-0. At half-time in Amsterdam a 3-0 aggregate lead seemed comfortable.

It always did feel like only something incredibly special could stop Ajax in their tracks. And that's what Lucas Moura brought to the pitch. An incredible second-half hat-trick from the Brazilian gave Tottenham a 3-2 win. Tottenham progressed to the final via away goals.

Manchester United's academy legacy

Ajax enthralled viewers in 2019, and 2018/19 remains one of the most memorable Champions League campaigns in recent memory. They produced a few more memorable performances in the Champions League. The madcap 4-4 draw with Chelsea in the 2019/20 group stages. But that 2018/19 season was a cut above. And that is ten Hag's biggest audition for the next job.

A youthful Ajax side had reached the 2016/17 Europa League final. Therein a much more experienced Manchester United side prevailed. Importantly, though, Ten Hag's record of bringing through youth is an important aspect to consider when it comes to the United job. The 13-time Premier League winners have a commendable record of academy graduates coming to the first team. For decades now, United have had at least one academy graduate in their matchday squad.

Their famous Class of '92 is well-known. It is a story of six young Manchester United players who went from winning the 1992 FA Youth Cup. Since, they played crucial roles in their 1999 Champions League win. David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes. All six went on to have long, trophy-laden careers at the club. Meanwhile, many other academy graduates have gone on to excel for the first team. John O'Shea, Wes Brown, Darren Fletcher, Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck - they all made their debuts and made over 100 appearances for the club. Their supply line hasn't stopped in recent years. Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay and many more.

Youth Integration

Many talented young players are coming through every year. Ralf Rangnick has integrated Anthony Elanga into the first-team. And the Sweden international is now a regular fixture in the first-team. Hannibal Mejbri, Shola Shoretire, Brandon Williams, James Garner and Teden Mengi are in and around the first-team. Will Fish, Joe Hugill, Charlie McNeill, Zidane Iqbal and many more are in the pipeline.

At Ajax, Ten Hag has done an excellent job in this regard. In their 2018/19 season, he used Donny van de Beek, Matthijs de Ligt, Andre Onana, Frenkie de Jong, Noussair Mazraoui and Kasper Dolberg in prominent roles. Others who came through include Carel Eiting, Dani de Wit, Daley Sinkgraven, Jurgen Ekkelenkamp, Perr Schuurs, Mitchell Bakker and Ryan Gravenberch.

Moreover, his contributions to the Ajax first-team have also immensely helped the Netherlands' national side. The Dutch were in need of a reset after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Ten Hag has provided them with a young but experienced spine. Led by Virgil van Dijk and veterans like Daley Blind, Netherlands are in good shape now.

He promoted youth players, improved them and integrated into squads. The squad also has older heads like Schone, Veltman, Blind, Ziyech, Haller and Pasveer. Resultantly, the integration won trophies. Ajax have won two league titles already under ten Hag and recently added a third. That provided him with a stellar reputation. And he should have ample opportunities to continue that legacy of his on the red half of Manchester.