Erik Ten Hag has his admirers, and with good reason. His Ajax team have caught everyone's eye in this season’s Champions League, with many even tipping the Dutch champions to make a deep run in the competition just as they did three seasons ago.
That Ajax side came within a late Lucas Moura goal of a place in the 2019 final. If anything, Ten Hag’s current team look even stronger than his 2018/19 iteration. Ajax have a good combination of youth and experience and play a dynamic brand of soccer that gives them the ability to control matches, but not at the cost of quick, incisive play in the attacking third. Ajax might just be the perfect modern soccer team.
It’s therefore unsurprising that Ten Hag has been linked with a number of clubs, most notably in the Premier League. It seems inevitable that at some point the 51-year-old will take on another challenge, and when Ten Hag makes that decision he won’t be short of options. But which club would suit him best?
Newcastle United’s interest appears to be strongest, with the Saudi Arabia-backed club reportedly willing to make Ten Hag one of the highest-paid coaches in the Premier League. The Dutchman would also have a big transfer budget available to him to shape his squad in the way he pleases.
However, Ten Hag would surely have concerns over the structure of the St James’ Park club. At Ajax, the 51-year-old has Marc Overmars above him as a sporting director. The former Arsenal midfielder leads scouting and recruitment, and then there’s Edwin van der Sar as chief executive as well. Ten Hag is just one part of a bigger mechanism.
At Newcastle United, Ten Hag wouldn’t have that support system. There is no sporting director in place at St James’ Park. Everything, from the coaching of the first team to the scouting and recruitment of new players, would be down to Ten Hag. This would give him freedom, but could also cripple him with too much responsibility.
Manchester United have also been linked with Ten Hag as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fights for his future at the club. The Old Trafford outfit boast one of the strongest squads in the Premier League at this moment in time. Surely the 51-year-old would stand a chance of challenging for some of the biggest honours in the game as United boss.
Tactically, Ten Hag would be a good fit for the Red Devils. His 4-2-3-1 shape is similar to the one used by Solskjaer, but Ten Hag has a firmer grasp of how to coordinate a high press. Manchester United would be a tougher team to play against with the Dutchman in charge. Plus, Donny van de Beek would be reunited with the coach he thrived under at Ajax.
And yet many of the structural issues Ten Hag would experience at Newcastle United would also be a factor at Manchester United. While the Old Trafford outfit have recently appointed John Murtagh as football director and Darren Fletcher as technical director, it’s unclear just how much freedom both men have to lead the football operations of the club.
Tottenham Hotspur, with a sporting structure that includes highly-rated former Juventus sporting director Fabio Paratici, might have been a good destination for Ten Hag, but the North London club have now opted for Antonio Conte following the dismissal of Nuno Espirito Santo after just four months in the job.
Manchester City might be the perfect place for Ten Hag to take his first Premier League job, with the Dutchman’s view of the game similar to that of Pep Guardiola’s, but the Catalan is unlikely to leave the Etihad Stadium before the summer of 2023. That would be a long time to wait.
Looking outside the Premier League, Barcelona share many of the same soccer principles as Ajax, Johan Cruyff being the common denominator, and so Ten Hag could be the ideal head coach to forge the Camp Nou club’s next great team. There would certainly be plenty of young talent for the 51-year-old to work with.
Barca, however, currently lack the financial clout to release Ten Hag from his Ajax contract and seem intent on instead luring former midfielder Xavi Hernandez back to the club as manager. If Ten Hag is to one day take over at the Camp Nou, it’s unlikely it will be in the immediate term.
Of course, it’s entirely possible Ten Hag is content where he is. Ajax boast one of the most exciting teams in the European game. There is still plenty for their manager to achieve before he bids farewell. But if Ten Hag is already plotting his next move, he certainly has a lot to weigh up.