Around the same time that Erik ten Hag launched his unremarkable playing career in the Eredivisie, Johan Cruyff left Ajax to coach Barcelona. In three years as manager at the club where he had helped to usher in the era of Total Football as a player, Cruyff failed to add to Ajax’s 22 titles but twice won the KNVB Cup and, in 1987, the European Cup Winners’ Cup with a team featuring future superstars Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp.
Often credited with laying the groundwork for the Ajax side which went on to win the Champions League under Louis van Gaal in 1995, Cruyff won it himself with Barca along with four consecutive La Liga titles. Already a global phenomenon and (counter-)cultural icon in the Netherlands – long hair now cropped back but cigarette still clamped in mouth, until he traded them in for lollipops – he was elevated to the halls of myth and deity as one of those rare few who evolve into genius managers having already been genius footballers.
This was the background to which Ten Hag spent his formative years, with Cruyffmania at dizzying heights. It should come as no surprise that, now Ajax manager himself, Ten Hag is attempting to follow the Cruyffian blueprint for success. Many Ajax managers have tried to walk in Cruyff’s footsteps, however, and many have failed. Ten Hag, despite not having a major honour to his name as a manager, has already been credited with reworking the tenets of Cruyff’s philosophy and making them his own.
If there is a thread leading directly from Cruyff to Ten Hag, then it is tied in with Cruyff’s most famous student and advocate. Pep Guardiola – who, after his mentor’s death from lung cancer in 2016, said: “I knew nothing about football until I met Cruyff” – was manager of Bayern Munich when Ten Hag was put in charge of the reserves in 2013. Though they operated independently of each other, they worked together at Bayern for two years.
Speaking about Ten Hag in light of Ajax reaching the Champions League semi-finals, where they will face Tottenham, Guardiola admitted they “had lots of chats” during their time in Bavaria and said: “I was lucky to meet him at Bayern… I’m delighted where he is, a historical club.”
Ten Hag, for his part, has made no secret of his admiration for Guardiola. Asked about their time together ahead of Ajax’s shock win against Real Madrid in the last 16, Ten Hag said: “Guardiola’s philosophy is sensational and he has demonstrated this at Barcelona, Bayern and City. His structured attacking play is very attractive and I aim to implement this at Ajax.”
Though City and Ajax operate on very different budgets, the fact that Ten Hag’s side have gone further in the Champions League says everything about his success in implementing the attractive, attacking football with which he credits his former colleague. “Guardiola is an innovator and inspiration,” Ten Hag said before the Real Madrid tie, adding that the desire to “win by playing well” was a shared ideal. That should serve as affirmation that, when it comes to their original inspiration, it’s hard to overestimate Cruyff’s importance.
There is often said to be a fundamental dichotomy at Ajax between those who revere Cruyff, pictured, above all and those who lionise Van Gaal for his Champions League triumph .
As Dutch football journalist and Ajax fan Elko Born once wrote in The Blizzard, many see Cruyff as representing the romantic tendency at Ajax while Van Gaal is the father of the club’s pragmatic school of thought. Cruyff once said of his arch nemesis: “Van Gaal has a good vision on football. But it’s not mine. He wants to gel winning teams and has a militaristic way of working with his tactics. I don’t. I want individuals to think for themselves.”
When it comes to Ten Hag’s favoured style of play, the Cruyffian influence is unavoidable. There is a reason that his approach has been dubbed “Total Football 2.0”. His full-backs, usually Nicolas Tagliafico and Joel Veltman, push high and double up as auxiliary attackers, while wingers David Neres and Hakim Ziyech are equally capable of roaming in-field dangerously. Dusan Tadic, revitalised after leaving Southampton last summer, has thrived across Ajax’s front three in something of a free role.
Then there is Ten Hag’s focus on controlled possession, one of the central pillars of Cruyff’s philosophy as a manager. With Frenkie De Jong as their passing metronome and Donny van de Beek as their creative hub in the midfield, Ajax have averaged more than 58 per cent possession and an 84 per cent pass completion rate this term.
On top of all that, Ajax are a team with genuine individuality and flair throughout. Far from the formalism and militarism which Cruyff held in such contempt, Ten Hag’s players seem more than capable of self-expression.
Ten Hag has the KNVB Cup final next Sunday, two more league fixtures and, at most, three more games in Europe to make himself a legend in Amsterdam. Were he looking for a few words of inspiration for his players ahead of their visit to London this week, he could do worse than to echo Cruyff once more. Ahead of their 1992 European Cup final against Sampdoria at Wembley, Cruyff’s final words to his Barcelona players were: “Go out and enjoy it.” Ajax are certainly enjoying themselves at the moment, playing football which surely would have pleased even the most demanding Ajax supporter of all.