Ajax v Tottenham: Guardiola, Cruyffianism and the making of Erik ten Hag
- Linked with Bayern, Erik ten Hag is suddenly among Europe's hottest coaches. But how has he masterminded Ajax's Champions League campaign?
He is friends with Pep Guardiola, he shares the Manchester City manager's purist vision of how football should be played, and Erik ten Hag is on the brink of leading Ajax to the Champions League final.
Ajax have upset the odds repeatedly this season but there is now little doubt Ten Hag's men are the real deal, last week's 1-0 first leg win away to Tottenham their fourth consecutive victory on the road in the Champions League.
Real Madrid perished to the Dutch giants in the round of 16 and Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus did not learn lessons from the three-time defending champions being chastened, crashing out in a thrilling quarter-final in front of their own fans despite being among the tournament favourites.
Ajax are now just two games away from winning the tournament for the first time since 1995, a triumph that would surely be the most impressive of the Champions League era given the comparative riches of the teams with whom they are competing for honours in the modern age.
Ten Hag - who has been linked with a return to Bayern Munich - missed out on the chance to face old mentor Guardiola when City lost to Spurs in the last round, with the Catalan wishing he could have had a reunion with his former colleague.
"I was lucky to meet him at Bayern and he was an assistant from the second team. We had a lot of chats," Guardiola said. "I'm delighted where he is, a historical club. It would have been a pleasure to play him."
Ten Hag's coaching journey did not start in Bavaria, though.
After an undistinguished career - he played for clubs including De Graafschap and Utrecht alongside three spells with Twente, where he became a youth team coach - he was appointed by Go Ahead Eagles in 2012, having further cut his teeth as assistant coach at PSV.
Crucially, Ten Hag was brought in by Marc Overmars - now director of football at Ajax - spending a single season at Go Ahead Eagles before taking charge at Bayern Munich II, where he joined Guardiola.
It was there Ten Hag solidified his coaching philosophy, which he was able to put into place when he returned as head coach of Utrecht in 2015. He led them to Europa League qualification. "Guardiola is an innovator and an inspiration," Ten Hag said before Ajax beat Madrid.
Ten Hag's work at Utrecht was impressive enough that Ajax came calling after sacking Marcel Keizer just before Christmas in 2017. Few would have predicted that 18 months later he would be closing in on a Champions League final.
His side have benefited from the Dutch Football Association (KNVB) moving fixtures to give Ajax as much rest as possible before European games, but it is clear he has not wasted the bonus time. Ten Hag has also rightly pointed out any advantage is negated by the gigantic budgets the clubs they have played in the knockout rounds enjoy.
Ajax have seemed to be playing a different sport entirely to their opponents at times, with Spurs run totally ragged by their movement and poise on the ball in the first leg's opening half-hour. Nobody has handled Dusan Tadic's fresh take on the false nine, while first leg goalscorer Donny van de Beek has played a masterful midfield hand that probably needs a new term making up to describe it fully.
It is not just the bald head, tidy beard and stylish touchline garb Ten Hag shares with Guardiola. Both men subscribe to a Cruyffian philosophy that having a defined style, or "the process" to borrow the City boss' terminology, is more important than winning. It would, therefore, be apt were Ajax to face Barcelona in the final.
Frenkie de Jong - and possibly also Ajax's superbly poised teenage captain Matthijs de Ligt - will be lining up for the Catalans next season, but first they have the chance to make history with Ajax.
They finished in second, four points behind PSV, in the Eredivisie last term, but after Sunday's comfortable KNVB Beker final victory over Willem II the Amsterdammers, who with two games to go are level on points with the defending champions, are closing in on a potential treble.
Ajax's brilliant young side, bolstered by last year's decision to invest in the experienced pair of Tadic and Daley Blind from the Premier League, will almost certainly be broken up at the end of the season.
Van de Beek, De Ligt and others are heavily tipped to follow De Jong out of the club. It is within this sapping reality of inevitability, an increasingly draining aspect of elite European football, that Ten Hag has achieved something great.