Charlie Pritchard takes a look at Erik ten Hag and his search for perfection with Ajax. 

What will make Erik ten Hag happy? Particularly over the last month, the Ajax trainer has cut an increasingly frustrated figure. Ajax have not lost a match for two months, failing to win only in away draws to Bayern Munich and Benfica.

Although seeking perfection is a prerequisite for a manager of a top club like Ajax, is Ten Hag taking the shine off the club’s best continental achievement for over ten years? Ajax went to Athens on Tuesday night and beat AEK 2-0 to reach the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League for the first time since 2005.

However, Ten Hag appeared to have his mind elsewhere, looking further ahead to the next challenge, refusing to soak up the joy. Ten Hag deliberately remained in the background of the festivities in the Ajax dressing room in Athens. “I did not say anything afterwards in the locker room”, he admitted, as reported by Algemeen Dagbald.

Nonetheless, Ten Hag took to the press and not all of his comments were positive. “There are still things that can and must be better if you want to go further,” he said. Ten Hag focused in particular on Ajax’s final Group E match at home to Bayern on 12 December. “We will have to create more opportunities and also take the first chance immediately [against Bayern]. They remain the big favourite so that means we will have to do a lot better,” he concluded.

Of course, Ten Hag is absolutely right. Ajax have to play better than they did against AEK Athens to beat Bayern. Yet it is not the nature of his comments that is the point. He fixated on the team’s performance too heavily when perhaps he and his players had earnt themselves the right to celebrate on a hugely successful night for the club.

Those who follow Ajax know that they will have to perform exceptionally well to defeat Bayern in a couple of weeks. Finishing top of the group would be preferable for Ten Hag and would mark another fantastic achievement. Yet having already qualified for the last 16, Ajax have shown they have vastly improved from the team that was so crestfallen after crashing out of European competition altogether at the play-off stages 18 months ago.

In Athens, Kasper Dolberg became the latest in a line of players that Ten Hag wanted more from. “I do not know if he is not in shape. It is not that easy, but he has to be better,” Ten Hag said. “The team must better position him. When we work together, I think Kasper is an incredible talent.”

Of course, nobody in this current Ajax team are as good as Oranje golden boys Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt. However, it has appeared lately that Ten Hag maybe needs to enjoy his team a little bit more. Although his Ajax side trail Mark van Bommel’s PSV by five points in the Eredivisie, the gap is by no means unassailable.

Eyes will eagerly shift to Sunday’s ‘Topper’ as Feyenoord host PSV at De Kuip. By then, we will know if Ajax have beaten ADO Den Haag at home and whether Ten Hag is satisfied with his team.

This week, Ten Hag rebuked the idea that there are problems between him and his players. Perhaps most telling was his response to a claim from Veronica Inside that he fails to stand up for his players. “That’s not true,” Ten Hag replied. “The players get better every day. They are hungry and ambitious, we set high goals every day and it is a pleasure to see that.”

Dick Sintenie of Het Parool argues that Ten Hag is the perfect fit for Ajax and is merely trying to mould the club in his own way for their own progress. “Clarity. Discipline. Ten Hag has determined the frameworks, on the field and beyond,” Sintenie wrote this week. Sintenie did warn however that at Ajax, “there is an enemy behind every tree.” Ajax is a club of immense stature and perhaps the pressure to deliver silverware for the first time in nearly five years weighs heavily on Ten Hag.

Fred Rutten, who once appointed Ten Hag as his assistant at PSV, said: “Not only with regard of the game, but also off the field, Erik is thinking ‘What process is going on?’”. Therefore, Rutten admires Ten Hag’s passion and ambition, believing it stands him in good stead to succeed in the game. However, with such constant questioning whirring inside Ten Hag’s brain, is he too fixated on the negatives instead of the positives?

Perhaps Ten Hag is aware that the Big Three’s recent standards have slightly altered in the Eredivisie. During the Frank de Boer era between 2010 and 2016, Ajax won four consecutive league titles. However, in each triumphant season, Ajax failed to reach the 80 point mark. Since then, the points tallies of the last four title winners reads 88 (PSV, 14/15), 84 (PSV, 15/16), 82 (Feyenoord, 16/17) and 83 (PSV, 17/18).

The Eredivisie’s big boys have got better, but Ajax have not been the best. Ten Hag is demanding the best from his players. He knows it will take an outstanding season to topple PSV’s recent hold over the Eredivisie title, so he is bearing this in mind.

Fundamentally, the mood at Ajax contrasts distinctly with the mood of pervading at the Philips Stadion. Such a tough Champions League group for PSV featuring FC Barcelona, Inter Milan and Tottenham Hotspur added no weight of expectation upon PSV, and their stunning league form has papered over any disappointment in Europe. Mark van Bommel is enjoying his honeymoon period at the club and so far this league season, PSV have been outstanding

For Ten Hag, it is different. The Ajax coach has been in the business for a while and the obsession for his players to retain their focus for every match stems from the role that Ajax play as chasers, not leaders in the title race.

If Feyenoord win on Sunday, the complexion of the league table changes markedly. Providing Ajax beat ADO in the lunchtime kick-off, ‘De Topper’ will retain great significance.

In recent weeks we have seen Ten Hag at his most pedantic. However, the season is long and it might not take much of a blip in form from PSV to open up the title race. If PSV lose on Sunday and their momentum takes a hit, we could learn a great deal about Mark van Bommel as a coach. We have already learnt a lot about Erik Ten Hag as a coach this season and what can be said with certainty is that his Ajax players will be ready to capitalise on any PSV slip-up that surely awaits at some point around the corner.

Charlie Pritchard (9 Posts)