Erik ten Hag requested patience when he was announced as Manchester United manager, insisting his full focus was on finishing the season with Ajax before he entertained any questions about his imminent career change.
After winning the Eredivisie title with the Amsterdam club on Wednesday night, he can no longer swat away such questions, with an away match at Vitesse the setting for his final day in the Ajax hot -seat this weekend.
Ten Hag will want to use Sunday’s match to reflect on how far his side has come under his tenure, but for many it will represent one of the first steps on his United journey.
The 52-year-old celebrated his third Dutch top-flight title in midweek, an impressive achievement, particularly when you consider Ajax had not won the league title in five years before he returned them to the top of the domestic game.
“We brought a certain culture in this club. A winners’ mentality,” Ten Hag told reporters on Wednesday night when asked to reflect on his transformation of Ajax.
“Of course this sort of improvement take longer most times to achieve. The management of this great club were positive enough to let us build what we’re enjoying right now. So it’s really something I’ll always cherish. My time here, with this great team and most especially, wonderful individuals.” He added.
There is no manager in world football who wouldn’t want to implement a winning mentality as part of their blueprint, but Ten Hag’s rhetoric is excused given he has actually managed to do just that in the Dutch capital.
The ultimate challenge for United’s new manager will be to replicate such a transformation at Old Trafford, and doing so is far easier said than done.
In basic terms, winning games breeds confidence, which in turn builds momentum and belief. Having a star-studded side counts for little if your opponents have greater self-belief and are all fighting harder for the same shared goal.
United have already experienced such uplifts in form before, most notably when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed as caretaker manager, but to turn such runs into regular occurrences, they need to be perfectly met with other changes behind the scenes as well.
At Ajax, Ten Hag achieved this not only by restoring confidence with his motivational approach, but he ensured his side overhauled their fitness regime to be able to better cope with the gruelling schedule.
The Dutchman also looked at ways in which he could revolutionise the club’s loyalty to the 4-3-3 formation, paying tribute to Johan Cruyff’s famed approach but modernising it with a greater emphasis on individual roles and adaptability based on who their opposition were.
“Johan Cruyff’s philosophy and spirit still flows around in this club,” Daley Blind said of Ten Hag’s tactical approach in 2019, which focuses on keeping possession, compact defending and intense individual training so that players understand their roles.
With reports suggesting Ten Hag has already requested his new United squad return early for pre-season training because he is unimpressed with their fitness levels, it certainly indicates that he is well aware of the deep-rooted issues that continue to plague the club.
If he’s to imprint his desired culture on the club over time, he will need to do far more than just win matches from the get-go and be given plenty of time to implement a clear shift in strategy.
Whether he actually gets that time is another matter entirely, though.