With the less than convincing “support” for manager Niko Kovac from the Bayern Munich brass in recent weeks, signs are beginning to point towards a managerial shake up in the Bavarian capital.
The candidate most consistently linked with the club has been Ajax manager Erik ten Hag. The Dutchman’s style of play, Bayern pedigree, and improbable Champions League run with one of Europe’s most youthful squads has brought the Dutchman international fame and no doubt piqued the interest of Hasan Salihamidzic and Karl Heinz-Rummenigge, if not Uli Hoeness who has consistently backed Kovac.
Although many (including this writer) think it would be unfair to sack Kovac after one campaign during a transitional year with little support in the transfer market, the Bayern hierarchy look more and more willing to sacrifice the Mia San Mia principles of the club in this case.
With that being said, there is no doubt that ten Hag has some characteristics that make him look like the perfect fit for a Bayern side looking to reassert themselves among Europe’s elite.
His recent dismissal of links to Bayern and Barcelona (via @FootballOranje) is not surprising considering the Dutch club is heading into the final match day of the Eredivisie campaign with a three-point lead over bitter rival, PSV Eindhoven.
Despite links with Bayern Munich and Barcelona, Erik ten Hag expects to stay on as Ajax head coach.— Dutch Football (@FootballOranje_) May 14, 2019
He said today, "I have a contract here and I enjoy it. We're working on the future, so I'm not thinking about that right now."
Even if he does not make the jump to a bigger club this summer, let’s take a look at why Bayern allegedly had some interest in the 49-year-old.
Following a strong first season as a first team manager with Go Ahead Eagles in the Dutch second division, in which his side earned promotion, ten Hag opted to make the move to Munich in 2013 to serve as the manager of Bayern II in the fourth tier of German football. Although most would consider this a demotion, he jumped at the opportunity to learn under then Bayern manager Pep Guardiola and sporting director Matthias Sammer.
Although he only spent two, very successful campaigns with the youth set up before moving on to FC Utrecht, his familiarity with the club is of paramount importance to the hierarchy in Munich. It would allow for a seamless transition and the implementation of a style of play beloved by the Die Roten faithful (more on that later).
As the Bavarian giants revamp the squad with young and promising talents such as Alphonso Davies, Lucas Hernandez, and Benjamin Pavard, the importance of developing a squad trending younger and younger cannot be overstated. Despite the potential and clear class of Joshua Kimmich, Kingsley Coman, Nicklas Sule, Leon Goretzka, and Serge Gnabry, the next season will be vital to their growth and the success of the team.
Erik ten Hag’s time with Bayern’s youth set up, although impactful, is not the only indication that he can develop young and talented players. Before making the move to Germany, the Dutch manager earned promotion with a Go Ahead Eagles side with an average age of 22.2 years old (via Daily Mail).
Not to mention his role in the development of Ajax prodigies Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, David Neres, and Donny van de Beek, among others. His trust in youth has paid off by instilling a confidence and a swagger in his team that has set Europe alight.
The ever-growing young core of Bayern Munich would be in good hands.
He learned from Pep Guardiola
Kicker recently characterized ten Hag as half-Guardiola and half-Sammer (via DW Sports), which he attributes to his time with Bayern II.
“Back then I saw almost every training (session), so a lot methodical things stuck with me,” ten Hag told the German newspaper [SZ].
His own tactical philosophy mirrors Guardiola’s in key ways, which he really honed in Munich.
Ten Hag’s reserve side mirrored what Guardiola was doing in the first division, even down to the 4-1-4-1 formation.
Although he no longer employs the 4-1-4-1 formation, his 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 hybrid matches that of Guardiola’s at Manchester City. He utilizes a possession-based style of play that relies on passing out of the back to break down the opponent.
A tactical analysis from Tifo Football explains his version of total football utilizes ball-playing defenders with a skilled and tactically astute defensive midfielder (Frenkie De Jong). In this approach, the two number 8s, or the number 8 and the number 10 are granted freedom to join the wingers in the attack, with full backs overlapping along the touch line. They count on passing triangles to create mismatches in the final third.
There is a certain pragmatism to Ajax’s build up play. De Jong consistently drops alongside the center backs when faced with an aggressive press, with the other midfielders willing to drop to find open passing lanes and break the opposition lines. This does rely heavily on the skill of De Jong to carry the ball forward, which Thiago Alcantara is more than capable of doing.
This pragmatism in the build up also extends to a more structured defense. Although ten Hag loves to send his full backs forward, but is cognizant of the acres of space that can be left behind (cough Joshua Kimmich cough). Frenkie de Jong is instructed to tuck in behind passing triangles involving the full back and winger in order to provide cover in addition to numerical superiority in the attack.
His sides employ a reasonable counter-press and a high line of confrontation to cut passing lanes and force turnovers and easily defended long balls over the top. His tactical philosophy embraces the Van Gaal principles of possession that have been updated for the modern game. The clear identity of his squad has terrorized European giants and the Eredivisie alike.
The philosophy can be risky and is similar to Guardiola’s, but he’s not Pep Guardiola.
He’s not Pep Guardiola
The Dutch tactician is supremely confident much like Guardiola, but his approach to tinkering with his squad is quite different. Rather than scrapping his game plan, or shifting formations to account for the opposition, ten Hag utilizes small changes (ie Build-up play, counter-pressing) within his same familiar system to adjust for more skilled opponents. His teams have not shied away from the likes of Juventus, Real Madrid, Tottenham Hotspur, and yes, even Bayern Munich. He chooses to take the game to his opposition with a well-drilled, albeit less talented squad.
Ajax’s improbable Champions League run is indicative of this fearlessness and runs counter to Pep’s recent record in the UCL. If Bayern Munich decide to move on from Kovac, ten Hag could have them primed to return to European glory with a youthful squad employing the newest version of total football.
When he decides that he is ready to move to a bigger club, would Erik ten Hag too good to pass up?