NETHERLANDS — Boudewijn Pahlplatz retrieves the red ring-binder from the tote bag next to him and places it on the table. He has had to search for it, finding it hidden away and gathering dust in a cabinet in his loft.
It’s a relic representing a different era, but he believes it gives a telling glimpse into the mind of Erik ten Hag, his former FC Twente captain and later boss in the club’s academy. He says it shows how painstakingly detailed the Dutchman is and why he just might be the manager to return Manchester United to its former glory.
The “manuscript”, as Pahlplatz calls it, is a good few inches thick and weighty to hold. It was a collaborative effort but Ten Hag played an important role in the two years of research and writing.
Full of charts, graphs, tables and tactics, it was the blueprint not only for how FC Twente would develop players for the first team but a bible for the club to follow including sections on scouting, medicine, accommodation, schooling, facilities, finances and PR.
Ten Hag was, Pahlplatz says, particularly involved in the page upon page of technical and tactical instructions. As he thumbs through them over a coffee in De Lutte, a village not far from FC Twente’s training ground where it all began for Ten Hag both as a player and a coach, he explains that the club had always played 3-4-3 since they were formed in 1965.
Pahlplatz finds a page that shows numbers in formation with bullet points for each position, then translates the instruction for the “6 & 8” – the “outside midfielders”.
“Keep the field wide. Make triangles, six and eight with the four and the two but also the 10 and the seven and the six and the four. Don’t run too much with the ball. Don’t lose the ball by square passes. You can overlap the seven or the 11. And use the cross passes, the eight to the seven and the six to the 11.
If it sounds basic now, it’s worth remembering that England didn’t start applying a similar joined-up approach to its youth teams until after St George’s Park opened in 2012. In 2002, Ten Hag had just ended his playing career and was coaching FC Twente’s Under 17s. A copy was handed to every staff member including Pahlplatz, who coached the younger sides. A few years later Ten Hag became head of the academy and had it digitised, placed on their internal systems so it could be constantly updated and improved.
It’s ironic, really, that when a young coach with ideas ahead of his time became Ajax manager 15 years later it took so long to convince people in Amsterdam that he wasn’t some country bumpkin from the country’s east. Ten Hag had to fight so hard to disprove misconceptions that he should not be managing the country’s leading football club but working as a farmer back home.
“He was an intelligent coach with his own ideas of playing football and developing players,” Pahlplatz says. “But the first half year at Ajax Erik struggled a lot. The results were not there. He made some decisions that he was killed for. Because he came to Ajax in the January he had a half year and it did not go well.
“He had to convince people he was a good coach. To the media from the west of Holland when you come from the east everybody is doubting you. In the west they look down on the east because the east are the farmers and in the west it’s more the elite.
“The attitude here in the east is being down-to-earth and hard working. Still after his first year going to the semi-final of the Champions League there was doubt from the media in the rest of Holland.”
People from Twente, where Ten Hag grew up and had spent most of his life, are known as “Tukkers”. In Maarten Meijer’s Ten Hag biography he writes that “Tukkers have their own vernacular” which “is so different that most Dutchmen struggle to understand it”.
“They were making fun of that in the media,” Pahlplatz says. One publication described him as sounding like “a farmer from the sticks”. “But I think he turned that all around,” Pahlplatz adds. “When he left Ajax last summer everybody loved him.”
The strange thing is, travel to the places Ten Hag lived and worked and speak to those who have worked under and alongside him and that perception could not be further from the truth. He is considered an innovator, a meticulous planner with an extraordinary attention to detail.
At Go Ahead Eagles, who were in the Dutch second tier when Ten Hag arrived for his first managerial role in 2012, drinks had to be lined up precisely and in a certain way. He would take the players for regular runs in the nearby woods impressing upon them that if he told them to sprint for two minutes he excepted them to run for two minutes, not two minutes and 10 seconds or one minute and 50 seconds. The players found it bemusing, but did as they were told. They won the title in his only season there.
It was a surprise that he left Go Ahead Eagles when a vacancy became available to manage Bayern Munich II, the Bundesliga giant’s reserve team. But Ten Hag spotted an opportunity. He thought they had the best set-up in the world and wanted to experience it. And Pep Guardiola was manager of the first team.
In his early 20s Patrick Weihrauch was one of the key players when Ten Hag coached Bayern Munich II to the Regionalliga Bayern. “He was often seen watching Guardiola’s training with the first team,” Weihrauch tells me. “The two talked a lot. As a player, you could clearly see how much Ten Hag thought of him and that he wanted to learn a lot from him. They’re very similar type-wise.”
Weihrauch recalls an incisive coaching style, tactically-focussed training, an intensity that never let up. “He was so demanding, you always had to be very concentrated and focused. I pushed myself to the limit in every training session.
“I always describe him as ‘a typical Dutchman’. Ten Hag placed a lot of value on discipline. Accurate and correct behaviour on and off the pitch was enormously important to him. For example, the outfits had to be correct at all times, otherwise there could be trouble. Back then, he already had a very controlling personality and could also get loud and make clear instructions.”
Everywhere Ten Hag has gone he has strained to make the club better in every area, that FC Twente blueprint engraved in his subconscious. Even before he was the man in charge.
When Steve McClaren arrived at FC Twente as manager in 2008 he asked his new assistant, Ten Hag, if he had any ideas for the next couple of days’ training. Ten Hag produced pages of documents detailing the following six weeks, including the timing of drinks breaks and what staff would wear each day. It was the most astonishing planning McClaren had seen, and he had worked as assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson.
‘Erik can escape, he can be himself here’
Rob Luiten is stacking boxes next to his fruit and veg stall, which has serviced the people of Oldenzaal for three decades. Oldenzaal, seven miles from Enschede where FC Twente are based, is where Ten Hag comes to escape the madness of Manchester. It’s where he gets away from the relentlessness of managing one of the world’s biggest football clubs and the pressure of their rivals across town winning almost everything. It’s where Ten Hag calls home. A stroll around the quiet cobbled streets, where you have to watch out for the bikes but will barely be troubled by a car, shows why.
“They call it the smile of Twente,” Luiten, 47, says. “It’s a nice place, not very busy.” He points towards the centre where bars and restaurants offer tables that spill into the picturesque square. “The terraces in the weekends get packed but people in this neighbourhood are down-to-earth, ‘normal’, they don’t freak out when they see a famous person. Erik can escape, he can be himself here.”
Ten Hag, who raised his three children here, is only able to return in the short breaks from football but locals often spot him having a coffee or a drink with family and friends. He is largely left alone, although always obliges a selfie.
Other than knowing he lives there, they are reticent to speak about him. It’s probably what Ten Hag likes about the place. However, one local shows me where he lives.
It’s not what you would expect of a Manchester United manager, or most Premier League managers come to that. Large but by no means a mansion. There isn’t a Range Rover in sight. It’s a short stroll from a smoothie bar, a cheese shop, a jewellery shop with a life-sized golden pig outside.
There’s something satisfyingly different about Ten Hag. “He’s just a nice, normal guy,” the local says, then rubs his thumbs and forefingers together. “You know he comes from money?”
Ten Hag’s affluent background is frequently referenced. In Twente the Ten Hag family run one of the region’s most successful real estate and investment businesses, set up by his father, Hennie, and now run by his brothers, Michel and Rico.
The family HQ is in Enschede, a 15-minute drive from FC Twente’s De Grolsch Veste stadium. The building is very Ten Hag: its seven stories not the tallest; its neat red brick facade not the flashiest compared to the curved glass front of the next-door hospital; its white “ten Hag” sign not the brashest especially next to the fancy logo of the Holland Casino adjacent. It sits there firmly but proudly, not imposing on the skyline but certainly letting you know it’s there.
It’s like the Erik ten Hag of today: understated, reserved, serious. Yet he wasn’t always that way. Old school friends recall a cockier, louder boy who loved an argument and always had to be right.
He was obsessed with tactics, even as child when he watched games on TV with friends he would discuss formations and styles none of them cared much about. At SV Bon Boys, the amateur club in his childhood hometown of Haaksbergen where they have named a lounge after him, a mural of him is in the bar and an annual youth tournament is held in his name, he could irritate coaches with his incessant questions about sessions. Why were they doing this? What was the purpose of that? Should they not try something else?
At FC Twente his argumentativeness as a teenager once earned him a three-game suspension from a coach. Simon Kistemaker, his manager at De Graafschap, once said that “a slab of concrete is more flexible” than Ten Hag.
Pahlplatz was in the FC Twente youth team with him before Ten Hag became his captain in the first team.
“He was a player who was not spectacular but he knew what was asked of his position and always did his job,” Pahlplatz says. “He was reliable. That’s what I think took him far in professional football in Holland. He was always captain of the team and he was always the right hand of the coach in the field.
“In the beginning when he started playing in the first team that was not always accepted by all the players. He was not the best player and he was a young player, so sometimes players don’t listen. Who is he? What’s he telling us?
“Then later on when I came back in 2000 he was a more experienced player, captain of the team, also players start listening to him.
“He was really involved in tactics. Talking with the coach about how to play against an opponent. And he always knew best! When you had a discussion he always wanted to win the discussion.”
Maybe possessing that stubborn single-mindedness, a propensity for tactics and a secret blueprint for success was the only way a country bumpkin who talked strangely would go on to fill one of the most sought-after jobs in football.