Erik ten Hag at FC Utrecht: an elite coach in the making

With Erik ten Hag set to be appointed the next Manchester United manager, I thought it would be a good idea to look at Ten Hag’s experience in the Eredivisie. Now, everyone has looked at his Ajax tenure – rightly so. But, I wanted to focus on his period at FC Utrecht which shaped him into an elite manager.

In this article, I will look at three different aspects of what he achieved and changed while at FC Utrecht:

  1. Professionalism
  2. Transfers
  3. Tactics
  4. Final thoughts

Before I get into that I wanted to say that the data in this article are from Wyscout. Furthermore, it’s important to stress that FC Utrecht isn’t a small club in the Netherlands. They have won the Dutch Cup three times as well as the Supercup once. Their ambition is to consistently qualify for the European play-offs in the Eredivisie as well as pose a threat to the big 4 (Ajax, AZ, Feyenoord, PSV).

Ten Hag has moved into the top, step by step. His managerial career started at Go Ahead Eagles where he achieved promotion to the Eredivisie. After that, he went to Bavaria and coached Bayern München II, before he returned to the Netherlands and coached FC Utrecht. His experience in Germany and his ambition made sure FC Utrecht started to develop on and off the pitch.

Professionalism

It’s a bit extreme to call FC Utrecht a sleeping giant, but there is a massive potential to get good results in the league. This doesn’t only depend on what happens on the pitch, but you need to create the right context and environment for professional athletes to thrive. So how did Ten Hag do that at FC Utrecht?

First of all, he changed the training quantity. The first team was required to train more than once per day and the intensity would be higher in the training sessions. With that notion, the club also would track what the players were eating as Ten Hag firmly believes that every aspect of professional life should be of high quality. This also translates into the analysis department of the club. It was instrumental for his way of preparing that he could see event data translated into analysis, so he could track the players’ movements, decision making and on-ball activity.

In addition to this, there also was the matter of the training grounds – especially the pitches. They were taken care of by the municipality, but this changed as Ten Hag wanted professional groundsmen and the control that the club took care of the grounds. All this feeds into the change of mentality Ten Hag wanted to achieve at FC Utrecht. With Ten Hag you need to have the mentality to win every game and even if you win games, you always have to be critical of your own performance.

Transfers

Transfers 15/16

In the summer of 2015, Ten Hag became head coach of FC Utrecht and in his first season, we saw two distinct things. First, he cut a lot of dead weight. Players who were earning too much or just simply weren’t good enough. As you can see on the outgoing transfers, 15 players exited the club during the whole season, with 12 players leaving in the summer.

He did attract a few players who became instrumental like Strieder, Letschert and Haller. Now Haller was already on loan with Utrecht, so he can’t really take the credit for that. In regards to what English media have said about not giving youth a chance, that’s utter codswallop. Ramselaar, Amrabat and Joosten all were included in the squad.

Finished 11th in the 2014/2015 season, Ten Hag did really well in his first season – finishing 5th and qualifying for the domestic play-offs for European football.

Transfers 16/17

In his second season, we see another shift in losing dead weight, majority of the players simply is’t good enough or their contracts have run out. However, a difference from a season earlier is that Ten Hag also has sold some of their most important players – as they have done exceptionally well. In selling Ramselaar, Letschert and Boymans – they have generated over €9 million for those three players.

If we compare that to incoming players they have only spent €500,000 on new players (Van der Meer, Jensen), the rest came on a free, from the academy or was loaned from another club.

Another relatively successful transfer period and it resulted in a good position in the league as well. As they finished 5th in the 2015/2016 season, they now finished even higher on the 4th place in the table.

Tactics

Before we move into the actual analysis of the tactics and style of play, I will place the analysis into context. I’m going to have a look at the 2016/2017 season for a number of reasons. It’s the highest finish in the league under Ten Hag, his style of play was seen throughout the squad and it was the season that attracted Ajax to his coaching style.

There are different components to analyse:

  1. Formation
  2. Defensive play
  3. Attacking play
  4. Counter-attacks
  5. Data
  6. The progress in the importance of full backs FC Utrecht -> Ajax

Formation

Ten Hag’s most used formations in this particular season were the 4-3-1-2/4-4-2 (51%), 4-3-3 (18%) and the 3-4-1-2 (10%). This depends on the opposition of course, but what’s good to understand is that he didn’t want the traditional Dutch school of attacking football. He wanted to maximise results and is very pragmatic in his approach in doing so, therefore being different to most coaches in 2015-2017 in the Netherlands.

This 4-3-1-2 can also be classified as a 4-4-2, depending on the position of Barazite. Often he played more like a #10 and closer to the strikers and it became a 4-3-1-2 with three central midfielders – with Brama a bit deeper. But when you play with a midfield square you Brama as the defensive midfielder and Barazite as the attacking midfielder, with Ayoub-Amrabat providing support in linking the defence to attack.

That 4-4-2 could also easily become a 4-3-3 with Barazite playing as a striker with Haller and Kerk on the flanks. The role of the two strikers is important for their dynamic play. While Haller is strong in the air and has good link-up play, Kerk is agile, versatile, and strong. These two players complement each other in attack and have enough ability to set up the midfielders as well.

Defensive play

So what does the defensive structure look like under Ten Hag’s FC Utrecht? I think it’s worth noting that he doesn’t do this in the traditional Dutch sense. He likes to keep it compact and we can see a few interesting things in how he sets it up. He only has the full backs in the wide areas and most of the player (6) are situated in the half spaces.

Full backs in wide areas, rest compact in central zones

In the image above you can see the defensive set up. One of the interesting parts is that the #10 will go into the striker position when FC Utrecht is in the pressing shape. In doing so it enables the #1o to help the two strikers who assume the winger positions without the ball and do the pressing as such. This means that the first pressing moment is done by a winger (Haller/Kerk) and Barazite will press the goalkeeper when he receives the ball. Ten Hag wants to press with three attackers. This means that one will press the central defender on the ball, the striker will press the goalkeeper and the third defender will remain close to the other central defender, to block the passing lane:

Pressing with strikers

In the image above you see how this has been done with the three attackers pressing. First, the winger presses the RCB who can only pass without risk to the keeper in his eyes because the passing lane is blocked to the RB. The defensive midfielder is an option, but he will be pressed too. As soon as the keeper has the ball, the striker will press the goalkeeper who can only play it long.

The two strikers do not only position themselves to be ready for the transition but they are actively involved in the defensive process. This means that attackers are expected to have defensive qualities as well under Ten Hag. They need to block passing lanes, track back and make sure to stand in between the central defenders and full backs. Ten Hag sees it as follows: you attack with the collective and you defend with the collective.

In general, Ten Hag didn’t press aggressively with Utrecht, but as soon as the opposition got into the position in the middle third, they would be marked closely and attempted to win the ball there as it gives advantages in transition (see counter-attack). Again, there is a vital role to play for the #10 in following a central defender who steps out. If a central defender moves up the pitch and attempts to progress via a carry or pass, the #10 Barazite will follow in order to limit the threat, while the two attackers will assume their original role.

Attacking play

For Ten Hag’s FC Utrecht there was one thing most important: attacking through dominance in the central zones. Bar the two full backs, everyone is in these central zones. The reason for that is that the LB and RB create more space for the central midfielders in the central zones, which is vital for the build-up.

Attacking options via central midfielders

So how does Ten Hag construct attacks using the left and right central midfielders? In this case the left central midfielder was Ayoub and the right central midfielder was Amrabat. There are two scenario’s in how they conduct the build-up and be as direct as possible.

The first one is where a central defender reaches Ayoub. In this case, left central defender Janssen, passes the ball to Ayoub who has assumed the position away from the half-space and come into the wide area. He stretches play, creating more space in the central zones in doing so. Then, he has two options. He can opt to play in the feet of Haller on the left side or he can play it in space where Kerk has to make a run. Haller needs to connect with other players to create a chance, while the option for Kerk will mean a shooting opportunity.

The second one is where a central defender opts for the right central midfielder option. This is less direct as the one mentioned above. The central defender plays to the defensive midfielder (Brama) who has dropped deeper. He will pass to Amrabat (RCM) and then he will connect with the attackers. Instead of playing it direct and straight, he will opt to play a ball behind the defence, utilising Kerk’s pace. At the same time, Haller moves to the far post in order to await a cross. The role of #10 is to cover the ground behind Kerk in terms of making sure transitions will be less dangerous.

In the image above you can see how the #10 Barazite acts with his through passes in case of ball possession in the final third. There are two different options. Important here is that Haller is not involved in the receiving of the through ball, as he isn’t equiped to make that run needed.

The first option is to pass in a straight line towards the penalty spot. Kerk will lose his marker and make a run inwards to get in the ideal position to shoot. The second option is to pass the ball to the right, where the RCM Ambarat will make a run between the defenders and enter the box from the right side. This could prove a good shooting opportunity, but also a good passing option as both Kerk and Haller will make a run to the far post.

Above you can see how the attackers react to cross from Amrabat from the right half space. Barazite willl move into the box on the right, while both Kerk and Haller will move to the far post zone, to attack the cross. Amrabat and Troupee stay on the right, to create space in the central zones – and there is where it has to happen for Ten Hag.

Counter-attack

In Ten Hag’s vision for FC Utrecht, he most likely wanted to regain possession in the middle third. In doing so, the positioning of the attacking midfielder(s) is absolutely vital going forward. In this case, it’s Barazite. He is instrumental in the counter-attack set out by Ten Hag.

In the image above you see the situation when there’s a counter-attack after regaining possession by the LB. Earlier we spoke about the 4-3-3 in defence, but as soon as the ball is further on the pitch – Barazite will drop deeper. After the ball is regained in the wide area by the LB, Barazite will move up the pitch and assume a position between the lines. In doing so he can adjust correctly and pass the ball to either striker. Because the strikers are playing in the half-space they can move to the wing or invert, which gives the defenders problems and FC Utrecht options on the break.

When the ball is regained in the middle third by the midfielders, everything is set to be played directly. This often occurs with Amrabat and he has two options, play it straight to Barazite or play it long behind the defence for Kerk. Again, Haller will make a run towards the far post to anticipate a cross.

Statistics

So how well did Ten Hag’s FC Utrecht score on the different statistics during the 2016/2017 season where they finished 4th? You can see that in the images below. (There is an issue with the quality of images showing on the website, click on image and open in another tab for higher quality)

In the graphs above you see how FC Utrecht scored in the shots per 90 metrics compared to the other teams in the Eredivisie 2016/2017. FC Utrecht scores 9th on the number of shots per 90. Below that you see the graph of expected goals per 90. FC Utrecht scores 4th in this metric, which does suggest they take most of their chances

But how do they do when shooting, what is the quality of those shots? In other words, what the expected goals number per shot taken?

You can see that FC Utrecht has the highest xG per shot in the Eredivisie. They are 9th on the shots per 90, but when they come in shooting positions – they do this in the most optimal positions/situations in relation to the other teams in the 2016/2017 Eredivisie. Ten Hag wants to use his attacking play to maximise the chance of scoring a goal. His idea was to limit the shots from outside the box and move into more certain positions of scoring – this resulted in the high xG per shot, as shown above.

On the goalscoring front, they were 5th with 1,54 goals per 90 – with only Feyenoord, Ajax, PSV and AZ scoring more per 90 minutes. It indicated they are doing very well in attack, making sure they are in the right positions and capitalising on those goalscoring opportunities.

How did Ten Hag’s FC Utrecht do in defence? We use the metrics of conceding shots, expected goals and goals to review this.

In the graph above you can see that has the 4th fewest shots against per 90 minutes. Only Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV concede fewer shots per 90. The strongest defences in the leagues conceded the fewest chances, but how many goals are they expected to concede? This measures the quality of the chances given away.

The quality of the chances conceded corresponds with the shots against per 90 minutes. FC Utrecht has the 4th fewest expected goals against per 90 minutes. This strongly indicates that their defence has been pretty solid. This also can be seen in the goals conceded per 90: 1,07. This was the 4th best in the data of the 2016/2017 season.

It’s interesting to see the data because they had a very good second season under Ten Hag. They were better than AZ and only the traditional top 3 (Ajax, Feyenoord, PSV) were better than this FC Utrecht side. A very impressive achievement.

Players’ reception of Ten Hag’s philosophy

When Ten Hag came into the FC Utrecht management, players were rather sceptical of his ideas. He changed a lot within the club, but most of all it was his way of coaching during training sessions. The obvious question was: what does this way of working do for us?

With the way of coaching, it can be seen as follows. Ten Hag uses a lot of moments during situations with a training session or drill to coach players. He often stops play and coaches what he wants to see and that will lead to friction sometimes. He has spoken about it in Dutch media and no player really likes it. But if the methods start to pay dividends in the games, players accept them because in the end, they want to win.

The reason why Ten Hag does this is that he wants the team to control multiple systems and that requires a lot of detail and attention from the coaching staff. But he has also admitted that too much of this way of coaching and the freedom of creativity can be lost – while that is very important for certain types of players.

The way he tries to avoid those problems is not to say what has to happen in the situations he stops play, but to ask questions. He does this to activate the brain of the players and that they are aware of the thought process behind it. Being transparent in why he demands these things of his players, is where players will accept it more.

For Ten Hag, it’s about giving context to every possible situation that can happen on the pitch and teaching the players about risk management. Because in the game, the players have to judge the risk of their actions themselves.

Players don’t need to enjoy everything they do on the training pitch, but they need to understand why they are doing it. That creates understanding and acceptance. For that to happen communication is vital and that’s what Ten Hag has done very well.

The evolution of Ten Hag’s full backs

Being FC Utrecht, there are always a few games per season that you will be the lesser team. The games against Ajax, AZ, PSV, and Feyenoord are very difficult matches and one can expect to drop points. Ten Hag has shown his pragmatism here and has employed a 5-3-2 on occasion to make sure defensive display is the priority.

When he made the step to Ajax this changed. You are expected to win everything and as a consequence, the view of the game will change as well. Ten Hag had to adapt to the stature and philosophy of Ajax and I think this is an interesting point as many critical pundits have shared their feelings about it. We have seen above that at FC Utrecht, Ten Hag wanted to create from the central zones and the positioning and actions of the full backs were in aid of that. They stood wide to create more space in the central zones, but this had to change at Ajax.

He was expected to play an attacking style of football that saw wingers in the wide areas as they play with three attackers. Keep the field wide to stretch the opponent and use the wingers to provide danger into the box. This also meant a change in the role of the full backs.

He had to adapt and there’s been a lot written already about it. I suggest you have a look at this thread by Jamie Scott. He analyses in great detail what Manchester United can expect from Erik ten Hag based on his Ajax tenure. Especially the (over) reliance on full backs is worth the read, as it’s something that’s different from his FC Utrecht period.

Final thoughts

Erik ten Hag came into international media due to his excellent European exploits with Ajax. But this wasn’t the beginning of his success. The promotion to the Eredivisie with Go Ahead Eagles, his successful spell with Bayern München II and of course his time at FC Utrecht, made him what he is today.

At FC Utrecht he has shown how to elevate a club from mid-table to sub top, whilst competing for European tickets as well. He has taken a squad, cut the dead weight and taken to the transfer market combined with academy players. His distinct style of play, his professional mentality throughout the whole club and consistency in performances – have formed him and prepared him for the Ajax job. The progression from FC Utrecht to Ajax is important to understand what he can do for Manchester United.

Sources:

Tussen de Linies
Voetbaltrainer
VI Pro

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