Erik ten Hag is the best coach I have played under – these are the reasons why | Erik ten Hag

Erik ten Hag changes your club, your team, yourself. Your vision on football, on cooperation, on the importance of new methods, of professionalism.

You even get a new idea of ​​your own qualities. I was an attacking midfielder for a long time but under him I became a centre-back. I was already 28. I became captain and gained so much more insight into the game – a whole new world opened up.

His first sessions at Utrecht took some getting used to. He immediately demanded an extra training pitch, which the youth department was not thrilled with. All kinds of extra lines were applied on the pitch. In fact, the entire pitch was divided into sections. Everyone thought: “What are we going to do now?” But this way Erik could make clear exactly where you should be in which situation.

He constantly stopped the game, which was annoying at the beginning. You were enjoying the game and then the whistle was blown again and Erik would say you were positioned wrong. But he also explained why you had to stand elsewhere. And then you thought: “Damn, he’s right.”

Erik has certain basic ideas about football but also looks at the players at his disposal. He played differently with us than with Ajax, where there is more attacking class. He is not the romantic that we like in the Netherlands; he wants to win. The season before he arrived we finished 11th but Utrecht want to be in the top five – and that is where we ended his first campaign. His great class is that he knows exactly how he wants it, and how to make it work. He discusses his vision extensively in meetings and then makes it trainable on the field.

Erik ten Hag at an FC Utrecht training session in July 2017.
Erik ten Hag at an FC Utrecht training session in July 2017. Photograph: Hollandse Hoogte/Shutterstock

I’ve had many good coaches, including Steve McClaren and Co Adriaanse, but Ten Hag’s simply the best. I’m not alone in this: everyone at Utrecht thinks so, and I think it’s the same at Ajax.

To be honest, our first impression of Erik wasn’t great, a little uncomfortable in fact. That’s because his way of talking was a bit wooden, rigid and clumsy, with a lot of “ehhs”. Boys quickly joked about it. But I was soon enthusiastic, because he is so good in terms of content and details. Some coaches present a basic idea but leave space to fill it in differently. With Erik you can’t escape.

He gathers a number of leaders around him from within the squad who understand what he wants and they pull the group along. At Ajax he did that by bringing in Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Davy Klaassen came later. But Erik is also good with street boys with scars. For example, at Utrecht he brought in Zakaria Labyad, who was not fit and had been written off by many, and a year later Zakaria was the Eredivisie’s best attacker. His best buy was a fairly inconspicuous midfielder, Rico Strieder, whom he coached at his previous team, Bayern II. “He’s going to be the cement between the stones,” Erik predicted. And that’s how it turned out.

Erik is not a wizard; it takes time to implement the way he wants to play. But he doesn’t panic when initial results are bad, which was the case at Utrecht and Ajax. He sticks to what he wants, convinced that will bring success. Then when you start winning, it strengthens the group dynamic, the belief in his plans. It was cool to see that opponents were no longer able to get a hold of us. We were the first team in the Netherlands to switch systems very easily. During matches we went from 4-4-2 with a flat midfield, to 4-4-2 with a diamond, to 5-2-3, to 3-5-2.

He also has an eye for the person behind the footballer. He uses a coach looking after the mental side of things, Joost Leenders, but also looks for causes himself if you underperform. He is interested and empathic when he notices something is going on in a player’s private life. He even came to some boys’ houses to help.

Willem Janssen with Erik ten Hag during Utrecht’s game at Ajax in November 2017.
Willem Janssen with Erik ten Hag during Utrecht’s game at Ajax in November 2017. Photograph: VI-Images/Getty Images

He also struck the right chord with me mentally. I remember we were 2-0 down at half-time once and I had played a negative role in both goals. Erik just said: “Now you are going to show the real Willem in the second half.”

Utrecht has completely changed in terms of facilities and vision. That started under Erik. But that he also transformed Ajax is a much bigger achievement. A lot of media and former Ajax players thought: “Who does that wisecracking ‘farmer from the sticks’ think he is?” There was a smear campaign. The team bus was greeted by angry fans after his first six months. But suddenly the puzzle fell into place. And in a completely different way than with us. The signature of a craftsman, I believe.

My best memory of Erik is when I saw him at his most emotional. It was the weekend we qualified for the Europa League through the playoffs. We had lost 3-0 at AZ Alkmaar in the in the first leg and nobody gave us a chance. A day before the match Erik was missing and we heard he was in hospital with his son, who had been in a pretty serious traffic accident. It was uncertain whether he would be at the game. On Sunday morning he was there and he did the meeting. He said: “My son has miraculously survived this accident; now it is up to you to make a miracle too.”

We went out roaring, determined to win for Erik. We won 3-0 and qualified on penalties. A sublime culmination of a fantastic collaboration. I tell you: give this man the time and space, see through any lesser first impressions, and he’ll make something of Manchester United.

Willem Janssen played under Erik ten Hag from 2015 to 2017 at Utrecht

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