‘I know you can’t plan anything in football, but you have to make an exceptional and extraordinary offer if I want to change my plans.’
Those were the words of Ajax boss Erik ten Hag earlier this month after being linked with some of the best clubs Europe has to offer over the course of 2021.
But an offer of £6million a year after tax — a gross wage of just over £11m, could feasibly fit into that ‘extraordinary’ category.
Newcastle are the latest club to try and tempt Erik ten Hag away from his role as Ajax boss
The Magpies’s new owners are willing to make him the third best-paid boss in English football
Sportsmail revealed earlier this week Newcastle are willing to offer ten Hag a package that would put him behind only Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp as the highest-paid manager in the Premier League.
The Magpies, under their new Saudi owners in a consortium led by Amanda Staveley, however are just the latest interested party in the 51-year-old Dutchman.
Tottenham came calling after Jose Mourinho’s sacking towards the end of last season, but were rebuffed.
Barcelona are believed to be keeping an eye on him with compatriot Ronald Koeman under severe pressure, but even they may find it hard to entice him from Amsterdam.
But ten Hag is unwilling to leave the Ajax project overseen by him and Marc Overmars (left)
The former centre-back is also named on Manchester United’s reported four-man shortlist to replace Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, with the Norwegian’s future under intense scrutiny following the hammering by Liverpool at the weekend.
But as Sportsmail reported, the Dutchman is reluctant to leave Ajax because he has reservations over leaving for a new project, and given Newcastle’s lowly 19th position in the table, it certainly represents a risk.
Nevertheless, Manchester United and Barcelona represents two of Europe’s most distinguished sides, and his comments earlier in the month suggest not even they could tempt him into leaving the Amsterdam Arena.
So what is keeping ten Hag from jumping ship at the Eredivisie champions, and what is making him such an attractive proposition for Europe’s elite?
It is unlikely to be his trophy haul that has seen Barcelona and Manchester United’s wandering eyes travel in his direction, despite the fact he can boast more silverware as a manager than Solskjaer.
Manchester United and Barcelona are also keeping tabs on him with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ronald Koeman’s futures uncertain
But two Dutch titles, as many Dutch cups and the feat of reaching the Champions League semi-finals in 2019 usually proves insufficient for a manager looking to established a reputation as one of Europe’s top emerging coaches.
Yet ten Hag has done just that following his appointment as Ajax boss in December 2017, and bringing through a brand new crop of players has proved central to their revival.
Ajax came top of a study by the Switzerland-based CIES Football Observatory earlier this week, which examined which clubs are responsible for producing the most active players in the top tiers of football on the continent.
Across 31 top divisions among UEFA member countries, Ajax have helped bring through 81 currently-active players, six more than Ukrainian outfit Shakhtar Donetsk, who are next on the list.
Ten Hag cannot take all the credit for that return, but he must have identified that young talent was one of the main reasons why his side reached the last four of Europe’s most elite club competition two years ago.
Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek and Matthijs de Ligt were part of that side that lost so heartbreakingly to Tottenham in the semi-finals following that Lucas Moura strike, and having left Ajax they have encountered a number of difficulties.
Ten Hag however came to their defence this year, telling BILD: ‘I disagree with this statement [that they have struggled since leaving.
‘The step to an absolute top club is never easy, especially not for young players. At your own club you know the structure, the philosophy and you can fully concentrate on your performance.
Ten Hag was tasked with a major rebuilding job after a number of high-profile departures
‘When you change clubs, you’re faced with a completely new environment. Despite this, De Jong and De Ligt are starting players and have already won titles at Barça and Juve.’
A staunch defence of the players you helped bring through is an admirable quality every club wish their manager would possess, but the latest talent off the conveyor belt is already making its mark on the team, which was badly needed.
Captain Matthijs de Ligt was poached by Juventus, Frenkie de Jong joined Barcelona and Kasper Dolberg, leading the line on that fateful night against Tottenham, moved to France to join Nice.
A group stage exit in the Champions League in 2019-20 – in which they relinquished a 4-1 lead at Stamford Bridge to draw 4-4 with Chelsea, ultimately deciding their fate – paved the way for Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek to follow their former team-mates out of the door.
The side that heartbreakingly lost the Champions League semi-final in 2019 was dismantled
‘With Jurrien Timber, Devyne Rensch, Ryan Gravenberch, the next generation of top talent has joined the main force,’ ten Hag however said last season. ‘At Ajax, we have one of the best youth training programs in the world.’
Gravenberch and Timber are among the nominees in the running for the Golden Boy award – a trophy handed to the best under-21 player in Europe’s top leagues, while Mohamed Daramy is the latest youngster to make his breakthrough at Ajax.
A creative winger who idolises Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford, Daramy, 19, marked just his second league appearance in an Ajax shirt in September with a goal and an assist in their 9-0 thrashing of Cambuur.
Behind him at the heart of heart of the midfield is 19-year-old Gravenberch, who became the club’s youngest ever player to play in the Dutch top flight aged 16 years and 130 days – a record previously held by the iconic Clarence Seedorf.
But the likes of Jurrien Timber (right) have emerged among the next line of talent from the club
At the back, Timber – adept at centre back and right back – is the shining light there and is already, unsurprisingly, drawing similarities to de Ligt. But this is not ten Hag putting all his eggs in the emerging talent basket.
The 51-year-old in fact believes the team was too young when he first arrived, and therefore values the rewards experience can bring.
‘You can’t celebrate success with only young players,’ he said. ‘In my first half year here I noticed that the team was too young, so we strengthened the selection with experienced players such as Dusan Tadic, Daley Blind, and Davy Klaassen.’
A boss able to spot the deficiencies so early into his tenure, followed by the success brought about by a dominant and attacking style from the blend of youth and experience, signalled that this is no ordinary manager off the street.
Midfielder Ryan Gravenberch (front) is another product off the Ajax academy conveyer belt
And he was pretty convinced which way his project was heading.
‘I am concerned with Ajax and not with other developments.
‘I still have a contract for one year and am really enjoying myself here. We are building a team that is ready to compete with the big teams in Europe.’
Ten Hag has experience in the surroundings of those ‘big teams’, being the man Bayern Munich turned to to take charge of their second team in 2013, just after Pep Guardiola had arrived to take the post as first-team boss at the Bundesliga giants.
Sharing a similar philosophy of football and the now Manchester City boss helping to inspire his current Ajax counterpart’s style of play, it is no wonder the Eredivisie champions – just like the 2020-21 Premier League winners with Guardiola – were so desperate to keep hold of their maverick.
That is exactly what happened in April this year, when he signed a new deal to take him through until June 2023.
Mohammed Daramy is the latest to make his mark on ten Hag’s first team in Amsterdam
‘We can take the next step with this team. I’m happy here,’ ten Hag said after signing his new deal. ‘Getting somewhere is one thing, staying somewhere is another.
‘Ajax is back on the map internationally. We get the recognition we deserve for that, but we want even more.’
‘You can see then that the players are getting the attention, but also coaches. Our success has earned us credit not only in the Netherlands, but also abroad.’
Ajax may well be back on the international map, and they have caused many Champions League clubs on the continent to take note of their progress too, which was embodied best this season by their 4-0 hammering of Borussia Dortmund.
The Dutch champions played the Bundesliga giants off the park and it would be easy for any manager to bask in the glory of beating such an elite club by such a comfortable margin.
But ten Hag opted to take a different route, and said after the win: ‘There is a lot to learn from this match.
Ten Hag shares a philosophy with Pep Guardiola after the two met at Bayern Munich
‘There are so many learning moments I saw in this game. If we want to get further in the Champions League, we have to take notes.’
Perhaps it did not portray the optimism all Ajax fans had running through their veins, but it is far-removed from the defeatism Koeman has often reverted to at Barcelona this season for example.
Meanwhile, Solskjaer’s assessment at the weekend that he is ‘getting close to what I want’ at United at best lacks the honesty that ten Hag has shown with Ajax this term.
The second reason both those clubs may look to ten Hag is his ability to make gambles pay off, and in some fashion too.
A risk is exactly how many described their decision to splurge £22m on Sebastien Haller – who scored in the drubbing of Dortmund – in January, who had managed just 14 goals from 54 games at West Ham.
But the Ivory Coast international is now the top scorer in this season’s Champions League with six goals, leading him to be linked with a move to the team they last beat in that competition.
Ten Hag has helped revive the career of this season’s Champions League top scorer Sebastien Haller (left)
‘I don’t know Dortmund’s plans,’ said Ajax coach Erik ten Hag reacting to the speculation.
‘With Sebastien’s class, I don’t rule out that he is interesting for BVB. What I can say is that he would be very expensive,’ he added.
Ten Hag has no doubt put an arm around Haller and has even come out fighting his corner recently.
‘He has had an unprecedented amount of criticism’ ten Hag said after Ajax’s demolished PSV on Sunday.
The Dutchman had earlier in the season praised the striker’s ‘phenomenal’ output after turning the match against PEC Zwolle in Ajax’s favour.
But Haller’s revival, combined with the Timber, Gravenberch and Daramy, all seems like the start of something for Ajax, rather than a natural culmination of proceedings.
But ten Hag will view his young stars and their start to this season as the beginning of a new project
Ten Hag is therefore not just settled and content in his job but also with the player he is able to select on a regular basis.
However, Ajax’s position at the top of the Eredivisie table and Group C in the Champions League is unlikely to be sufficient to satisfy ten Hag’s appetite, which given their link will not be too dissimilar from that of Guardiola.
He will therefore view the Ajax project as a nascent construct, but crucially one that is further along in the road than Newcastle, and in some eyes, perhaps to the events at Camp Nou at Old Trafford.
Ten Hag looks destined for a crack at a top European club. But it feels like the man, the club and everyone around him will need a hell of a lot of convincing first before that becomes a reality.
And that is a credit to the job and structure he has helped put in place in Amsterdam, which has made him feel as if he can reach his short-term goals at Ajax as opposed to any other club in world football.