Why Ten Hag can improve all players
Erik ten Hag is capable of improving experienced players, as well as youngsters, according to Tobias Schweinsteiger.
Bastian's brother, currently assistant coach at Nurnberg in his native Germany, highlighted the performances of Daley Blind, Dusan Tadic and Davy Klaassen as examples of how the Ajax boss is able to develop the games of established regulars as well.
During our exclusive interview, United fan Tobi also revealed his and his son's favourite players and explained what training was like with Pep Guardiola and Ten Hag at Bayern Munich.
Furthermore, he outlines why he sincerely believes Erik is the right man for the Old Trafford job and how he will look to instil his own philosophy across the club.
Tobi, you obviously know Erik ten Hag well from your time together in Munich – how was that spell like for you?
“Yeah, we worked together for two years, two complete seasons, in the Under-23s team. I have been his captain over these two years and for me, yeah, he is a role model. It’s because of him that I started coaching. He was always talking to me and I was talking to him and he always talked like: ‘Tobi, think like a player. Don’t think like a coach because you’re still a player.’ But he gave me that feeling that there could be a talent for me in coaching. For me, he’s a role model. He’s developed over the years. I met him three years ago on a visit in Amsterdam for one week. I visited him and the first team, and also the youth teams, he showed me everything. He was so open. He showed me their philosophy, his philosophy, what he developed, his style of coaching, his style of leadership. For me, he is one of the best coaches in Europe, for sure.”
You were an experienced player at that time so were you already thinking about coaching or was he the one who really inspired you then?
“No, I was not thinking about coaching any team because the coaches I had before were very German-based, authoritarian guys. Not the guys I like and I never felt like what he showed me as a player. I was experienced, for sure, but I had never learned football in an Academy. I’d been a skier before and, when I was 20, I started playing football only for my view. He showed me a lot of things, so many details, so many things where you have to look on the pitch and how football is easier. And I learned so many things so then I was like: ‘Hey, I like this style of coaching’, so that was okay. I improved and I felt good on the pitch. I wanted to show young players, all players in the future, how they can position on the pitch, how they can use spaces, how they can play football. He was, for me, the one who changed my mind on thinking about football. Now I want to develop myself as a coach. I’m on my way and it’s going better and better, to go higher and higher, and he also started as an assistant coach for seven years I think, or eight years, and then he started to be head coach. We had a talk four weeks ago and he said to me to relax and be patient, take my time as assistant coach, learning and learning and my moment will come to be a head coach. The experience he shared with me is so important to me too. He is still like a mentor. We don’t have those talks all months or all weeks but, whenever we have the talks, he is like a mentor for me.”
“For me, he showed me how to improve my style of play and what he also did in the last years in Amsterdam is he showed he can help talents to grow but he also showed that he can improve the experienced players like Daley Blind, Dusan Tadic, Davy Klaassen right now. They play big roles and they have improved under his coaching. That is one of his talents. He isn’t only a coach who improves the young players. He’s also improved the experienced players and improves the team and improves the club. That is really good and now I hope and yearn, in my heart, that he can improve Manchester United. It will take time to improve everything and to develop the club in the right direction but he is so clear in everything, in his philosophy, in the details, so I think he could be the right choice.”
You’ve first-hand knowledge of his coaching sessions so what is he like on the training pitch – is he very innovative?
“Yeah, he is a master in training sessions. I remember we had long training sessions in the second team and, in the club, there were some rumours about long training sessions in the Under-23s. After a few weeks, we recognised why we were doing long training sessions. He wanted us to be perfect and would stop the training session if it doesn’t work and if it was not perfect at all. And, from time to time, the training sessions weren’t that long anymore because we were better. We were improved and, in rondos, in pressing situations, we were better and better so the time was shorter on the pitch. But, yeah, he was, for me, the first coach when I felt like a training session made sense. Before, training sessions were okay – this part, this part and then that part. He was the first coach, for me, from the warm-up to the last match on the pitch it was like okay, one seam and we are working on that until it’s perfect. That’s a big part of my training philosophy as well, also with the education and the UEFA pro-licence I did last season, that’s a big part – to have one seam and work in that seam until it’s perfect. Don’t stop until it’s perfect. He is that guy who doesn’t stop until it is perfect.”
Pep Guardiola was at Bayern Munich at the time so was there an expectation for the Under-23s to play in a similar way to the first team?
“It was quite the same philosophy but different players and a different level of players, for sure. But it was that both like 4-3-3 with ball possessions, both like counter pressing and that’s the first view, with the ball. They had a lot of talks and Pep was watching Erik’s training and Erik was watching every training he could with Pep. We had quite a few training sessions really the same on the pitches next to each other. It was funny when we had the passing drills. The first team did a passing drill and used one ball for 10 minutes but we used a sack of balls, 10 balls, for the same drill and the balls were going there and there. Erik was like, I want my team to play the same passing drill as the first team, with perfection, so we trained and trained. In the end, we used two or three balls, not one ball like the first team, but we improved. He was like okay, I want to learn and he learned a lot from Pep. He had his own style, the Dutch philosophy and, at Bayern at that time, it was quite similar. Then it changed a bit when he went to Utrecht and was playing another formation, a diamond in a 4-4-2, then improving the style of play in Amsterdam. He started in a 4-3-3 but was going to two no.6s and a lot of three players in the no.10, moving a lot in those spaces. He’s improving his game but there are a lot of the same things you see in Pep’s team but you also see a lot of styles of other coaches and other club’s philosophy in it. What I think is he’s putting the right formation and the right philosophy on the players who he has to work with.”
So he will adapt to the squad he has to get the best out of them?
“Yeah, that is one of his favourite [things], I think.”
“I think so. So he also developed that. It was Bayern Munich, it was his second team coaching as head coach as, before, he’d had a team in the Netherlands [Go Ahead Eagles]. Back then, we were a difficult team with a lot of young players, a lot of talents and everybody, as young players, thinking they were first-team players and the next big thing. So it was a difficult group to lead. Not everything went well. I think Erik knows this. When we had a talk three years ago, he knows that situation. He was laughing about that situation and now, as a coach, you want to handle that situation but sometimes it doesn’t work. Next time, in the same situation, maybe you perhaps don’t use the same things in the situation that didn’t work. He’s developed for himself and, when I watched, in Amsterdam, the training group in that week I’ve been there, it was perfect. So I think he’s developing his leadership. He knows how to handle big players, talented players, experienced players and big clubs, for sure. Perhaps it’s a bit different from Ajax to Manchester United at that point, but there is a clear philosophy, over the years, in the club. That is one big part where United has to change, to have a philosophy in it and he is the right guy. He will not stop and will tell everybody where is the fault. You have to be open for that and that is for sure. Yeah, that is his leadership.”
You spent time in Amsterdam so could you see his vision across all the teams, even the younger groups and the whole club, and not just the first team?
“In Amsterdam, they have a clear philosophy in the club based deeply in it and it was his philosophy. It was perfect, quite the same like it is in Amsterdam, and yeah he developed the first team and helped to improve the philosophy a bit. Their philosophy, through the whole club, is quite perfect and they showed it to me in a powerpoint or something like that. It was quite perfect in every detail and they work on it and work on it, small parts they change, but that was perfect and that is quite a big plus if a player from Amsterdam goes through the youth and comes into the first team. There aren’t many changes for him - the working is the same, most formations are the same and the principles and style of play are the same. So it’s easy to bring young players into the first team in Amsterdam and it could also be a chance for United to use his knowledge about the philosophy. I think Louis van Gaal was quite the same. He had a clear philosophy but I think perhaps Erik is a bit easier to handle then Louis. Yeah, that could be a big chance for United.”
You said he was good for experienced players but is he also willing to give young players a chance if they have the right technique and are the right fit for his system?
“Yeah, yeah. I think, as coach, there are many points but, if you have a young player the same level as an experienced player, you’re looking for some who not only have the football skills but also leadership skills and something like that. If they’re level, you always choose the young player and that is Erik too. In some matches, he will choose the experienced player that he has that feeling for who is important for which match and for the whole season. How do you use the experienced players on the pitch and off the pitch and bring the talents in? I think that is one of his plus points because he has worked with Under-23s teams, with young teams, and with also a serial winning team like Ajax Amsterdam so there are many plus points.”
“It will be a step up, for sure, but I think, like I said at the beginning, he developed his career. He started as an assistant coach before going on to be head coach secondly. He was promoted in the first league in the Netherlands then going to Bayern Munich as an Under-23s championship team, then going to Utrecht to develop them into a Europa League team, then going to Ajax and it was a struggling period at Ajax. You don’t have to forget that - Ajax were struggling at that time when Erik came to the club. He changed it at the club and developed that team to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League and so the next step would be a top 10 team in the world. Manchester United are definitely one of those teams, well could be one of those teams if they learn out of the faults United made in the last three, four or five years and settle down for a bit. Remembering okay, we have to, in Germany, we have a word for it – take one step back to push two forwards. That could be the right moment to realise this.”
I’m sure he will be given time. When Bastian was here, I remember that you were actually a United fan and had always followed the club, is this still the case?
“Yeah, for sure. Since my childhood days. Eric Cantona is still my absolute football role model. In my office, I have big picture from Eric next to my seat. I’m following United, for sure. When Basti was there, for both of us, it was a really great time, an honoured time. The ending wasn’t quite perfect, I would say, and I also had a bit of problems with the club because I always think as a supporter and, in that moment, I thought as a brother too. It wasn’t easy that time but I watch a lot of matches. My son is a big fan. So he likes Aaron Wan-Bissaka the most at the moment because he always wears gloves, perhaps that, and he likes his haircut. We’re watching United matches and hopefully get better times with Erik.”
Is he fan of Aaron’s tackling too?
“A lot of tackles [laughs]. A lot of tackles, yeah. It’s tough to tell him when he asks me who the best teams are in the world at the moment. Okay, some days before, we can watch Manchester City and Liverpool and that’s tough. I hope United can come to that level again and challenge these two teams, which have been developed over six or seven years, to that level. I hope it won’t last as long as Liverpool had with Jurgen [Klopp]’s success and hope, in three years, we can challenge. You heard ‘we’ can challenge them! [laughs]!”
“Yeah, I think you will see that. I think that could be the same like when Louis came to United. He played with a clear philosophy. I know the crowd didn’t like it so much – passing, no wide crosses, not as many transitions but he had a clear philosophy and to build up on it. Erik could be the same but it takes time. There won’t be the results in the first months, the first half of the season, I couldn’t imagine that. I wish, but I couldn’t imagine it as there will be tough matches too but, to develop, you have to make faults. You have to lose games, make mistakes, and that’s important to develop. And I trust, totally trust, in Erik and I couldn’t see a lot of other managers at the moment who could do that in a club struggling like United at the moment, a big club like United.”
In terms of your own career, you’re at Nurnberg and have your coaching badges so are you moving up the scale?
“It’s a lot of fun here in Nurnberg. It’s a young, talented team and the club was also struggling two years ago, when I arrived here. I like to work here, there’s a lot of freedom. It’s quite different in Germany, the head coach is like a manager in England and the assistant coach is like a head coach in England. There’s a lot of freedom to work like a head coach, with the team developing young players and we’re developing now. We’re in the battle for promotion, which is good as we didn’t expect that at the beginning of the season. The supporters are coming back to the stadium, 40,000 recently and 50,000 in the last match against Schalke. We have good young players to develop and perhaps surprise everyone in Germany this season and, if not this season, perhaps next season. It’ll take time and I’ll make my steps but, like Erik said, be patient and try to learn, try to improve and that is all I can do.”
Finally, is that the idea as a coach – to absorb everything like Erik has learned from all the things that have happened to him in the past and get more and more experience on the job?
“Yeah, most important for me is not to make risky steps forwards and fall down. It’s just like, if I have that experience, to be patient, improve yourself and then, when you take that step forwards, it’s not that much of a risk in it. It will be more paced, waiting for the right step. I have my time. I’m 40 now – that’s old in Germany for a coach but young in England for a coach! I have my time. It will come and we will see.”