Four years ago, Erik ten Hag was coaching Bayern Munich's reserve team in the German fourth division. Now, the Ajax coach is a game away from getting the Dutch giants to the Champions League final.
In almost every respect, this is a comeback season for Ajax.
The Amsterdam side, which has won 33 Dutch league titles and 19 Dutch Cups, ended a five year domestic trophy drought by beating Willem II in the Dutch Cup final last weekend. They are also in a strong position to clinch their first league title since 2013-14, tied on points with defending champions PSV Eindhoven with two games left to play.
But perhaps most notably, after reaching the semifinal stage of the Champions League for the first time in 22 years, Ajax is possibly one match away from the final in Madrid — they have a 1-0 aggregate lead over Tottenham entering Wednesday's second leg in Amsterdam.
That's right. Along with Barcelona, Ajax are the only team left this season that could achieve a treble that includes the Champions League.
The Dutch side is getting the most from a squad stacked with young, blossoming players, some of whom are set to move to bigger clubs in the summer. The main figure responsible for that is head coach Erik ten Hag, a man who four years ago was coaching Bayern Munich's reserve team in Germany's fourth division.
Part Guardiola, part Sammer
Ten Hag's decision to join Bayern's second team in 2013 was surprising. He had just aced his first head coaching job, helping Go Ahead Eagles, a club based in Deventer in northeast Holland, earn promotion to the Eredivisie, the Dutch first division. Instead of leading the club in their first top-flight season in 17 years, he decided to join the Bavarians, who back then were led by head coach Pep Guardiola and Matthias Sammer.
Ten Hag's reserve side mirrored what Guardiola was doing in the first division, even down to the 4-1-4-1 formation. He lead Bayern's second team to the Regionalliga Bayern title during his first season in 2013-14, but his side missed out on promotion to the third division after losing to Fortuna Köln in the promotion playoff.
The Dutch coach left Bayern's setup a year later after finishing second place in Bayern's regional league, but he admitted in a recent interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung that he valued his experiences working with Sammer and Guardiola.
"Back then I saw almost every training (session), so a lot methodical things stuck with me," ten Hag told the German newspaper.
After leaving Munich, ten Hag became the head coach and sporting director of Utrecht in 2015. He earned the 2016 Rinus Michels Award, the prize given to the best coach in the Eredivisie, in his first season after Utrecht finished in fifth place and reached the final of the Dutch Cup. He led them to a fourth-place finish in the 2016-17 season and also earned them a spot in Europa League qualification. He was appointed Ajax's coach in December 2017 to replace Marcel Keizer.
German sports magazine Kicker recently characterized ten Hag as "half Guardiola, half Sammer." However, the Dutch coach can do what the two former Bayern figures never did during his time in Munich: reach the Champions League final.
'We need to win'
Though his side took a 1-0 advantage from London, ten Hag wants his men to focus on its attacking strengths and not take that aggregate lead for granted.
"We need to win this match tomorrow, that will be our mindset," ten Hag said in a pregame press conference in Amsterdam on Tuesday. "We have to stick to our strengths."
After eliminating defending champions Real Madrid and a Juventus side with Cristiano Ronaldo, Ajax are a win or a draw away from reaching their first Champions League final since 1996. No team outside of Europe's top five leagues have won the Champions League since 2003, when a Jose Mourinho-led Porto side lifted the trophy.
"A few people who knew this level of success said it would still be possible for a Dutch team to reach the Champions League final; people like Johan Cruyff, Louis van Gaal and (Ajax sportin director) Marc Overmars", ten Hag said. "It's up to us tomorrow to prove them right."
On Sunday, ten Hag lifted his first major trophy in his nine-year head coaching career. On Wednesday, he could give his club the opportunity to play for the biggest club trophy in Europe.