Mitchell van der Gaag is poised to Manchester United as assistant to new incoming manager Erik ten Hag but the Ajax number two will be a relatively unknown name to most fans
Incoming Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag’s assistant at Old Trafford will be Mitchell van der Gaag and the hands on coach will play a pivotal role in the summer shake up at Old Trafford.
Van der Gaag went into coaching after an 18-year playing career in Holland, Scotland, Portugal and Saudi Arabia. He is a former Dutch Under-21 international who began his coaching career with the Maritimo reserve team just a few miles away from Cristiano Ronaldo ’s childhood home on the island of Madeira.
After being promoted to take charge of Maritimo’s first team, he moved to Belenenses. Van der Gaag picked up his career after his health scare and had a brief spell in Cyprus with Ermis before returning to Holland with FC Eindhoven, Excelsior Rotterdam and NAC Breda. He became close to Ten Hag when he was appointed coach of Jong Ajax, the Amsterdam club’s youth team.
He has helped form a formidable backroom team with former Dutch internationals Michael Reiziger and Winston Bogarde. Ajax have been trying to persuade Van der Gaag to reject United’s offer, but his relationship with Ten Hag has won the argument. Van der Gaag is fluent in five languages – Dutch, English, Spanish, Portuguese and French – and was an outstanding young centre-back who seemed destined to play at the highest level when he stormed through the ranks at PSV Eindhoven until he suffered a serious injury that sidelined him for more than two years.
He also played Sparta Rotterdam, Scottish club Motherwell, FC Utrecht and Maritimo. Van der Gaag’s father, Wim, was a famous sports radio commentator in Holland. His wife Isabelle is the daughter of Jan Gisbers, the cycling coach who helped both Pedro Delgado and Greg LeMond win the Tour de France. The couple have four children and the main family home is still in Portugal because sons Jordan and Luca contracted to Benfica’s youth academy.
Van der Gaag has developed a reputation for developing young players at Ajax – a quality that will resonate with United. Ten Hag is a tracksuit manager who presides over every training session. But Van der Gaag offers him a second pair of eyes and has outstanding man-management skills. He usually watches games from high up in the stand to get a better view of the game but remains in contact with the Ajax bench.
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Van der Gaag outlined his philosophy in an interview in Holland before his return to his home country. He warned there is no hiding place for players under his watch. Van der Gaag said: “I used to have discussions with the whole team, but as field coach I am moving away from that more and more. Players increasingly prefer individual conversations. That takes a lot more time and energy, but I have the feeling that I can reach my players better that way.
“I sit down with players every week and we look at how he has played together with the footage. As a result, I can demand much more and you also get more sense of responsibility from the player. They can hide in a group. It’s not just fair weather conversations either. If I’m not satisfied, I’ll say so. Then everyone will know where he stands.
“I talk to everyone. If I don’t, and suddenly we have to call on a substitute, I don’t want to be paying attention to that player for the first time. You don’t want a player to think ‘ah, he suddenly has time for me, now I am suddenly important.’ I am naturally quite calm – but nor do I run away from a conflict.”