This has been a week Henk ten Cate will never forget.
Fist pumps followed the final whistle yesterday high up in the tranquil Hajar Mountains, where the silence was only broken by the incessant ‘Jazawi’ support who’d driven more than 250 kilometres to celebrate their club’s climb back to the summit of UAE football.
A travelling horde had come to see the Dutchman complete his miracle job by avoiding defeat at Hatta and secure Al Jazira’s possession of the cherished Arabian Gulf League title, with two matches to spare. The mission was completed with typical efficiency, a 5-0 win owing much to a hat-trick from 31-goal striker Ali Mabkhout.
This taste of glory acted as recompense, if not complete, for a befuddling but honest decision to turn down the Netherlands national job on Monday.
Some turnaround has been engineered at Jazira from the relegation-threatened rabble inherited in December 2015. Never mind the fact Ten Cate’s previous taste of management in the UAE at Al Ahli in 2010 lasted a month and ended with an admission he felt “deeply ashamed” of his work.
For a man steeped in the Dutch school of ‘totaalvoetbal’ (Total Football) and whom played a prominent support role as Ronaldinho and Frank Rijkaard lifted Barcelona back to the preeminent position as the sport’s great aesthetes, you would have expected this success in Abu Dhabi to have been attained with a swagger.
Yet Ten Cate’s greatest attributes have been both his pragmatism and ability to rein in a club of wild and feckless excesses. The potential attainment of a record points-tally and win total points further to the merit of his outlook.
Staggering football, like that witnessed in Eric Gerets’ joyously fallible 2014/15 campaign, has not occurred. Such an approach is no surprise, with the stoic win in the 2016 President’s Cup final on penalties against superior Al Ain acting as bellwether.
There is a mechanical streak which relies on ruthlessness on the counter, regardless of the fact 67 goals mean they are the division’s top scorers.
Whether switching between a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation, Jazira have cast aside a porous reputation and profited through Mabkhout’s lethality. His 31 goal-tally is 25 more than any other team-mate.
They now boast the meanest defence, some change for a club who had the seventh-best in the previous two campaigns.
Ten Cate’s Machiavellian streak was most prominent in his disregard towards the 2017 AFC Champions League. Despite boasting a nine-point lead with seven AGL fixtures to play, a decision to ditch eight regulars for the 1-0 home loss to Esteghlal Khuzestan showed that even by the second Group C fixture he had no desire to advance.
Such ruthlessness, critically, has not been reflected in the actions of Al Ahli and Al Ain – the sides who were expected to extend their monopolisation of the AGL trophy since Jazira last lifted it in 2010/11.
Al Ain’s efforts in the 2016 AFC Champions League final and domestically have been glaringly hamstrung by a long-term inability to recruit a lethal No9.
Ahli have imploded at a bureaucratic level. A failure to sign an Asian-qualified player in January was unprecedented, while a loan of injury-ravaged Asamoah Gyan has produced barren results.
In contrast, Morocco playmaker Mbark Boussoufa has added intelligence at Jazira, while the decision to retain South Korea anchor man Park Jong-woo was astute. A promotion of colt midfielders Mohamed Jamal and the electric Khalfan Mubarak has been essential.
Amid this chaos, Ten Cate has created uncharacteristic consistency to shatter this duopoly.
This minimalistic approach has also curbed the excesses of a club who have gone through coaches, sporting directors and foreign recruits for fun in the last six years.
Taming the beast has been central to Ten Cate and Jazira’s triumph.