How Van der Sar and Ten Hag made Ajax Europe’s funnest team… again
That’s AFC Ajax’s goal difference across all competitions this season. That’s also another way to spell ‘dominant’. Look it up.
Your first instinct would probably be to chalk it up to the paucity of Dutch domestic football. To some extent, you’d be right. In their three Dutch Cup games, Ajax have won 4–0, 9–0, and 5–0; not a lot of resistance there.
However, they also won six out of six in their UEFA Champions League group, beating Borussia Dortmund with a combined score of 7–1, and besting Sporting CP with a cumulative margin of 9–3. Those are the second-placed teams in Germany and Portugal respectively.
They’ve also beaten their closest title contenders, PSV Eindhoven, 5–0 and 1–2 this season.
Ajax don’t just win; they crush teams.
Any discussion of the contenders for this season’s Champions League trophy will produce the same set of names: Manchester City, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Paris St Germain, Chelsea.
While most oddsmakers place Ajax sixth, you wouldn’t hear the random fan discuss them as a true contender. But don’t count them out just yet.
The road back to dominance
Football fans across Europe fondly remember the 2018-19 Ajax side that made the Champions League last four.
That was the side of Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek, David Neres, and Hakim Ziyech. It was the year we discovered ex-Southampton winger Dusan Tadic was really a false nine and Lasse Schone could take a mean free-kick.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) July 3, 2020
After that season, every football hipster’s answer to ‘Who should [insert name of superclub here] hire?’ became Erik ten Hag.
Yet that team is mostly gone. Of the eleven that started their memorable 1-4 win against Real Madrid in the 2019 round of 16, only three will likely start against Benfica at the same stage in 2022: Noussair Mazraoui, Daley Blind and Dusan Tadic. Most importantly, though, Erik ten Hag is still on the Ajax touchline.
Ajax are a well-run club, led by their general director, the ex-Manchester United and Netherlands goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar.
He has overseen an impressive rebuild, with a combination of internal replacement, purchases, and timely releases, all aided by luck and investment. As a result, the club has returned to being one of Europe’s elite just three years after that run.
The club anticipated departures. While they are now the top team in the Netherlands by some distance, they are still a selling club to Europe’s super-elite.
So instead of hanging on to their young stars, they focused on getting adequate compensation. And they did. Large sums were deposited by Manchester United, Barcelona, Juventus, and Chelsea for Van de Beek, De Jong, De Ligt and Ziyech.
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Ajax released the ageing Schone and sold the discontented Neres. They were not too proud to ship out underperforming replacements like Quincy Promes and Razvan Marin. Nor did they did not get carried away by Tadic’s and Blind’s stellar spells as makeshift centre-forward and centre-back respectively.
Argentine stopper Lisandro Martinez was drafted into defence and Jurrien Timber promoted from the reserve side.
Timber, who progressed through the Ajax youth system alongside his twin brother Quinten, has essentially replaced De Ligt – but he is not much like him.
At 5’10”, Timber is unimposing. He is, however, excellent on the ball, often dribbling out from the back confidently. He reads the game well and is comfortable playing in a high line.
Ryan Gravenberch was also promoted to take Van de Beek’s place and has done so with aplomb. There is talk of interest from Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Real Madrid.
To play alongside Gravenberch, Ajax bought attacking midfielder Steven Berghuis from fierce rivals Feyenoord this summer, unworried about the uproar caused.
Finally, and most intriguingly, the club drafted in West Ham United ‘flop’ Sebastien Haller, choosing to focus on his performances for Utrecht and Eintracht Frankfurt rather than his meagre return in east London.
The tactical genius of Erik ten Hag
Ajax have conceded just 10 goals this season. This isn’t the result of having world-class defenders. Martinez may become one, but he isn’t yet. Timber is 20.
Instead, Ajax press early, led by Haller and the ferocious Edson Alvarez. Bought from Club America, the Mexican is a defensive infrastructure by himself, partial to a tackle, positionally excellent, seemingly everywhere at once.
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If there is a vulnerability to Ajax, it’s in defensive transition. But they attempt to solve this by having Alvarez press very high up the pitch – not exactly trying to win the ball, but slowing down opposing attacks, allowing his team-mates to get back in shape.
Quick passing in the full-back areas can also hurt them, as both Mazraoui and Blind are easily pulled out of position. Yet this rarely happens. Again, it is Alvarez who prevents it, dropping down either side of the centre-backs to form a 5-4-1. Thus, they maintain defensive width without the wingers tracking back.
Erik ten Hag’s preferred formation is the 4-2-3-1 which he played during that magical 2018-19 season. However, the maturation of Alvarez as a holding midfielder has allowed him to play a 4-3-3 more often.
Ajax’s playmakers are the wingers, Tadic and the scintillating young Brazilian Antony. They link up with their full-back and the attacking midfielder on their side. While they do, the other winger stays wide, stretching the opposition defence and creating space for men to get in the box to support Haller.
Tadic plays like a cross between a No.10 and a winger. A left-footer playing on the left, he’s the chief creator, often curling passes or crosses into the box. The key is that he doesn’t do this from the flanks but from 15 yards inside the touchline.
Think De Bruyne for Manchester City, but higher up the pitch. The result? Eight goals and sixteen assists so far this season.
Antony operates differently, coming infield chiefly as a goal threat. A precocious dribbler, he is far more likely to cut in and shoot than to pass, a la Arjen Robben. Yet, he crosses well when he chooses to, registering eight assists to go with his nine goals so far.
The Brazilian’s performances have seen him break into the Tite’s Selecao and Antony has credited Ajax for his development, specifically Tadic and Ten Hag.
In an interview with the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, Antony mentioned how his captain is a daily example of how to be a professional and, of Ten Hag, said: “Every player under his guidance becomes a better footballer through his training.
“Since my arrival, he has given me a lot of confidence and believed in what I can do. I am grateful to him for that. I respect him very much.”
Ten Hag also understands Haller’s strengths in a way David Moyes never did.
In east London, he was often charged with being an old-fashioned target man. Yet the Ivorian likes to drop deep, getting involved in build-up play and displacing defenders before arriving in the box to meet crosses.
He is often found in line with Gravenberch and Berghuis, not ahead of them. And it works: Haller has scored twenty-six goals so far this season.
The result of all this movement, as well as playing so many technical players together, is that Ajax often have as many as seven threats to score or assist on the field at any point in time, all in constant motion. That is a lot for any defence to keep track of. Most can’t.
The result? One hundred and eight goals scored by mid-February.
That is the goal difference of a juggernaut, and Ajax are a juggernaut.
They brushed aside all comers in a tricky Champions League group stage, and haven’t given the brilliant PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord a chance back home.
They play collective, vibrant football full of sest and technique. They’ll likely stroll to the league title, with the only potential tough games being those away to AZ Alkmaar, who have given them their toughest challenge this season, and at home to Feyenoord.
The real test is the Champions League, where they have their eyes on the ultimate prize.
In a recent interview with De Volkskrant, Tadic said: “We have to believe that we can win the Champions League this season. That is the mentality in the group.
“We’ve lost quite a few times, but in recent years I’ve never seen a team that was really better than us. We must believe in great things. Think big. Try to win three prizes.”
On the basis of their play, it’s hard to argue with him. They are one of Europe’s best teams, in a group with Manchester City, Bayern Munich, and Liverpool.
First up is Benfica, and for now, their attention will be there. But don’t be too shocked if Ajax go all the way. What a story that would be.