The six stages of Ajax’s evolution into one of Europe’s most exciting sides
One of the most enjoyable subplots to this year’s season has been Ajax’s return to prominence.
Their recent Champions League victories over Real Madrid and Juventus have set up a mouth-watering clash with Tottenham in the semi-finals, while they are also hitting form in the Eredivisie at just the right time.
Playing the brand of attacking, free-flowing, total football for which they are world-renowned, many will be rooting for Ajax to go the whole way. But having lost the Europa League final in 2017, how did this team come together and what are the reasons behind their recent success?
Europa League heartbreak
This story starts in Stockholm, where Ajax lost the Europa League final 2-0 to Manchester United. That night had probably been a case of ‘too much, too young’, as Peter Bosz’s starlets were outwitted by a bullish Jose Mourinho side. With an average age of 22, Ajax had been the youngest team to ever feature in a major European final.
Bosz departed that summer to take the Borussia Dortmund job, while the spine of the Ajax team was gutted. Davy Klassen and Davinson Sanchez joined Everton and Tottenham respectively, while striker Bertrand Traoré returned to Chelsea from his loan spell.
From the top down, it was clear that Ajax needed revitalizing if they wanted to return to the European elite and bounce back from the cup final heartbreak.
Less than two years ago, Manchester United defeated Ajax 2-0 in a one-sided Europa League Final.
In that time span, Ajax have sold Davinson, Riedewald, Klaassen, Traoré, Younes, Kluivert and improved.
United have spent a fortune of money on transfers and wages, and declined. pic.twitter.com/QQojGRLlMF
— Zach Lowy (@ZachLowy) April 17, 2019
Keizer gets his marching orders
Unfortunately Bosz’s replacement Marcel Keizer wasn’t able build on his success and after just six months was sacked following a Dutch Cup defeat to FC Twente.
While Ajax were only five points off top spot in the Eredivisie at the time, failure in Europe also cost Keizer. They had lost in the Champions League preliminary round to Nice before dropping into the Europa League qualifier. Having made the previous season’s final, they were beaten by Rosenborg and failed to even make the group stages.
Keizer’s tenure had gotten off to a tragic start when 20-year-old Abdelhak Nouri collapsed in a pre-season friendly against Werder Bremen and suffered permanent brain damage. Understandably, this was a difficult hurdle for a young Ajax side to overcome and Keizer deserves credit for keeping them competitive at all.
However, by Christmas the Ajax board had grown impatient with their performances. Edwin van der Sar – now their managing director – issued a statement saying: “We do not have the confidence that we will reach the levels we seek in the manner in which we have been proceeding.”
The Ten Hag turnaround
Ajax poached Erik ten Hag from fellow Eredivisie side Utrecht in December 2017. Having led Utrecht to fifth and fourth in the previous two seasons, he had proven domestic credentials.
More interestingly in terms of style though, Ten Hag had spent two years at Bayern Munich coaching their reserve side at the same time as Pep Guardiola. The Catalan manager was himself a disciple of Ajax legend Johan Cruyff and a purveyor of the total football that the club was seeking to achieve.
Results improved under Ten Hag and the side’s form has been impressive – in 69 games in charge in all competitions, he has lost just seven times. After finishing second in the Eredivisie last season, he had to guide Ajax through three Champions League qualifiers before they could even start to dream about reaching the latter stages.
Ajax currently sit atop the Eredivisie with 80 points; PSV are on 77 with a game in hand. Delivering the league title would be an achievement in itself, as Ajax have not won it since 2014.
2 – Erik ten Hag has lost only two of his 22 European games as a manager (W11 D9). Mastermind. pic.twitter.com/JJ5FoUhOLe
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) April 17, 2019
Youngsters continue to blossom
If the Europa League campaign of 2016-17 had given Ajax’s youngsters a taste of what was to come, Ten Hag has allowed them to spread their wings even further.
Nineteen-year-old skipper Matthijs De Ligt grabbed the headlines for his sterling performance and match-winning header in Turin. De Ligt was 17 when he played in the Europa League final and since then his rise has been unstoppable. Last December he won the Golden Boy Award, becoming the first defender to pick up the accolade.
Of similar prowess is midfielder Frenkie de Jong, who is already a star at the age of 21. It takes something special to keep Ballon D’Or winner Luka Modric under control, but De Jong did just that at the Bernabeu in an assured performance that was wiser than his years. He’ll be back in Spain next season, as Barcelona secured a £65million deal for his services in January.
Meanwhile, the likes André Onana, Donny van de Beek and David Neres make up an exciting cohort of players under the age of 25.
No substitute for experience
Despite the success achieved by academy products and other youngsters, Van der Sar and fellow director Marc Overmars made it their mission to also sign proven players to complement their raw potential.
In Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind, Ajax have found just that and both signings have made vital contributions to their season. At 30 and 28 respectively, they are exactly the sort of experienced figures needed to assist their capable deputies.
This season, Ajax have run riot on the pitch. On Tuesday night, they beat Vitesse 4-2 and in doing so became the first team to score 160 goals in all competitions in a single season – some feat.
Tadic has been a key component of this goal-scoring machine, contributing to 55 goals (34 of his own, plus 21 assists) in 51 appearances. Many Southampton fans must be wishing they had held onto the Serbian…
European giant killers
Ajax’s knockout round performances in the Champions League have been some of the most head-turning of the season, seeing off two of the competition’s favourites in Real and Juve to progress to the semis.
In the group stage they also picked up a 1-1 draw at the Allianz Arena against Bayern Munich and drew with them at home in a thrilling 3-3 game, with Nicolás Tagliafico grabbing a 95th-minute equaliser.
At the Bernabeu, they blew Real away in a stunning 4-1 win. Tadic was magnificent that night, setting up Hakim Ziyech to open the scoring and adding a goal of his own later on. Such was the quality of his performance that French newspaper L’Equipe awarded him a perfect match rating of 10/10. This was only the ninth time in history they have given such an accolade.
Ajax are now three games away from lifting their first Champions League title since 1995, which would be an extraordinary achievement for such a young side. Intriguingly, they will have to conquer Spurs’ cohort of former players in Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Christian Eriksen and Davinson Sanchez to get there.
Of course, it remains to be seen just how many of their prodigies they can hold to in the summer but regardless of that, they have done a lot to remind any doubters that they are among the European elite.
Having missed out on the 2018 World Cup, there will also be wider hopes nationally that Ajax’s form can be a boost for the Netherlands in their Euro 2020 qualification campaign and in the semi-finals of the Nations League, where they face England in June.