There are two eras what stick out to me when thinking of Ajax of Amsterdam, the dominant Dutch philosophers that bought Total Football to the world. The mid 1960’s to early 70’s team that quashed all beneath them in winning six Dutch titles, four KNVB Beker’s and three European Champions Cups arguably one of the greatest ‘teams’ in any era of football. Then there was the team of 1995 made up of an already famous academy of players nicknamed ‘De Toekomst’ that went on amidst three successive years of Eredivisie titles to win the greatest prize of all in beating AC Milan in the Champions League.
Like many before and since, that great Ajax team almost completely made up of homegrown talent soon broke up, the ambition of their star players to play in Europe’s greatest leagues matched with the huge financial incentives on reward. Dutch football just cannot compete, but in it’s philosophy of nurturing the next generation, it like no other club in world football has lead by example as the best in the business.
I have always kept tabs on the way Ajax do things and have been an admirer since the 80’s when the likes of Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Denis Bergkamp were starting out their careers at the De Meer. By 1995 and that great team of Louis van Gaal the likes of Kluivert, Davids, Seedorf, van der Sar, the De Boer’s would all be household names. The shift in European power and the money through Champions League football and domestically here in England especially perhaps leading to the decline of great ‘teams’ from minority leagues like Ajax. For all their rich history and quintessential Dutch philosophy, the money of the Premier League, Serie A, The Bundesliga and the glamour of Real Madrid & Barcelona in La Liga have always lead the head turning when it comes to where one wants to play.
Ajax in recent times have had to do things differently. Yes they still continue to unearth their own nurtured talent that have gone on through the ages to great things for both club and country. Daley Blind, Nigel de Jong, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and Christian Eriksen to name a few… But recruitment has also been key to survival, in finding the likes of Jari Litmanen, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Luis Suarez over the years they have profited on having some of the best players in the modern game at their disposal. But they always move on.
I was on a tour of Ajax’s Johann Cruyff Arena back in 2014 after Frank de Boer’s great team had just won their fourth successive Dutch title. I remember walking around the club shop and thinking (due to my then negligent lack of expansive football knowledge outside Europe’s top leagues and here in England) that I don’t know any of their players. Shirts with Milik, El Ghazi, Klaassen… It was that day I thought ‘Is the next generation coming through’?
Three years later and knowing much more about the latest crop of talent I was delighted to see that Ajax were making strides in European competition, they played expansive football in a way that generations before them did in beating Schalke & Lyon before reaching the 2017 Europa League final eventually losing to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. But I knew that day would be a stepping stone to greater things. That was unless the team was broken up? This is usual practice with a side like Ajax following its on field success.
Off went Davinson Sanchez, the Colombian centre back who they bought a year previous from Atletico Nacional for €5m to Tottenham Hotspur for £42m. Proof of great talent spotting becoming huge financial success. Bertrand Traore followed to Chelsea, as did Davy Klaassen to Everton, but the core of the squad remained, Hakim Ziyech, Lasse Schone, Joel Veltman, teenagers Mathijs de Ligt, Donny van de Beek, Frenkie de Jong, Kasper Dolberg and 20 year old Brazilian David Neres. They are all still at Ajax all still playing the Ajax way.
Keeping a regular eye on the team for me I saw it as no surprise that Ajax would do well in Europe this time around, the signing of Dusan Tadic in the summer was I thought one of the most astute captures in the window. As was the return of Daley Blind, son of Ajax legend Danny and a player who’s experience would be essential to assisting the development of the likes of De Ligt and Tagliafico in defence. Ajax were unbeaten in a Champions League group that contained Bayern Munich and Benfica, after drawing Real Madrid in the round of 16, a team in turmoil following three successive European titles, I said to myself…’Just maybe’.
I honestly thought that chance had gone after a fine first leg performance at the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam where Real Madrid were lucky to come away with a 2-1 win, but this Ajax team is made of stern stuff. Naive perhaps in the way they play they fear no-one and will continue to attack from the back, continue to take chances, continue to play the beautiful game in the right way, and that philosophy built on years and years of education was enough to not only see them through in the Bernabeu, it was enough to destroy the thirteen times title winners in their own back yard and what will follow will be a dismantling of one of the greatest teams in Europe because of it.
In a 4-1 win Ajax last night were magnificent, player for player they looked a class above Real Madrid and their pressing game resulted in world player of the year Luka Modric looking average at best whilst the usually unplayable Toni Kroos could hardly even pass to a team-mate, let’s not even start with substitute Gareth Bale’s performance. Tadic, a true number ten playing with confidence and freedom was the best player on the park amidst the billion pound superstars. Neres and Ziyech nuisances all night with their direct positive play, van de Beek running in behind like an old fashioned box-to-box midfielder with the Barcelona bound de Jong and long serving Lasse Schone disciplined in the centre of the park. Defensively they took risks, whilst Mazraouri at full back could be the Achilles heel he played with spirit and desire unmatched by any in white, the terrific Tagliafico on the left will be one of those that move on, Blind solid and reliable, De Ligt looking every bit a £100m central defender and even Onana in goal has been raising a few eyebrows amidst the top sides on the continent.
The last word should be for Erik ten Hag who has had the seemingly easy job since taking over the reigns from Peter Bosz of coaching this team to play the Ajax way. He is yet another man that buys in to the philosophy of this great club and by doing so is the one that could be responsible for making them great again.
In fact the only thing not great about the performance of Ajax last night is that they unfortunately didn’t do it in their famous white and red.
Whether Ajax will go on to achieve these great things matched previously by only legendary sides of theirs by winning the Champions League or reaching the final is a question for another day? Perhaps it is a bridge too far in this day and age where money and nationality dictates those who stay at the top, perhaps most sadly this side won’t even get the chance to create its dynasty before it is torn apart by the big boys and their bucks, but one thing is for sure, this current team of Ajax footballers is certainly at the top of the global game and as a traditionalist of football myself, long may it continue.