Can Ajax reclaim former glories with an accent on youth?
Few results this season have shocked world football as much as Ajax’s 4-1 demolition of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the Champions League.
Some blamed poor management at Madrid in the wake of Zinedine Zidane’s departure after winning European club football’s top prize last year.
The fact that they have now re-hired the French legend speaks volumes about how letting him go in the first place was a major mistake.
In part, his exit was borne out of frustration over plans to sell Cristiano Ronaldo, knowing Real would inevitably failing to replace him.
However, their stunning defeat at the hands of Ajax wasn’t entirely self-inflicted; it was also down to a renaissance for the Dutch giants.
In truth, they have been a shadow in recent years of the club which won four European Cups – three in a row from 1971-73 and another in 1995.
More TV money in other, larger markets have seen Ajax fall down the continent’s pecking order, but they have found a different way to compete with the Euro elite.
On a trip to Amsterdam two years ago, I witnessed the beginnings of a process which led directly to that recent 4-1 triumph in Madrid.
The opposing team that day at the Amsterdam Arena were AZ Alkmaar, and the final score exactly mirrored the win over Real two years later.
Trusting young talent
Against AZ, it was amazing to see Ajax field so many talented young players – a host of fearless 18 and 19-year olds starting in a fiercely competitive fixture.
After 10 minutes or so, it was apparent they were quite right to trust in this latest batch of outstanding products from their famous De Toekomst academy.
Seven of those players in the squad to face Alkmaar started against Madrid in the second leg: Andre Onana, Matthijs de Ligt, Donny van de Beek, David Neres, Frenkie De Jong Lasse Schone and Hakim Ziyech, with Schone on the scoresheet in both games.
Ajax has long had a reputation for turning out major talent, including Johan Cruyff, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cristian Erikson and Luis Suarez to name but a few.
In 2011, Dutch master Cruyff returned to the club in a technical role and had plans to reinvigorate the club’s youth facilities, sell high-earning and ageing players and completely change the way that Ajax operated.
He resigned the following year after a dispute over attempts to bring Louis van Gaal into the club’s set-up, but the seeds of change were sown.
Erik ten Hag, Ajax’s current manager, has noted: “At 19, they needed to be ready to play in the first team, because at 20, they are gone.”
The reserve team, Jong Ajax would be filled with teenagers that would play the Ajax way of free-flowing attacking football.
De Toekomst currently produces the highest number of young players who become professionals. The academy clearly has a formula that works.
Director and former goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar has helped oversee this period of change. “We have to give a [clear] path to the next one. If players stay too long, the next ones cannot play. The whole things chokes.”
When 21-year-old midfielder Frenkie de Jong leaves this summer for Barcelona in a £74m transfer, Ajax has the likes of Jurgen Ekkelenkamp waiting to come through and take his place.
Hunting for honours
It is only recently, however, that Ajax has been able to combine nurturing young talent with challenging once again for Europe’s major honours.
‘The likes of De Light and Van de Beek will eventually move on, but Ajax hope they will have repaid them for polishing their talent before leaving’
For some time, they have produced players and sold them before they are able to make a real impact for Ajax outside of the Netherlands.
Last summer, seven of the current crop were called to a meeting and asked to extend their stays in Amsterdam for another season or two to help Ajax push for the elite prizes and give something back to the club that had developed their abilities from eight years old.
It worked, and they are now seeing their academy labour is now bearing fruit. As well as being through to the Champions League quarter-finals, Ajax is second in the Eredivisie, five points behind PSV Eindhoven with a game in hand.
The only player who didn’t respond to the club’s plea was Kluivert who wanted to escape from his father Patrick’s shadow and joined Roma.
The likes of De Light and Van de Beek will eventually move on, but Ajax hope they will have repaid them for polishing their talent before leaving.
Another future star who featured against AZ in that game two years ago was Abdelhak ‘Appie’ Nouri. He was seen as Ajax’s very brightest prospect, a player that the team could be built around.
Then, tragedy struck during a pre-season friendly in July 2017, when Nouri suffered a cardiac arrhythmia attack which resulted in severe and permanent brain damage.
As well as being a terrible blow for the player and his family, it must have placed a huge burden on his team-mates, preparing for a new season and having to fill the void left by Nouri’s enforced retirement at the age of 20.
Perhaps the experience of doing so further toughened up the rest of Ajax’s young guns; they have certainly pushed on this season, as confirmed by their Champions League progress.
Going all the way and securing another European crown may not be a realistic prospect, but a first Eredivisie title for four years (and a 34th overall) is definitely achievable.
In the meantime, more talent will be emerging from the Ajax academy, and perhaps some of those players will want to stay and create a dynasty of success in Amsterdam – if Van der Sar allows them…
All photos from Wikimedia Commons.