April 30, 2019 By Kevin Omondi
Football is many things to many people. I seek to appreciate the myriad views it has. For some, it evokes a strong sense of community, much like our beloved Gor Mahia FC and our yoyoing in-laws AFC Leopards. There are those for whom, the game is a religion, congregating for sacred service in stadia across the world worshipping icons like Diego Maradona and our Lord and Saviour, CR7. For some, it is struggle-representing the endless strife between good and evil, social justice and oppression, exclusion and inclusion, personal strife and triumph over those struggles that ail our being. For others, it is the only thing. Life. Then there are those who only see a bottom-line. They have commodified the game, thinking of it as no more than a product, like any other, for mass consumption. And some view it as an industry- a production line that churns fans, players, managers, systems and professionals- with no one sharing this vision and executing it as well as the Dutch Ajax Amsterdam.
There is a universal, visceral dread that emanates whenever an underdog, against all odds, is sent out against the colossus. David against Goliath. Leonidas versus Xerxes at Thermopylae. King Cetshwayo against the Brits. Ajax Amsterdam in the UEFA Champions League 2018/19.
Ajax hasn’t always been the minnow that every football conversation today would have you believe. They were the dominant force in football in the early 1970s, earning a hattrick of European Cups on the trot, and late 1980s, under Johan Cruyff before his relationship with the board went ‘tits-up’, and Ajax gave the world ‘Total Football‘- perhaps the greatest philosophy that has and continues to shape the modern game, all plaudits to Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff. Italian football made the 90s. Unwanted in his home, Johan Cruyff found eventual solace at the Camp Nou, where Barcelona, baptized in the ways Total Football succumbed to the temptations of star-glamour, merit and tactical superiority of Fabio Capello‘s AC Milan in the 1994 Final.
On the other hand, Ajax, since the departure of Cruyff had endured even darker days, until Louis van Gaal. With the holy trinity of a return to their footballing heritage- Total Football- tactical and technical refinement; his philosophy of complete team co-dependence and youth development he was able to defeat the triumvirate of Pablo Maldini, Marcel Desailly and Franco Baresi marshalls of a defence that few if any had ever passed, in the day’s most expensive and star-studded side. Louis van Gaal is the greater manager at Ajax of all time if one were to ask him, and he wouldn’t be merely paying lip service to his ego.
The Ajax Champions League side of 1994/95 were perfect- tactically astute and technically well-drilled, youth with impeccable work-ethic, ambitious and had a voracious attitude, aptitude and appetite for winning; together with experience brought in the previous season in the person of old guard Frank Rijkaard (returning from Milan), intelligence, team unity, a philosophy and over-reaching vision of multi-function heralded van Gaal’s team: Edwin van Saar, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, the de Boers, Marc Overmars, Danny Blind (C) and company. A team averaging 23 years of age, won the UEFA Champions League (runners up in 1996) and Eredivisie, unmatched by any other team, without a single defeat!
After the golden years of van Gaal at the helm, Ajax experienced considerable tumult- general in-fighting for the soul of the club; as with teams at the top do- ‘getting shot at’ by rivals PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord and less renowned sides, most notably AZ Alkmaar (under Louis van Gaal) and FC Twente; humiliated by (the likes of) Real Madrid, on repeated occasion, in Europe, eventually falling out of the competition altogether. However, from the acrimony, hits-and-misses of the late Cruyff’s attempts to return the club to its former glory were appointed, from the 94/95 title-winning side, Edwin van der Saar and Marc Overmars as CEO and Technical Director and return Ajax to the ‘Ajax way’. The harsh reality is that Ajax simply could neither generate revenues in the manner of Manchester United nor attract benevolence from the riches of oil hoping to buy trophies like Manchester City, and so the club became a ‘selling’ club- prepping and feeding the larger capitalists of Western Europe with gems with names like Dennis Bergkamp, Rafael van der Vaart, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Luis Suarez, Arkadiusz Milik, Christian Eriksen, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Daley Blind, Jasper Cillessen, Davinson Sanchez…
Football is an industry, at least for some clubs that realize that amongst that industry, the production of young talent, with regularity is their only solution to lacking that financial cutting edge. Academy’s like West Ham’s, AS Monaco, Southampton, Barcelona’s La Masia (The Farmhouse), of late, Real Madrid’s La Fabrica and Ajax’s De Toekomst (The Future). The majority of the Ajax team are graduates of their academy and the pragmatism that youth need to play alongside experience to develop and they need to find managers who are willing to trust youth and in effect mould them. Develop locally, and buy experience. With the budget of your typical, midsize Championship side and after a few false starts, enter Peter Bosz.
Bosz, marks the beginning of Ajax’s resplendence, especially after the tenure of Frank de Boer, which brought some trophies before tapering out into lacklustre and underachievement. Tactically flexible, Bosz’s understanding of football, for me seems to begin with and ends in the attack. Asked if he ever prepared for the shield side of the game, he’d oft remark that his team didn’t need to defend if they attacked as he’d instructed them. Ballsy. His teams are brilliant to watch but painfully suffer from their apparent inability to defend whenever they face a side either with similar intent and capability to attack or sides which can simply defend. Bosz gave us the sweeper keeper- Andre Onana, formerly of La Masia; the centre-back forever carrying the ball forward with speed and energy, Davinson Sanchez (sold to Tottenham Hotspur); deep-lying and versatile play-a-maker Lasse Schoene and winger-midfielder-finisher Hakim Ziyech (bought for quite some change from FC Twente) and promoting Matthijs de Ligt and Justin Kluivert from De Toekomst to make up the side against which Jose Mourinho packed the bus in the Europa League 2016/17 Final, losing 2-0 to the vasty wealthier Manchester United. Naturally, Bosz was destined for greater things, most notably engineering the implosion of Borussia Dortmund the following season as continues to divide opinion at Bayer Leverkusen.
Having written him off in their 6-2 loss to rivals Feyenoord earlier this year, Erik ten Hag, has the makings of a legend. As does the 19-year old captain Matthijs de Ligt, whose previous mention on this site, alluded to the error of the Dutch national coach in trusting a 19 year at centre back in the World Cup qualifiers. Youth and experience form the pillars of ten Hag’s current European giant killers. Overmars bought in experience in the persons of Daley Blind and Dusan Tadic and alongside the young, battle-hardened and experienced (contrasted with other youth players at a similar level) team.
Of most importance is the fact that ten Hag slightly strays away from Total Football’s 4-3-3, for a 4-2-3-1 that shows great fluidity and versatility to morph into a 4-4-2 in attack and turns to 3 at the back in defence with the goalkeeper an additional passing lane, if the opposition does not allow their preferred passing from the back. The fullbacks are positioned higher up the pitch with the wingers tucking in and cutting inside to work the channels. In the Eredivisie, they use a target man, Kasper Dolberg complemented by Donny van de Beek in attack, or, and in the Champions League, they tend to use Dusan Tadic as the False 9 as well as ‘Number 10’.
ten Hag’s superiority in midfield is remarkable. Against opponents who are unrelenting in pressing and play higher up the field, Frenkie de Jong tucks into the left half-space to form a 3 man defence alongside Blind and de Ligt with the fullbacks (Nicolas Tagliafico, Noussair Mazraoui) high and wide providing passing options to bypass the press; sides that drop back allow de Jong to sit in front of Blind and de Ligt to dictate play from the central midfield. Ajax creates an extra man in midfield in, de Ligt the capable, energetic, ball-playing centre-back who carries the ball forward and step up into the midfield; the wingers, especially the most impressive Hakim Ziyech who is excellent across three positions- winger, midfield and attacker, tuck in and David Neres continue to pack the middle as does the striker, Tadic who drops in from attack to receive the ball.
The effect of this is a very good first press that has been very disruptive to the likes of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid and the complete overrun in the midfield of Juventus and Real Madrid as there are more bodies with seemingly infinite starting positions and with the energy and spaces to run into, especially when coupled with their quick and controlled passing through which players seem to always find an offensive player. They are also comfortable with holding onto the ball and through the fluidity of winger-central midfielder combinations, the range, vision and ability of de Jong, de Ligt, Ziyech, de Beek and Tadic to pick out and pass to a player are amongst the most lethal sides in Europe today.
With their commitment to attack, naturally something must give, and in Ajax’s case, they leak goals from counter attacks and the spaces they leave behind the fullbacks. Their stats favour them in possession and pass completion and the number of goals scored as well as goals conceded. This season they have been the dark horse, especially in the one competition that is rigged to favour financial heft as the Champions League, coming up through the second round of qualifying exposing the tactical and conditioning fraudulence of traditionally mighty teams in Bayern Munich in the group stages (after their 1-1 draw at the Allianz Arena, ‘Gladbach, Freiburg and Fortuna Dusseldorf, taking heart from Ajax’s performance reigned terror in Munich, winning 0-3 and earning unprecedented draws respectively); Real Madrid, a side that annihilated, at the Bernabeu, 1-4 and were still considered ‘unlucky’ not to have beaten them by a larger margin and Juventus, in Turin, where they outrun and outfought the midfield, showcasing the 8-time Italian champion’s embarrassment for what should pass off as a midfield.
Not to send flowers before a funeral, after such performances and a spot in the Champions League semi-finals, this Ajax side is ripe for the picking. van der Saar appreciates poorer sides like his are stuck in perpetual rebuilds. de Jong is already off to Barcelona with big money trades expected for the likes of de Light, Ziyech et al. This is certainly the last we will see of perhaps the next best Ajax squad after van Gaal’s Invincibles. Before then, we should support and enjoy their display against Tottenham Hotspur, under the charge of the best manager in the UK in Mauricio Pochettino and the next (only other) inexpensive side.
Despite not having his best team available for selection, squad depth, and the luxury of the league rescheduling all its fixtures to accommodate his side in the Champions League, any team that plays a high line against Pochettino is simply asking to concede at least two goals. He has the tactical acumen and technical nous to exploit every last flaw that Ajax has, of which there are many, but Ajax simply don’t and won’t care, and that’s what’s made them so prolific in the Champions League this season- earning our support.
Can the side averaging 22.5 years old, go all the way? The Future is Here.