AFC Ajax: A club that is blessed with a glorious history, are widely acknowledged as being within the ‘underdog category‘ of European football in the modern-era. With the glory days of the 70’s and the last European success in 1995 far behind them, silverware on the continental stage is no more than a mere memory for many supports in the Dutch Capital.
However, during the 2018/19 season, Ajax stunned the world by knocking out Real Madrid and Juventus along the way to reaching the Champions League Semi-Final, only to be denied of a first final in the competition for 23 years when Lucas Moura scored a last gasped winner for Tottenham Hotspur, sending the North London side to an all-English finale against Liverpool.
Beyond the run in Europe, the campaign also welcomed a first Eredivisie title in five years, as well as a KNVB Cup triumph – earning a domestic double in what was an unforgettable season.
Three years on and many of the superstars from that heroic Ajax squad have moved on to other clubs around Europe. However, key members of that side (for example: Dušan Tadić, Nicolás Tagliafico, André Onana, David Neres, Daley Blind, and Manager Erik ten Hag) all remain in Amsterdam with their eyes set on going one step further with a somewhat new-look Ajax side.
This season, Ten Hag’s men have hit the ground running in style by winning 11 of the first 14 fixtures in the Eredivisie. Even more impressively, Ajax won all five of their first Champions League Group Stage games, including an aggregate 7-1 victory over German powerhouses Borussia Dortmund.
The face value statistics for this season are made even more spectacular knowing that the Amsterdam club have only conceded two goals from the first 14 Eredivisie fixtures, whilst also netting 43 goals at the other end.
Latin American Flavour = Key to Success?
Whilst the squad three years ago had a 21-year-old Neres, who has struggled to recreate much of the breathtaking form of the 2018/19 season. Similar can be said for Tagliafico, despite the Argentine left-back continuing to attract transfer interest away from The Netherlands.
In appreciation of what they two have added to the club as of recent years, Director of Football Marc Overmars has since focussed much more heavily on the region. This has been made evident with the defensive acquisitions of Mexican Edson Álvarez and Argentine Lisandro Martínez.
The pair joined the club in the summer of 2019, just months after the devastating Champions League defeat to ‘Spurs. Replacing the former club captain and highly sought Matthijs de Ligt, the pair found it difficult to stamp their mark in Amsterdam, but really began to find their rhythm towards the backend of last season.
Both know as central defenders, Ten Hag would shake things up which had since provided some awe-inspiring results. This change would be to deploy Álvarez as a defensive midfielder, sitting slightly ahead of Martínez who would remain at the heart of the defence.
Since being deployed in a slightly unfamiliar role, the Mexican has been a revelation with his ability to read the game and overriding passion for a crunching tackle. As a result, the former Club America man currently leads the club this season in blocks-per-game and is only bettered by Martínez for interceptions-per-game.
As a club, Ajax have a tradition of stamping their own style on the European game, and that has been done once again through their unique style of defending.
Using two ball-playing defenders, Timber and Martínez thrive with the ball at the feet and thrive through spontaneous bursts up the pitch. In turn, the pair of them are 5.7’ and 5.8’ feet in height, going against the demand for tall and physically demanding central defenders. The only natural defender at the club who is above the expected height for a player in this position is the third choice Perr Schuurs. The Dutch youngster was expected to be the direct replacement de Ligt, after captaining his former side Fortuna Sittard at the age of 17, matching the now-Juventus star with remarkable leadership qualities and similar styles of play.
Put back into perspective that with only two goals conceded in the domestic campaign, it is a wonder how Ten Hag has made this all possible with a lack of aerial ability across the defensive duo. However, where they lack height, the pair make up for it in pace, agility, and tackling ability. Timber leads the club in tackles-per-game with 2.5 whilst Martínez tops the charts through clearances-per-game with an astounding 3.2, making them a highly remarkable dynamic defensive pair that are able to do much of the dirty work, without having the aerial and physical aspect to their advantage.
The pair have even been able to keep Norwegian superstar Erling Braut Haaland quiet, in a time when many teams could not!
How does this Compare to the Past?
Drawing back the ultra-successful side of three years ago, it is important to note that de Ligt and his then partner Daley Blind are both polar opposite players to the pair that now occupy the same position.
Standing at 6.2’, the now Juventus defender enjoys a strong physical battle, but given his age, needs the right players around him to truly flourish, with Fernando Llorente being utilised by Spurs to exploit the weaknesses of de Ligt.
Additionally, the former Ajax captain failed to have an outright defensively-minded midfielder sitting in front of him, where if Álvarez had accompanied de Ligt in the past, then an argument could be made that the historic Champions League Semi-Final that we all sadly remember, could had been prevented.
With the focus all on the 2018 Golden Boy winner, Blind; a more natural left-back, was his partner in crime during the 2018/19 season at center-back.
As highlighted this season, the son of Ajax legend Danny Blind is enjoying a consistently strong campaign down the left side of defence. Away from his duties previous at centre-back, it is clear that Blind is much more effective in the wider areas of defence and that Ajax now have two far more natural central defenders.
Mouth-Watering Attacking Flair
Ajax have a whole host of exciting players within the roster; however, the worldwide media will all have one name on their lips when talking about the Dutch club, and the is: Antony.
Previously responsible for getting the fans off of their sits was Hakim Ziyech. A player who would dazzle fans and opposition players alike with his wizardry. Setting off to Chelsea, Ziyech left a major hole in the club’s attacking outlet, but it would take no time at all before Antony would replace the Moroccan, after scoring on his debut for Ajax, against Sparta Rotterdam.
The former São Paulo winger is best known for his star-gazing samba ability, lighting bursts down the right flank, and unrivalled confidence with a ball at his feet. In his second season at the Johan Cruijff ArenA, Antony is setting the fire alight with his eye-catching Champions League performances and all-around impressive match statistics. The promising winger leads the club in dribbles-per-game and is fouled the most of any player in the famous red & white of Ajax.
His quality has been appreciated by all but also by none other than international manager Tite. The Brazilian Manager gave Antony his debut, beating off the incredible competition of Brazilian wingers, to score on his debut in a 3-1 win over Venezuela.
A breakout campaign for the Brazil international so far, Antony was defiant and unforgiving in the clashes against Dortmund. Crowned as Man of the Match in Germany, he was able to cause havoc for the Dortmund defence after previously grabbing a goal himself in the game back in Amsterdam during the statement-of-intent 4-0 win.
Ajax are known for their free-flowing football, which is why questions were raised when £18.8 million was splashed out on former West Ham United and Frankfurt striker Sebastien Haller.
A player who is far from mobile, the Ivorian’s height and build make him the complete opposite of a ‘traditional’ Ajax forward in years gone by, if you compare him to the lively Kasper Dolberg or makeshift false-nine in Dušan Tadić.
Despite the odds being heavily against Haller, the former Premier League and Bundesliga striker has become an instant hit in The Netherlands. Netting a staggering 31 goals from his first 42 appearances in all competitions, the target man is the joint top goalscorer in this season Champions League, level with Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski.
Whilst Ajax were blessed with an abundance of goalscorers during the 2018/19 season, Haller offers a constant threat on goal, whilst also being the focal point to piece together the rest of the attack. His presence was best shown during the 2-1 victory over Besiktas, where the Turkish outfit took a 1-0 lead in at the break, Haller was brought on at halftime, where he would dominant the physical battles with the Besiktas defenders, scoring the vital two goals to keep Ajax’s 100% record in the Champions League alive.
The midfield of 2018/19 has been one of the best throughout the history of Ajax. Held by Frenkie de Jong, the attacking duties were carried out by Donny van de Beek and the Danish maestro Lasse Schöne. Since then, all three have departed the club, being replaced by Álvarez , the hotly tipped deep-lying playmaker Ryan Gravenberch and positionally sensational Steven Berghuis – who raised eyebrows by joining the club in the summer of 2021 from domestic rivals Feyenoord.
Tradition is key for Ajax, which is why fans were stunned when a move for Berghuis came to light. However, trust has since been repaid with this transfer as the attacking midfielder has shown his value to the club by scoring key goals and assisting in high-pressure moments, highlighted by his second-most key passes per game, only to be bettered by the club captain Tadić.
Kickstarting his first semester with Ajax, Berghuis has scored five goals with six assists. Much of this is due to his positional quality, being able to go under the radar to drift into key positions, either scoring himself or being able to provide for his teammates.
Tradition is a running theme throughout the fabric of Ajax. Known globally for their ability to develop homegrown talent, Ryan Gravenberch certainly adds to the list of exciting young players who have risen through the ranks in Amsterdam.
Paving his way into the first team after the departure of De Jong, the 19-year-old has always looked comfortable within the men’s game. This season, the playmaker accompanies Berghuis in the heart of the side’s midfielder.
A player who settled into the first team at the age of 18, Gravenberch became a consistent starter for Ajax during last season’s Champions League campaign. After putting in an impressive display, he topped it off with a sublime curling finish, from outside of the box against FC Midtjylland. A goal that would later be awarded as the club’s ‘Goal of the Season‘.
The young midfield is yet to truly develop through goal contributions but has an ability to drive with the ball that only a few can compare to. Despite his age, comparisons have been drawn to Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba. Earning his praise throughout his formative years, Gravenberch stands out with the joint-most number of dribbles within his own half, being able to carry his side away from danger to start attacks going in the other direction.
Where Ajax lacked three years ago, they make up for it now. Experience coming through Berghuis is matched by the raw talent of Gravenberch, which is then balanced by Álvarez who offers both potential and relative experience.
New-Found Quality in Squad Depth
In what was a special campaign three years ago, the starting XI was almost always the same for Ten Hag. Whilst a lack of rotation is the case this season, the quality in depth is much more significant this time around.
In the attacking positions, Neres and new signing Mohamed Daramy fill fans with confidence whenever Tadić or Antony need resting. This can also be said for Mohammed Kudus – a young 21-year-old attacking midfielder from Ghana, who has been injury-ridden for much of his Ajax career but has been a livewire whenever he has represented Ajax and will be expected to challenge for a spot in Ten Hag’s starting XI in the new year.
Squad depth can also be found in defence. The Latin American acquisitions mean that Schuurs offers reassurance when called upon, whilst the new-look Ajax team places Blind in the left-back position ahead of a man who is regularly being monitored by Europe’s elite clubs in Tagliafico.
At right-back, Noussair Mazraoui is the manager’s first choice but after suffering a season-long injury last year, the vital first-team experience was given to the academy Devyne Rensch. In a year that allowed him to showcase his qualities, Rensch has since made his debut for the Dutch national team, after bringing energy and quality with both his attacking and defensive efforts.
However, with the return of Mazraoui this season, the Dutch international has been subject to limited opportunities but based on his performances last season, Rensch will provide excellent cover when called upon.
The Familiar Faces of Three Years Ago
As mentioned earlier, despite the array of departures away from Ajax in recent years, there have been a number of key players who have decided to remain at the club and have since led the charge to maintain the Amsterdam side’s status in Europe’s most coveted competition.
Leading the way is club captain Tadić. A player who joined the club from Southampton in 2017, the Serbian leads a remarkable line of statistics since leaving the Premier League. In 169 appearances for Ajax, the now club captain has scored 83 goals, whilst assisting on 82 occasions – an astounding statistic that means he has added to the club’s goal contribution on average once every game.
Since playing a supporting role in Ajax’s unbelievable 2018/19 campaign, Tadić leads the way with his warrior-like determination and passion, which seemingly inspires much of his teammates.
How Ten Hag has Transformed Ajax.
Besides the players, a special mention is reserved for the manager Erik Ten Hag who has more than deserved his praises for how he has rallied his troops. The last four years have revolutionised how Ajax see’s themselves on a continental stage, going toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite clubs. Working alongside Overmars, the pair have implemented a special transfer policy that almost always works with every new player that walks through the doors. Between them, they have worked wonders off the pitch from a financial stand-point, whilst creating special memories on the pitch.
Working in the lines of Ajax’s traditions of playing a 4-3-3, with a focus on retaining possession and forcing the opposition the chase the ball for 90 minutes, Ten Hag has brought a different edge compared to managers gone by. The former centre-back himself has encouraged his players to play a much more fluid role in regard to their positions, taking inspiration from former colleague Pep Guardiola from their days at Bayern Munich. Whilst marking his own tactical stamp, Ten Hag encourages his attacking stars to rotate during the game, making it much harder for their opponents to mark a specific individual, whilst creating space for the more creative players to flourish.
The Dutch manager also allows his defensive players to continue in the tradition of joining in on the attacking action. Requesting that Álvarez drops slightly deeper, Martínez and Timber enjoy bursts up the pitch, whilst the rejigging of the defensive shape is required when the full-backs also play a supporting role down the flanks.
Crunching the Numbers from Ten Hag’s Reign
As a result of his current four-year tenure, Ten Hag has overseen a win rate of 73%, with his side scoring 507 goals in 187 games. In return, his defence have conceded just 158 goals. A manager who has revolutionised the way that Ajax play, it is no surprise that almost every job available around Europe has Ten Hag linked with it, but with every passing job, his loyalty and love for the club remains. A match made in heaven, Ten Hag’s love story with the club seems to grow ever stronger, as he hopes to create ever-lasting memories in the red & white of Ajax.
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