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Manchester United beware: Ajax are doing something special

Manchester United beware: Ajax are doing something special

23/05/2017 at 11:10Updated 23/05/2017 at 12:14

With an average age of just 20 and a Cruyff disciple at the helm, Manchester United will face an Ajax side that is creating something special, writes Elko Born.

‘Amsterdam! Amsterdam! Amsterdam!’ at least a thousand people sang as Matthijs de Ligt, the 17-year-old Ajax defender, jumped up and down on a platform outside of the Johan Cruyff Arena. Ajax had just beaten Olympique Lyon 4-1 at home in the semi-final of the Europa League, and for the first time in a very long time, Ajax fans were in European ecstasy.

How different had things been for De Ligt a month or two before. During his debut for the Dutch national team in a World Cup qualifier match against Bulgaria, De Ligt made a howler after a mere five minutes, leaving his direct opponent unmarked and letting the Bulgarians score freely. Although no-one really blamed the youngster, the goal was clearly his fault. Danny Blind subbed him off at half-time, and what should have been a memorable evening became a nightmare.

Matthijs de Ligt of Ajax, Davy Klaassen of Ajaxduring the UEFA Europa League semi final match between Olympique Lyonnais and Ajax Amsterdam at Stade de Lyon, on May 11, 2017 in Lyon

Matthijs de Ligt of Ajax, Davy Klaassen of Ajaxduring the UEFA Europa League semi final match between Olympique Lyonnais and Ajax Amsterdam at Stade de Lyon, on May 11, 2017 in LyonGetty Images

De Ligt’s bizarre couple of months illustrate the state of chaos Dutch football is currently in. The wheels seem to have come off the Dutch national team completely, and the Dutch Eredivisie has fallen light years behind other respected European football nations. But in parallel, something very special could be happening at Ajax.

To understand this dynamic, we’ll have to go back to the year the Dutch national team played the last final it will likely play in quite some time: 2010. It was somewhere at the beginning of the season, and Ajax had just been humiliated by Real Madrid in a Champions League group stage game. The next day, Ajax’s best player of all time made it known he'd had enough.

The weekly column Johan Cruyff wrote in one of the biggest daily newspapers in the Netherlands was something special that week. In a scathing attack on Ajax’s board and the general direction the club seemed to be heading in, the legendary number 14 initiated what would later be called the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Amsterdam.

The next couple of years were chaotic, but what emerged from Cruyff’s rebellion was a new Ajax, with the likes of Frank de Boer, Dennis Bergkamp, Jaap Stam and Marc Overmars all taking up positions in the club’s organisation, both on and off the training pitch. Under Cruyff’s leadership, these Ajax stars prioritised one thing over everything else: the club was going to focus 100% on their youth academy. According to Cruyff and his friends, the one thing that had always been their greatest strength.

And this was never some sort of PR-position either. Ajax’s days of spending large amounts of cash on second-rate players drawn from the networks of stop gap managers like Martin Jol and Henk ten Cate are truly in the past. Against Olympique Lyon at home in the semi-final of the Europa League, Ajax’s starting 11 had an average age of 20 years. Kasper Dolberg, the star striker, is only 19, while Justin Kluivert was only 17.

There’s no going back, Cruyff’s vision for the future has had its effect. But it would be false to claim Ajax’s success this year is solely due to youth policy implemented by Cruyff and the likes of Overmars and Van der Sar. It was new manager Peter Bosz, a self professed Cruyff disciple but relative outsider, who added a much-needed extra ingredient when he took charge at the beginning of this season.

Bosz’s tactical ideas are quite different from his predecessor’s Frank de Boer. In fact, in many ways they are quite different from most Dutch managers. Where a relatively cautious possession-based style of football is still preferred by many Dutch tacticians (including, it seemed, the now sacked Netherlands manager Danny Blind), an important part of Bosz’s philosophy revolves around pressure high up the pitch.

In this regard, Bosz has much more in common with some of his contemporaries abroad than his Dutch counterparts. He’s certainly unlike the last few managers who were in charge at the Dutch national team (Van Gaal, Hiddink, Blind). Whether Peter Bosz is the future of Dutch football remains to be seen, but it has already become clear he is exactly what Ajax’s group of terrifically talented youngsters needs.

He has certainly given Matthijs de Ligt a debut season most youngsters can only dream of. If everything goes to plan, he will probably play against the likes of Paul Pogba as Ajax take on Manchester United in the final of the Europa League. And whether he performs well and wins the game for his team or bombs horribly like he did during his debut for the Dutch national side, it barely even matters.

At Ajax, De Ligt is allowed to be his 17-year-old self. All that’s asked of him is that he’s fearless and gives it his all. Around the club, the feeling is that the fans, the manager, the players and even the board room are all in it together. If de Ligt falls, the club will pick him up. It doesn’t matter, Ajax is there for all the young talented players who are there for Ajax.

Will this philosophy bring Ajax back to Champions League glory, as Cruyff had hoped? In the age of super rich mega clubs, that seems unlikely. Ajax might not even be able to win the Europa League. But it’s brought spirit and direction back to Amsterdam; two things De Ligt surely won’t find at a training camp with the Dutch national team.

Which is exactly why De Ligt probably doesn’t care his debut for the Oranje was such a disaster. He will find his glory at Ajax, and the Dutch FA better pay attention.

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