The Secrets Behind Ajax's Incredible Champions League Journey

Dean Jones@DeanJonesBRFootball Insider at Bleacher ReportApril 19, 2019

Ajax's Matthijs de Ligt and teammates celebrate at the end of the Champions League, quarterfinal, second leg soccer match between Juventus and Ajax, at the Allianz stadium in Turin, Italy, Tuesday, April 16, 2019. Ajax won 2-1 and advances to the semifinal on a 3-2 aggregate. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
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Ajax are this season's football fairytale—a team with amazing ability and, seemingly, no boundary to their limitations.

They have become every neutral's favourite side. Their UEFA Champions League journey has brought joy and romance to a competition that can so often feel elitist and predictable.

At the start of this season, most fans outside of Amsterdam would have struggled to name their players, yet now they roll off the tongue. Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, Hakim Ziyech, David Neres...the football world is falling in love with them.

They have knocked out Real Madrid and they have seen off Juventus. Next up, they face Tottenham Hotspur in the semi-finals.

So how did this happen? We know they have an incredible, rich history thanks to traditions ingrained in their DNA through the coaching principles of Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels, but this reemergence has come very suddenly. 

They have not even won the Eredivisie since 2014, and their most recent European success came in 1995. We spoke to some influential and knowledgeable figures around the club to get an idea of how this young, fun crop of players from the Netherlands have stunned the giants of Europe. 

                   

BECOMING 'EUROPE-PROOF'

Trusting their academy talent is a great trait, but the vision has been altered in recent times to boost their chances of competing both domestically and on the European stage. 

@DuBlanqeBogarde is a well-informed Ajax pundit on Twitter, followed by both journalists and supporters. 

"International media have focused on the huge differences in budgets between Ajax and their opponents, which makes sense to a certain degree because the difference really is huge," he told B/R. 

"However, it's worth noting that Ajax has actually been investing quite heavily, compared to recent years and other teams in the Eredivisie. During last season, boss Erik ten Hag and director of football Marc Overmars made an analysis of the squad and tried to identify what was needed to make Ajax 'Europe-proof,' so to speak. 

"They realised they were missing some more experienced players in their late 20s, guys that know what it takes to win in international football and guys that still have something prove. That's why they spent big on Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind and increased wages to attract and keep good players. 

"Young talent alone is not enough, as talent needs guidance and leadership on and off the pitch." 

Jan Verdonk is an ardent Ajax supporter who never misses a game, and explained: "A changed financial situation in European football has changed things. I think Ajax has profited from the expansion of financial power at a lot of clubs in European football. For example, when Arkadiusz Milik went to Napoli for 34 million. I don't think this was possible 10 years ago. 

"It is also worth noting the changed contract policy for youth players. Ajax initially refused to give contracts to 16-year-old players—they waited until they were 17. Because of this, players like Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Javairo Dilrosun left the club. Ajax changed this policy a couple of years ago, which means 16-year-old talents do get a contract now. Less players leave the club now, and this really was an important decision."

                 

MANAGERIAL NOUS

Ten Hag arrived from Utrecht in 2017, and it has certainly not been plain sailing.

"I called him Bootleg Pep when he first started," admits DuBlanqeBogarde. "That was a joke, meant as a slight insult to a coach that, to me, felt like a poor man's Guardiola. I have to take it all back, because he actually is a tactical genius.

"His determination, vision and absolutely insane dedication in striving for perfection has given the players the tools they need to excel, without losing the freedom to trust their instinct and the feeling they're playing with their friends in the park on a Saturday afternoon.

"He demands 24/7 dedication of his players but isn't blind or deaf to their ideas—he even encourages it. Players and staff seem to have clicked in a way that creates a 'Yeah, we beat Juve 1-2, but it should have been 1-4' mentality, in a good way." 

Michael Bell of Football-Oranje.com hopes the coach begins to become more recognised. "He went into the campaign under some pressure—because he didn't really know his best 11," he told B/R.

"Frenkie de Jong wasn't even a guaranteed starter, and performances early on weren't great. However, I think the confidence the results in the Champions League group stage brought has been behind this run. They showed they could go toe-to-toe with Bayern Munich, and that has allowed them to play with no fear against the big sides.

"Ten Hag is not getting a lot of credit for his European record. With Ajax and Utrecht, he has only lost two out of 22 matches in Europe. A lot more should be getting said about how he has turned his tenure at Ajax around."

FITNESS LEVELS 

Part of Ten Hag's relentless pursuit of success focuses on making sure his best team is available to him. He leaves no stone unturned in making sure his players are given the best opportunity to be in top condition.

"If you look at our squad, you will notice it is rather small," explains Verdonk. "If one of our top guys gets injured, we will have a huge problem. Real Madrid missed Vinicius Junior and Sergio Ramos against us. If we would miss De Ligt and Tadic, I don't think we would be able to beat top clubs.

"Ten Hag really is the explanation of this, because he is maniacally looking at details. Every player has to rate his fitness after a training, and Ajax uses all kinds of technology to measure this. Because of this, players rarely get injured. It's really the only way we can be competitive in Europe. 

"For me, he is way better than Frank de Boer when it comes to vision and knowledge of scientific insights."

             

REALISING POTENTIAL

It was a 1-1 draw at Bayern Munich in the group stage and then another tie, this time 3-3, with the German champions in Amsterdam that started to give the players and fans a sense of quite how good they really were.

Arco Gnocchi produces Ajax's Pantelic Podcast and recognises the blend of components that merged to form this brilliant side.

"Finally having this perfect mix between young, cheeky, daring, audacious, raw talent and players who are peaking has been so vital," he said. "All together they don't abide by the rules of upper-tier-level football.

"You're not supposed to pressure away at Real or Juve or Bayern. And normally, if you try, you get punished with a 5-0 trouncing.

"But every game, they seem to one-up their efforts to a level they're not supposed to be at. The learning curve is extremely, incomprehensibly steep. This is the first and last time they'll play together in this makeup/formation, and they know it."

              

POSITIONAL FLUIDITY 

Guardiola teams are so often lauded for the front-line movement that baffles opponents, and Ajax have adapted the model to form their own brilliant game plans.

"I'm sure people by now have noticed we're playing without a striker, but it's been a brilliant move by Ten Hag," explains DuBlanqeBogarde. "The way Ajax is playing with so many players switching positions—especially upfront, with Neres, Tadic and Ziyech just doing whatever they like—you just know they'll create big chances, even against giants like Madrid or Juventus.

"Ajax never really changes their tactics or principles, but instead makes very small changes to the game plan. It's a style that creates a type of organised chaos that big teams aren't used to.

"Players drop deep, make dummy runs, create space for our midfielders and backs. When someone tries to close us down, they always run the risk of a deep through ball. It's just really hard to defend, especially in later stages of the game when you're getting tired and lose focus.

"Also take notice of how Neres, de Jong and Ziyech are never bothered by a failed dribble or something.

"When Frenkie's failed dribble in his own box against Madrid almost allowed Benzema to score, a journalist told him after the game: 'Don't do it again.' Frenkie replied: 'I will definitely do it again next time, but just a bit better.'

"That's this Ajax in a nutshell." 

                      

SHEER QUALITY

Of course, none of this would be possible without an underlying technical brilliance that allows the players to show such confidence.

"The team's ball ability is also very important," insists Ajax supporter Verdonk. "Until a couple of years ago, we had too many players who couldn't get the ball from A to B when they were under pressure. Right now, almost all our players dare to pass the ball forward, and they have the ability to dribble past opponents. Because of this, we are able to play as attractive as we are doing at the moment. 

"I don't think people really comprehend yet how unique Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt really are. These two are so good, and could be easily be among the top 10 Dutch players ever. To have them both at the same time at Ajax for me is fundamental for the current success. I think the Dutch national team could become world champions in the next 12 years because of them."

                     

INSPIRATION

Beneath all of these factors is a level of determination and drive that few, if any, other Champions League club can match.

Ajax's journey is about more than football results—it's about relationships, history and pride.

Kevin Suave of leading club platform AjaxTimes has been watching closely every step of the way and is in no doubt about the bonds that have helped this incredible bunch of footballers fulfil their potential.

"After the Europa League final defeat against Manchester United just two years ago, we lost most of our strongest players and the manager who finally had us playing authentic Ajax football again," he explained to B/R. 

"We had to start from scratch, with new players and a new manager—Marcel Keizer. Then in the lead-up to the new season, Appie happened."

Abdelhak NouriAppie to his friendscollapsed following a heart attack during a pre-season match with Werder Bremen in 2017. Tragically, he was left permanently brain damaged. 

"The whole situation has had such impact on the club," says Suave. "That wound will never heal. Some of the current Ajax players were best friends with Appie. They played with him throughout most of their academy years. Had promised each other to make it together. To reach the first team together. To bring glory to the club, together. It overshadowed everything. Football became a sideshow.

"Keizer was the man who had to deal with the aftermath of the Nouri incident but was sacked later in the season. That's when Erik ten Hag entered.

"He was mostly greeted with scepticism, because the fans' perspective had gone from incredibly optimistic for the Europa League final, to depressed over Nouri, no European football, no league title, nothing. 

"At the start of this season, Ten Hag still didn't have that much credit with fans nor pundits. He wasn't considered a good fit for Ajax by most people, but slowly turned that around.

"We aren't just doing well in the Champions League. We're also in the Dutch Cup final and on our way to winning our first Eredivisie title in four years. Things couldn't have been worse two years ago, but look at us now.

"A remarkable transformation and one helluva job. Ajax have always managed to build squads filled with talented and hyped youngsters who would go on to impress and create somewhat of a name for themselves, but as soon as we'd go up against teams like Real Madrid or Barcelona, we got slaughtered. The skill gap was just too big. 

"Most fans had already made peace with the fact we would never play a serious role in European football again. But now things are different.

"We have a special generation of talents compared with a number of well-rounded experienced players and a manager who—hugely inspired by Guardiola and Cruyff—knows how Ajax is expected to play.

"I have been in absolute awe during most of the Champions League knockout stage games. While I realise we are witnessing a unique group of very skilled players—this is Real Madrid and Juventus we are talking about. The way we managed to defeat them bothI am still speechless. This season is wonderful. Amazing."

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