Truth be told, 20 years ago we would not be ecstatic and celebrating the fact that a Dutch team would make it into the CL group stages. It’s true. We sank deep so now we are delirious with joy if Ajax beats some lesser clubs and makes it in the millionaire’s ball. And, before you know it, PSV might follow suit!
The Golden Age returns, or so it seems.
But, such is reality now. After some dry years, Ajax demonstrated a panache and arrogance and quality that does remind us all of the early days of Van Gaal’s Ajax in the early 1990s. But let’s not get carried away.
The best is yet to come.
And with more good news coming on the night of Ajax’ victory (well, a draw) in Kiev, Frenkie de Jong declared before the camera not to move away from Ajax, this season. “Well, everyone would love to play for Barcelona and I hope one day I will, but not this season. I will stay for at least one more season. This will be a very fine season indeed!”, were his words. Boom!
And it seems Hakim Ziyech, the maestro playmaker will remain an Ajax player too. Good and happy times in Amsterdam, where Marc Overmars and Erik ten Hag have constructed a winning combination.
And it was Ajax’ offensive power that appeared to be their best defense. Dinamo Kiev claimed before the game to be going at Ajax from the start. That promise only came true in the first ten minutes of the game, when the fowards of Kiev press the Ajax defense and their wide backs push up immediately to create a man-more situation.
It forces Onana to some early saves and brings a couple of corner kicks to Dynamo. But Frenkie de Jong, midfielder last night, finds the response to all this huffing and puffing. He drops between Blind and De Ligt and offers himself as an option to play out of the pressure. At the same time, full backs Wober and Mazraoui push up, forcing the two Kiev backs to cover much more ground than initially planned. And they are therefore forced to make choices. Do I stay or shall I go, as the Clash proclaimed. When the backs push up, De Ligt, in this example below, has the ability to find Mazraoui, free on the right hand side (and again playing a perfect game).
It is this pattern that brings Ajax a huge opportunity, when Schone pulls one of the backs out of position and Mazraoui can steam forward. His pass finds Donny van de Beek going in behind who plays a cross to Huntelaar. All the veteran striker needed to do was lift the ball over the goalie and he could have scored.
A second tactic Ajax used was the third-man tactics. Whenever De Ligt or Blind play the forward pass or dribble into midfield, Van de Beek or Huntelaar will make themselves available. Once played in, they will bounce the ball straight into the feet of a team mate on his way to the opponent goal. This is how the penalty situation is manifested. Blind plays a fast ball into Van de Beek, who passes direct to Tadic. Wober is completely free on the left and his cross is turned into a corner.
Ziyech to take, De Ligt to attack, were it not for a Kiev player pulling Mathijs to ground clearly visible for all to see. No VAR needed.
Sadly, Tadic hits the post.
Time again Ajax finds the free man and the Amsterdam team pushes Kiev back to their own half. And as Kiev needs to take more risks, Ajax can also counter attack, allowing for loads of good opportunities. It’s actually a miracle that the end result was 0-0. And it’s not just the lack of good finishing, left back Wober had many opportunities to give a good final pass, but failed to do so. The centre back clearly had to get used to his new role, replacing the suspended Tagliafico.
Despite the misses, Ajax reached the group stages in style. Defending without the ball is still a bit of a chore for the Sons of Gods but in possession, Ajax is simply breathtaking at times. The holy trinity of De Jong, De Ligt and Blind made sure Ajax had the balance to keep the ball ticking along. With Tadic and Ziyech as the creative playmakers, it seems this youthful Ajax side gets the opportunity to prove they can do this at top level as well.
One of the key players for Ajax, is 19 year old captain Mathijs de Ligt. What a tremendous surge into the lime light for the youngster. Every top club in Europe wants his signature. And he’s one of the few players to be very consistent, both in Oranje and in Ajax.
It was more than half a year ago, when De Ligt received the band.
“It was weird. I remember it well. I was asked to see the coach in his office. I thought he wanted to give me some more instructions for the Heerenveen game. But he said I would be his captain. A big surprise. I love challenges and this was a challenge and something to be proud of. It felt weird, that first match, but now, I’m used to it.”
So he is now the leader in the team?
“Oh no, not at all. All the Ajax players have a tendency to coach and to be present. And we have some experienced players, like Huntelaar, Schone, Blind and Tadic. They are real leaders and very present verbally. I play like always, but as I’m playing at the back, I naturally can spot more and see more and use this to coach, but all the players at Ajax have this. I did talk a lot in the youth teams as well, and it’s a selfish thing. The better my midfielders handle situations, the easier for me, hahaha.”
De Ligt wasn’t always a defender though.
“I played most of my games in midfield. I think my football skills were built there. I loved playing as a midfielder. But in the B junior team, coach Peereboom pulled me a line back. I remember being off it a bit. Why? I love midfield? And he explained his reasons. The physicality needed at the back. I did notice my body changing and I started to enjoy playing centrally at the back. My technical skills helped me a lot. Ajax also worked and works on the mental side a lot. I think all over Holland, youth development is great, but I do believe Ajax is just a tad ahead with the mental side of things. You know how Ajax debutants often score a goal? I think it has to do with the preparation. You’re drilled to believe that performing is all that matters. So when you finally make it into the first team, you’re fully poised to make a difference.”
De Ligt was being guided by ex Ajax defender Barry Hulshoff but he made the change to uber agent Mino Raiola. And everyone believed De Ligt would be on his way to a big club.
“No that is not how it works with me. I am still with Barry. He coaches me and guides me more on the football-side of things. But Raiola has other strengths. But my dad is super important too. I need a good mix of people and I’m not focusing on leaving Ajax per se. I’m still young and with players like Tadic and Blind coming in and Ziyech staying, I don’t see why I would have to leave the club now? The signings have given me some peace and quiet. The level at training now is sensational. And, dont forget, I can want to leave all I want, but Ajax plays a role in it too. I want to reach the top, the highest I can, but I have time. It’s more important that I get to play football. And now, we made it into the CL so that is really cool. The podium we all long for.”