With an average squad age of under 24, Ajax’s young side are looking to conquer Europe after making the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time in 22 years.
Erik ten Hag’s Ajax side beat Juventus 3-2 on aggregate in the quarter-finalhaving already brought down recent kings of Europe Real Madrid in the last 16, and will face either Tottenham or Manchester City in the semi-final.
It has already been a phenomenal achievement from a team so young, and here, we look at the reasons behind the success, and whether we’ll be seeing their young talent in the Premier League soon…
The conveyor belt
Four-time European champions Ajax have a proud history, though success has come in waves over the last 50 years, with the ‘conveyor belt’ of talent from their academy producing hits and misses in equal measure.
Dutch journalist Marcel van der Kraan of De Telegraaf says the lack of money in Dutch football means Ajax must rely on their youth academy more than most big clubs across Europe.
“It’s a huge victory not just for Ajax but for Dutch football in general. The country, apart from their standard rivals Feyenoord, the country is in an ecstatic mood.
“There was a glimpse two years ago when Ajax reached the Europa League final. That was the first sign of the production of talent – which is like a conveyor belt at Ajax.
“We have to follow and base everything on the youth, and keep producing talent, rather than buying foreign imports. Stick to your own values, that’s what we’ve been doing and that’s what Dutch football has to rely on, and it pays off.
“It shows that Edwin van der Sar, a former top player and now CEO, Marc Overmars, a former top player and now sporting director, they have the Dutch principles of football inside them.”
Attack, attack, attack
Ajax showed a fearless, attacking approach in winning away at both Real and Juventus, as well as a draw at Bayern Munich earlier in the season.
Van der Kraan insists their style is still a product of the principles of Johan Cruyff. Whose teachings are also still evident at Barcelona. And of course, Ajax could meet Barcelona in the final in Madrid.
“Ajax want to play dominant, attacking football, with players who have no fear, who are educated and trained from the age of six in their academy, showing them with their former players how to play football.
“That is not defensive, not passing square, that is always attacking and instilling the principle of Johan Cruyff. It paid off in the past.
“We know there is bigger money elsewhere, Ajax have the smallest budget of all, but the fact they stick together and have the young talent has paid off, not every year but this year it has.”
Like Monaco in 2017, the narrative surrounding surprisingly successful sides will inevitably turn to transfers.
In fact, one deal is already done and dusted. Light-framed but with a footballing brain well beyond his 21 years. Frenkie De Jong will move to Barcelona in the summer for £65m. So most of the attention is on their impressive 19-year-old captain Matthijs de Ligt. The centre-back who scored Ajax’s winner in Turin in the last eight.
He’s been linked with every big club across Europe. But Van der Kraan sees Barcelona as the most likely destination.
“De Jong has been described as a player who is maybe too light, not strong enough, but he is proving everybody wrong in Europe.
“All of his displays against top teams have been fabulous, amazing to watch. It’s almost like a Tiki-Taka show in the middle of Ajax’s midfield on his own. He makes the team tick and pass forward; he’s never afraid to have the ball. The fact that Barcelona paid £75m for him, securing him for that Barcelona team of the future, says enough.
“The chances of De Ligt joining De Jong at Barcelona are quite big. If Barcelona can raise the money, come up with another £60m or £70m for this young captain, they will have a fantastic spine in that Barcelona side.
“But at the same time there is still a chance for the Manchester Citys, the Manchester Uniteds and the Chelseas to grab De Ligt. But when you have quality in the team, it means you have to pay a lot of money. Can they compete with Barcelona and PSG? “
There has been plenty of interest in Ajax’s other stars, too. Noussair Mazraoui, their Moroccan right-back, has been linked with Barca. 21-year-old midfielder Donny van de Beek has been linked with (you guessed it) Barca as well as Tottenham and Chelsea. While Danish striker Kasper Dolberg has gained interest following his 12 goals this season.
There was also talk this week of Arsenal and Manchester United being interested in 22-year-old Brazilian forward David Neres.
Sitting top of the Eredivisie on goal difference ahead of PSV. It seems whatever success Ajax have in Europe and domestically this season, their main talent will be tempted elsewhere.
Ajax’s achievement in stats
- Ajax had five players aged 22 or younger in their starting XI against Juventus
- They are the first team from outside the traditional top five European leagues to reach the Champions League semi-final since 2004/05, when fellow Dutch side PSV Eindhoven did so
- Ajax have qualified for the semi-finals of the European Cup/Champions League for the ninth time in their history, and the first since the 1996/97 season
- Ajax have scored 155 goals this season across all competitions, their joint-most in a single season in club history (also 155 in 2009/10)
- The win was Ajax’s third consecutive away victory in the Champions League; their longest such streak since between November 1995 and March 1997 (seven wins)