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Why you should be paying attention to Ajax

| Wednesday, May 1, 2019

When Americans typically think of soccer, we think of the stuff that comes on NBC when we are waking up. That being said, soccer has grown immensely in popularity. People now more know about the leagues across Europe, as well as the Champions League, which pits the best of the best against each other in tournament-style fashion.

By the time this article reaches you, you may have seen soccer news about a game between Tottenham Hotspur and Ajax. Many know who Tottenham Hotspur, or “Spurs,” are, as they are one of the six-biggest English clubs competing for Premier League glory every year. But fewer people know about their semi-final competition, Ajax. Those who know the history of soccer and the ins and outs of the modern game know Ajax and the incredible contribution the Dutch club has made to what we witness today.

Ajax are based in Amsterdam, and are one of the three-biggest Dutch clubs, the other being PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord Rotterdam. All three clubs share similar business models and styles of play, which Ajax pioneered. In the 1960s and 1970s, Ajax revolutionized soccer on and off the field. First, on the field, Ajax had two things going its way. First, it had the greatest Dutch player ever in Johan Cruyff on the team. Secondly, under coach Rinus Michels, it had a tactical system known as “Total Football.” Essentially, Total Football is a system in which positions are interchangeable, and each player can adapt to different situations. It depends on a team being balanced, technically sound and each player fundamentally understanding the game so he can instantaneously respond to what he encounters. For his system, Rinus Michels was recently named the greatest manager ever by French newspaper L’Equipe.

Off the field, the club changed how clubs acquired players. Ajax became famous for its academy. In the academy, they would take young, talented players and train them in the Ajax style of playing. That way, when they got older, players could seamlessly transition into the senior squad.

These strategies were extremely successful for the club. In its history, the club has won the Dutch league, known as the Eredivisie, 33 times, and the Champions League four times. The academy has produced legends of the game that have gone on to win at Ajax and the biggest clubs around Europe. Furthermore, many of these players have gone back to work in some capacity for the club or manage other clubs around Europe. For example, the current CEO of Ajax is Edwin Van der Sar, who played goalkeeper for Ajax, winning the Champions League with them — along with four league titles — and then went on to do the same with Manchester United.

The system of Ajax spread across Europe. The aforementioned Michels and Johan Cruyff went on to Barcelona, who have followed the same pattern to the pinnacle of the modern game while developing incredible talent, including arguably the greatest player of all time in Lionel Messi. Ajax’s current competitors in the semi-finals, Tottenham, has four former Ajax players of their own, all recognized as world-class in their positions, with Christian Eriksen, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderwiereld, and Davinson Sanchez. Furthermore, all four are available and more than likely to play.

Those four will have to compete against an Ajax team who have gone back to the Ajax way, developing players and buying others shrewdly, which has them competing for a league title and Champions League Title. The likely starting 11 is valued by Transfermarkt at 366.5 million Euros but cost them around 57 million Euros. Many of the starters, including 19-year-old captain Mattijs De Ligt, came through the academy. De Ligt is one of the hottest prospects in the game, having been a regular in the team since he was 17 and recently putting in outstanding performances against Real Madrid and Juventus, scoring the winner in the latter. The young center back is almost certainly bound to move on this summer, with Barcelona and the other European giants sniffing around the €63 million-rated Dutchman.

His teammate — on both club and international levels — Frenkie De Jong, was sold to Barcelona in January for around €75 million Euros and will join in the summer. De Ligt could very well follow suit if the Catalan club comes in with the right offer. Moroccan attacker Hakim Ziyech, has been linked to both Juventus and Bayern Munich, among others. Brazilian winger David Neres has also attracted interest, with Arsenal and Liverpool inclined to offer.

Whatever happens this season, this team is certainly going to break up beyond recognition next year. It’s a sobering reality that, in the modern game, money talks. This Ajax team is a marvel to watch, playing beautiful, up-tempo soccer, scoring goals for fun while defending solidly at the back. They have taken down giants of the modern game, including the three-time defending champions Real Madrid in an emphatic manner, as well as pre-season favorites and Italian champions Juventus, who boast the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo. If I could suggest one thing, it’s that you watch this team while you can, because you may never get the chance again. It’s not the last time you will hear these names, some may even end their careers as transcendent talents, but they will most likely not wear the Ajax badge past this season.

For Ajax, well, they will continue doing what they do best: producing prodigious talents and playing wonderful stuff. It’s a cycle for the club. They produce the talent while the rich clubs buy it. But Ajax will not be short on funds after the summer, and, quite possibly, could soon consistently be battling it out with the big boys, as they should be.

Appreciate the Ajax way, because the game you love would not be the same without it.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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