Football Manager 2017: The Ajax Journey part 3

In Football Manager 2017: The Ajax Journey, Alex Dieker looks to take Ajax back to European glory by using three R’s: Recovery, Revitalization, and Redemption. Recovering Ajax as the main Dutch superpower will mean using shrewd business, a strong youth policy, and tactical awareness to bring the Amsterdam club back to its usual Eredivisie dominance. To revitalize Ajax means to regain the club’s status as one of the world’s premier youth academies by using a “conveyer belt” system of bringing young players into the first team as star players get sold on. Finally, Alex will look to bring redemption back to the club by winning the Champions League and becoming the world’s strongest squad.

After a decent preseason, we were thrust right into European matches with a Champions League qualification tie against Young Boys of Switzerland. After a draw in Bern, we were able to run out 5-0 winners back at the Amsterdam ArenA. Unfortunately, our domestic start wasn’t as impressive. An away loss to Heracles and a home defeat to rivals PSV saw us drop to the bottom of the table to start the Eredivisie season. Although we did not play horribly, our defensive instability was becoming an issue early on.

We rebounded quite impressively with a 3-0 win against Twente, showing defensive solidarity and a scoring prowess. This victory brought us some much-needed confidence in our Champions League Best Placed Playoff tie against Italian giants AS Roma. After escaping with a 1-0 victory at home, I still wasn’t too hopeful of our chances heading to Rome. Following a weekend victory over N.E.C., the Amsterdammers rolled in to the Italian capital and thrashed a hopeless Roma squad 4-0, with a brace from young winger Vaclav Cerny. This victory ensured a spot in the Champions League Group Stage, a feat that the Ajax squad failed to accomplish in real life this season.

From then on, the squad became more accustomed to my tactical style and the team cohesion was definitely improving. Two 3-0 wins against Sparta Rotterdam and Excelsior were crucial in helping us recover from our poor start to the season. For the Champions League, we were drawn into a group featuring Besiktas, Leicester City, and Porto. In our first match, a home tie against Turkish club Besiktas, we ran out 4-0 winners in a thorough thrashing. Another domestic victory followed, this one over AZ Alkmaar.

Our first match in the KNVB Beker, or Dutch Cup, saw us drawn against amateur side SC Joure. An Ajax squad packed with teenage talent absolutely dominated the match, running out 10-0 winners. Although the quality of the opposition was low, this gave me great confidence in many of my up-and-coming youngsters. Next, our main stars were back in action in the Champions League in Portugal against Porto. A 1-1 draw ended our perfect run since the PSV loss, but taking a point from a talented Porto squad is not a disappointment. A straightforward win against PEC Zwolle followed suit, but we slipped up at home against SC Heerenveen, being held to a 0-0 scoreline.

Back in the Champions League, we were able to win our away match against English champions Leicester City 1-0, with wonderkid Kasper Dolberg scoring a goal that rewarded my patience with his inconsistent form thus far. At this point in the season, we were finally showing our strength domestically, highlighted by solid wins over Willem II in the Eredivisie and De Graafschap in the Dutch Cup (using another rotated squad). Groningen finally put an end to our undefeated run when we were unable to avoid defeat in North Holland.

In the first match of November, we welcomed Leicester City to Amsterdam to try to maintain our undefeated Champions League campaign. Despite playing well, we weren’t able to run out winners once again and the match ended at 1-1. Despite the dropped points, I am satisfied with 4 points from a possible 6 against last season’s Premier League Cinderella story. We faced FC Utrecht only 4 days later, and due to fatigue we were forced to play a pretty rotated squad. Once again, my squad depth was shown in a 2-0 win against a pretty strong team.

Our next opponent was none other than Feyenoord. One of the fiercest rivalries in all of football, “De Klassieker” is seen as a must-win for Ajax fans. I was expecting a top-level performance from my squad, so you can imagine my disdain when Feyenoord ran out 5-2 winners. A truly devastating defeat to our biggest rivals, worsened by the fact that we were truly and utterly humiliated.

Fortunately, we were able to rebound from the defeat by beating Besiktas by a score of 1-0 to send us top of our Champions League group. We continued our great play back in the Eredivisie, winning three straight against ADO Den Haag, Go Ahead Eagles, and Vitesse. Most notably, our 6-0 victory over Vitesse saw Dolberg score 4 goals! He even continued his goal-scoring form into European play, but his goal against Porto wasn’t enough to avoid a 2-1 defeat. Fortunately, the game didn’t count for anything as we had already guaranteed first place in the group, with Porto coming in second and Leicester moving on to the Europa League in third.

Ajax’s domestic form continued to flourish, with a redemption win against Heracles in the league and a solid victory over FC Emmen in the Cup, the latter being achieved with many youngsters featuring. Unfortunately, we lost once again to our main title rivals PSV 2-1 in Eindhoven, a loss that all but guaranteed that PSV would spend Christmas day in first place, with us in second. We closed out 2016 by scraping through an away tie against Roda JC with a narrow victory.

With the team performing at a decent level, I knew I didn’t need to sign many players in January. My priority was, instead, to fend off the bigger clubs from luring away my star players. However, when I see the opportunity to get a player for a small fee, I will most
likely take it. That’s exactly what I did when I purchased Mikkel Duelund from Danish club FC Midtjylland for €2 million. The 19-year-old left winger comes into the club already having a couple years of experience at the first team level for the Danish club. Duelund already has the ability to compete with Amin Younes for the first team position, although Younes’ form has been spectacular. Regardless, Duelund will definitely get his chances in the second half of the season.

My second, and final, signing of the January transfer window was Rafik Guitane, a 17-year-old advanced playmaker for just over €2 million. A product of the Le Havre AC youth academy in France, the former club of Riyad Mahrez, Guitane will hone his craft in the youth ranks of our club. He’s already an amazing dribbler and technical player, but we will look to improve him into a quality overall playmaker. The fee is slightly inflated due to the fact that he is French, but I believe that he will easily surpass that value in a few years’ time. The one downside to the signing is that he will have to compete with summer signing Haksabanovic in the academy, but hopefully the competition will bring the best out of both of them.

In terms of player sales, we saw just as few transactions as the players brought in. Recently arrived veteran defender Heiko Westermann was making a fuss about playing time, despite the fact that I found a way to fit him in to more lineups than I probably should have. He was sold to UAE club Al-Wahda for a measly €300k and will live out the rest of his footballing days on the beautiful Abu Dhabi coastline. On the other hand, the next sale will probably have a much larger impact on the club.

When a player demands to leave in Football Manager, which is quite often, the matter can usually be solved without having too big of an impact on the overall team performance.
But when that issue is supplemented by a large sum of money being offered for the player, it’s very difficult to keep a hold of the player for long. When star right back Kenny Tete was complaining about moving to a bigger league, I scoffed at the idea of selling the only right-sided defender I could trust to compete against Champions League attackers. But when Arsenal bid nearly €30 million (€27 to be exact), there was no way I could refuse. The sale is tied for the second largest departure from Ajax, equal to that of both Wesley Sneijder and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. The crazy thing is, I’m not even going to bring in a replacement.

Looking at the overall team performance thus far, we’ve actually been performing at a better standard than the 2nd place position would lead one to believe. We lead the league in both goals scored and least goals conceded, as well as maintaining a 75% tackle completion record. We’re working together as a team to push the opposition into making mistakes, we just need to work on capitalizing on those with more chances created. In terms of player performance, left back Mitchell Dijks and center back Jairo Riedewald have achieved the highest average ratings thus far. This gives me great confidence not only in our defensive strength, but our ability to play the ball out from the back successfully, showcased by the fact that Dijks leads the Eredivisie with 8 assists.

We have seen Hakim Ziyech take up a central role for much of the season, with Anwar El Ghazi and Vaclav Cerny fighting to claim the right wing as their own. Davy Klassen has proved exceptional in a box-to-box role, with wonderkid Riechedly Bazoer assuming a deeper role behind Ziyech and Klaassen. Amin Younes was our leading scorer on the left wing for much of the season, but a recent decline in form will hopefully recover with competition from new signing Duelund. Dolberg has been slightly inconsistent up front, but 14 goals is still a very good return from a striker of his age.

With Tete departing the club, youngster Terry Lartey-Sanniez will assume the starting position at right back. This may seem like a risky decision, but he has already started 10 matches this season and has one of the best average ratings in the whole squad. Why splash out cash when there is a perfectly viable option sitting on the bench with loads of potential? Partnering Riedewald in the center of the defense is Colombian Davinson Sanchez, who has performed exceptionally well for a teenager still adjusting to life in the Netherlands. Andre Onana has solidified the goalkeeper position as his own, just as he’s done in real life. He has the most clean sheets in the Eredivisie and Champions League up to this point, and it will be interesting to see how he deals with the pressure of standing in net when we come up against bigger clubs in the Champions League knockout stage.

While we haven’t had the greatest time in the domestic league thus far, Ajax are knocking on the door of PSV and have done great in Europe. I’ve easily surpassed the quota of first-team debuts to under 19-year-olds, and many of them are proving to me exactly why they deserve a spot in the team. I’m glad we only saw Kenny Tete depart the club, and with wealthy clubs sniffing around many of our talented youngsters, I won’t be surprised if we are forced to give in and sell them come June. Meanwhile, we will look to complete the recovery phase of my planning: restore Ajax as champions of Holland and continue to develop some of the world’s most talented young players.

Written by Alex Dieker

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Crossbar Post, as well as a writer for AjaxDaily and lover of all things Ajax!