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 “conveyor 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 start to the season, my Ajax side will look to press on and achieve as much success as possible at the end of the season. I don’t think that we are hindered too badly by our winter sales, but only time will tell. As there is a winter break in Holland, I made sure to schedule a few friendlies to keep the squad in shape and prepared for the second-half push. A draw against German side Hoffenheim was followed by a domination of Standard Liege, including a goal from new signing Duelund and 2 from young defender de Ligt. Finally, we drew with another Belgian team, Gent, to complete our mid-season warm up.
To re-start the Eredivisie season, we traveled away to N.E.C. looking for a big win to kick start our title challenge. Unfortunately, we found ourselves down 1-0 heading into the 90th minute, saved only by an Abdelhak Nouri goal to avoid defeat. We were much better against Twente at home, where we thrashed Ziyech’s former side 4-1. In the KNVB Beker Quarter Final, we squeezed by a relentless Eindhoven side on penalties; young starlet Alexander Isak scored his first senior goal to send us to extra time.
Amin Younes, who has been on fire this season, scored a brace against Excelsior, but it wasn’t enough to gain the 3 points as our opponents scored a brace of their own. We definitely had the better chances, but Excelsior scored an absolute worldie to draw level in the end. Against Sparta Rotterdam, Duelund scored a goal in the first minute to send the away fans into a frenzy, but we were only able to scrape by the newly-promoted side 2-1. Finally finding a good rhythm, Ajax beat AZ Alkmaar back in Amsterdam 2-0.
Youth recruitment is a crucial piece to the puzzle that is Ajax, so the annual youth intake is always an exciting time at the club. We were lucky enough to welcome a lot of talented youngsters to our youth ranks, a few of which I will talk briefly about. Patrick Gijzen is a midfielder with huge potential. His ability to pick out a pass is uncanny for a 16-year-old, and his physical attributes should allow him to play at a high level very soon. Gijzen is yet another youth player to come from the streets of Amsterdam, and he will surely give his all for Ajax having been a fan throughout his childhood. Remco Hidding is a center back with a solid understanding of the game, but he needs to work on his ability to play the ball-playing defender role to work his way into the first team. Darren Ottenhoff is another midfielder with potential to be a first team player, but he is still very raw in terms of his technical attributes. Finally, Mustapha Idrissi is a quick left winger who, similar to Ottenhoff, is still a raw prospect. With a top quality coaching staff and world-class youth facilities that are scheduled to be completed this year, these young footballers should have little trouble developing into quality players.
After our astounding performances in the Champions League Group Stage, we were drawn against English giants Arsenal in the first knockout stage. An away trip to London for the first leg is something no team would enjoy, and it is definitely harder to enjoy when you’re on the losing end of a 4-0 match. A ridiculously appalling defeat; I was lost for words as I saw the home side split my defense apart like a hot knife through a stick of butter. Our whole technical system is used to try and create as many chances for Ajax as possible while preventing opposition chances, but clinical teams like Arsenal don’t need many great chances to put the ball in the back of the net. At the end of the day, our chances of progressing to the next round look bleak at best.
The big loss definitely affected our confidence, with a narrow victory over Roda JC followed by a loss to Zwolle away. Our defense looks shaky at best heading into the crunch time of the season. We rebounded nicely with a 3-0 win over Heerenveen, with Kasper Dolberg scoring for the second straight game. Ajax welcomed Arsenal to Amsterdam in the second leg of a tie that many believed was already over. Almost as if they were unaware of Arsenal’s dominance in the first leg, the Ajax squad took the pitch and played an amazing first half. So many chances fell to us after commanding the game, but we went into halftime only 1-0 up. We needed much better finishing if we were to score 3 more goals to even up the tie, and we found that when El Ghazi struck a volley into the back of the net to make the score 2-0 before the 60th minute. Was a miracle comeback on the cards? Sadly not, as Arsenal scored soon after to grab an away goal that all but finished us. A late goal made it 3-1 on the night (5-3 on aggregate), and that’s how it finished. I was so proud of the boys for playing with passion despite the aggregate score, but we can’t let embarrassments like the first leg happen if we are to make any progress on the European stage.
With the Champions League no longer in the picture, our full attention was turned to domestic play. With the league season winding down, we needed to play to our best ability to give us a chance to dethrone PSV at the top. An away match against Willem II summarized our performances against smaller Dutch clubs this season: commanding for much of the game without finding a breakthrough. We finally got a penalty in the second half, but we couldn’t close out as Willem scored a late equalizer that saw us drop more points in games where we should be dominating. The worst part about the result was that a win would have sent us to first place.
A meeting against Twente in the Cup Semifinal was next, and despite the fact that we were closing in on the final, I still rotated my squad to give my youngsters some crucial playing time. It was close, but another Younes brace propelled us through to the final. Luckily, the other semifinal was played between N.E.C. and second division Almere City, a match won by the latter side. Almere is one of our partner clubs, and the final against them should be a straightforward victory.
FC Groningen was the next opponent, and with there being only 5 league games left after this we really couldn’t afford to drop points, but we did. Anwar El Ghazi, who has taken his game to another level, scored in the 3rd minute to start us off, but we were once again unable to hold on. Hakim Ziyech missed a penalty and, despite possession being much in Ajax’s favor, the team wasn’t able to finish as strong as it started. The next week was the same story, lots of possession without finishing our chances, but this time we were able to beat FC Utrecht 2-1.
Up next was De Klassieker; the heated rivalry made even more important by its proximity to the end of the season. Feyenoord were in third place, not really challenging us for second, but we suffered a big defeat in Rotterdam earlier in the season. After recent performances, now was the time to rejuvenate our attacking style: and we did just that. Amin Younes scored a goal in the 2nd minute, much to the shock of the Feyenoord defense. The onslaught wasn’t finished just yet, as Dolberg scored a beauty in the 8th minute to put “De Godenzonen” up 2-0 in the blink of an eye. Ajax continued to berate the Feyenoord keeper with no more success, until Dolberg popped up with another goal right on the cusp of halftime. There were no more goals in the second half, but it didn’t matter: 13 shots on target to Feyenoord’s 2 in the whole game is a testament to just how much we dominated.
There was no time to rest and celebrate our revenge: we were still behind PSV and, with only 3 matches left, there is no need to become complacent. First, we needed to take care of business in the KNVB Beker Final. I told the boys to take Almere City seriously, as a loss in the final to a second division would be worse than embarrassing, even if I did select a rotated side. Thankfully, the youngsters played great. We created chances, dominated the midfield, and ran out 3-0 winners to lift our first piece of silverware during my tenure. I guess you can win with kids!
Up next was ADO Den Haag, a club performing well this season that mustn’t be taken lightly. We found ourselves in a crazy back-and-forth game that saw us take the lead twice, only to be pegged back by a determined home side each time. Just when we thought it was all over, Kasper Dolberg found himself running away in celebration after scoring the winner in added time. He’s finally finding his consistency, and what a time in the season to do just that. The best part about the night was that the 3 points were enough to overtake PSV at the top.
Another tough away tie was on the cards, this time against Vitesse. Our leading assist provider Dijks was suspended via yellow card accumulation, and wonderkid Riedewald suffered a torn muscle that saw him miss the last 2 games of the season. With a weakened defense, we conceded too many chances to the home side, who looked like they were running away with a 3-2 victory in the end. But as they say: “cometh the hour, cometh Kasper Dolberg.” The Danish starlet received a pass at the top of the box and struck it on the half-volley into the bottom corner of the net. This kid is really something special, and it’s unfortunate that the goal only gained us one point instead of three.
So, after the disappointment at Vitesse, we find ourselves 1 point behind PSV on the last day. With Ajax playing Go Ahead Eagles and PSV travelling to face PEC Zwolle, both sides would be expecting a victory. However, we know that a victory doesn’t mean anything if Zwolle don’t work a minor miracle and force PSV to drop points. Our match was straightforward throughout, we went up 1-0 early and GA Eagles received two red cards in the first 30 minutes. However, at the same time we score our second goal, we received notice that Zwolle went 1-0 up against PSV. Could it actually happen? Would all of our slip-ups be forgiven in the grand scheme of things?
It stayed 2-0 in Amsterdam at half time, but PSV got an equalizer. If Zwolle could hang on for just a draw, we would still clinch the title. Younes scored a brace in quick succession before 60 minutes, but all eyes were on the result in Zwolle. In minute 67, Locadia put PSV 2-1 ahead in the match and 1 point ahead in the title race. We scored another to complete the rout on 80 minutes, but Zwolle weren’t able to come back. PSV claimed the Eredivisie title for the third year in a row, to the dismay of everyone in the Amsterdam ArenA.
In the end, we just weren’t sharp enough in matches that should have been an easy 3 points. Ironically, our only loss in the second half of the season was against Zwolle, and it ended up costing us the title. From a neutral perspective, only losing the title by a point should be considered a success for such a young squad that experienced a lot of change over the summer, but a true Ajax supporter knows that excuses don’t mean much in the world of football.
With the heat of summer comes promise, uncertainty, and excitement in the world of football. Many players want to move to bigger clubs; Riechedly Bazoer and Vaclav Cerny were upset for much of the season because I rejected bids for them from bigger clubs. Since we have placed such an emphasis on maintaining a constant replacement structure to our club, we should be able to cover for any player that ends up running off to pastures anew. There is a lot of reason to be excited for next year also, with some greatly talented youngsters eager to prove their worth at the club. Overall, this season was not all we had hoped it would be, but we will push on with our goal of asserting our dominance over Dutch football with our strong youth policy, tactical adeptness, and clever business dealings. There’s a lot of potential in the squad, and I can’t wait to see how much more they can achieve next year.