Ajax’ journey from title bottlers to European finalists

Johan Cruijff sometimes got things wrong but El Salvador was right most of the time. His velvet revolution had some unorthodox methods but wanting to re-align Ajax with their soul and wanting the players coming through the academy to be more individually skilled has benefitted De Toekomst. In his final years, Cruijff used his Telegraaf column to bemoan sideways passing with the Dutch National Team and the fact that Ajax was spending money on hoovering players up from the lower echelons of the Eredivisie. Some of his musings could be described as senile and naive but as always, he touched on poignant subjects plaguing the Dutch game.

“The consequences are dramatic. In the remaining 48 clubs in the Champions League and Europa League, there is one Dutch team. That’s PSV, who did well against Atletico Madrid but only by playing the same style as their opponent. As previously happened to Manchester United and in a style with which the Dutch team in Brazil was also successful,” said Cruijff in March last year in his Telegraaf column. “All Dutch clubs have assumed that playing style in general. This problem has everything to do with the positional game. That is very weak.”

At this time, Peter Bosz, a staunch Cruijffian at heart, was managing at Maccabi Tel Aviv under Jordi Cruijff where he would meet his hero quite frequently. Bosz had a clause in his 18-month Maccabi contract that stated if Ajax came calling, he would be allowed to leave his sojourn in Israel to impose his modernized version of Cruijff’s style at Ajax. De Godenzonen‘ lost the title to PSV Eindhoven on the final day of the season away at De Graafschap, when Frank De Boer took off top scorer Arek Milik to feed an obsession he had with false-nines and wingers playing more central while Ajax were in dire need of a goal. Ajax’ players knelt down and hung their heads in shame, Riechedly Bazoer flung his shin guard at a wall as well as words of frustration while De Boer sat motionlessly and pensively at the front of the Ajax bus.


De Boer soon announced his departure and Bosz joined to replace him, while the much-maligned Marc Overmars brought in fabled scout Henk Veldmate – who scouted Luis Suarez at Nacional for Groningen – as Head of Scouting. It was certainly a problem area for Ajax, sitting on a squad stuffed with midfielders preventing a generation of immense talent from coming through, while Ajax’ technical heart established by Cruijff brought shame to the Ajax patriarch and the club. Bosz’ early months were dogged by the apprehension of an Ajax side struggling to adjust to his fluid and high-pressing style. The Amsterdammers lost many pre-season friendlies, even seeming to struggle against semi-professional clubs as Bosz alluded to the fact that it would be complex to drill his philosophy into a much younger team.

His defense was not confident in defending at the halfway line and his attack failed to sustain the high-intensity and high-pressure that was so integral to his system. A slow start in the Eredivisie with a draw against Roda JC and a loss to Willem II at home followed, before a 4-0 away thrashing against Rostov put Bosz’ job in real jeopardy. The Ajax coach began to accelerate his process by settling on a centre-back partnership of Nick Viergever and Davinson Sanchez, moving attacking midfielder Daley Sinkgraven to left back, Lasse Schone into his ‘controller’ role and abandoning any fears that came with playing Kasper Dolberg as his first choice striker.


Overmars broke Ajax’ transfer record to sign Hakim Ziyech from FC Twente on transfer deadline day after stating that Ajax had no interest in signing him the week before. It symbolized an indecision and haste in the transfer window that had resulted in Wim Jonk leaving and Ajax making some torrid decisions in recruiting players. One of Cruijff’s closest confidantes, Tscheu La Ling undertook an analysis of the management structure at Ajax which showed the technical heart in Jonk, Dennis Bergkamp and Frank De Boer and was led by Overmars frequently disagreeing on transfers. Players were brought in with little to no scouting reports at professional and academy level which culminated in Ajax loaning Yaya Sanogo on the advice of Arsene Wenger before happily discarding the young French striker in January. Cruijff left his advisory role in 2015 and Tscheu La Ling was turned away which left a bad taste in the mouth of everyone involved.

Overmars had managed to sell Arek Milik for a bounty a few days after Ajax announced he would stay for another season while also signing a Copa Libertadores winner in Davinson Sanchez, but he was still heavily criticized. Ajax would not lose for another 20 games after Rostov and did not concede more than two goals in a game from Rostov to their away match against Schalke in the Europa League Quarter-Final. They still did not shed their problems as Riechedly Bazoer, Nemanja Gudelj and Anwar El Ghazi had to be disciplined for insubordination before they were all sold in January. It unearthed a facet of Bosz’ managerial style as he is a prolific developer of talent but is not as personable as most other managers preferring to keep professional relationships with most of his players.


“Every time I come off the pitch, I shake his hand. It is a normal thing that I think everyone does with him. Everything is clear, he is not my father. He is nothing else, it is a professional relationship between him and me. We don’t see each other, we just see each other on the training ground and that’s it. We don’t talk outside of the training ground or see each other for a drink or something, it’s only professional,” said Bertrand Traore, who has worked with Bosz at Ajax and Vitesse Arnhem, to Dutch outlet NOS after a win against NEC Nijmegen in early April.

Bosz forcefully paved a path for many of the youngsters thriving for Jong Ajax in the Eerste Divisie as the team finished in the top three during Period 2, 3 and 4 of the Dutch Second Division. Johan Cruijff also touched on the incentive of developing players at a quicker rate than other European clubs in the hope elongating their time spent with the Ajax first team.

β€œAt first the focus was on preparing youth players for the first team as quickly as possible. And because this has to be around the age of 18 and 19 in order to have them playing for Ajax at least four or five years, the main focus was on physical and mental training,” said Cruijff, in one of his Telegraaf columns in 2015.

Matthijs De Ligt and Justin Kluivert were expected to be playing with the Under 19s this season under Patrick Kluivert but both have vastly impressed in Jong Ajax and for Ajax 1. Kluivert signed his professional contract at the back-end of last season, made his debut for the Ajax U19s, Jong Ajax and sat on the bench for a first-team match away from home against FC Twente before the winter break. He then trained with the first team during the winter break before making his debut against PEC Zwolle as he has not looked back since. De Ligt scored on his debut against Willem II in the KNVB Beker as did Abdelhak Nouri in the same game.

De Ligt has scored another three for Jong Ajax and Ajax 1 this season with some startlingly good performances which led to a premature Dutch National Team call-up in which he struggled against Bulgaria and was taken off at half-time. He has responded with great performances which have led to another premature call-up to the recent Dutch National Team provisional squad. When Deyovaisio Zeefuik made his debut for Ajax against Heerenveen in April, he became the ninth player from the academy to make their debut in Peter Bosz’ first season. When Jong Ajax played VVV Venlo in the Eerste Divisie later that month, their starting 11 made a combined 267 appearances for Ajax 1. Dennis Bergkamp mentors a lot of youngsters on the training ground while Donny Van de Beek has spoken of seeking out the advice of Mr. Ajax, Sjaak Swart during meals at his house.

The well-schemed attacks, coordinated pressing moves and youthful zeal that Ajax has played with has been phenomenal as a few weeks after Celta Vigo beat Barcelona, they were 3-0 down at Ajax after 70 minutes with only 1 shot on target before the away side scored two to make it a much more favorable scoreline. The only sign of irresponsible youth in this side is their wastefulness in front of goal which has affected them in away games in their Europa League run with their only win away being in the opening game against Panathinaikos.

Although they lost the title by slim margins on the final day of the season again, their astonishing Europa League campaign and a high number of points in the Eredivisie have made Ajax fans optimistic about the future. The Amsterdammers can handle a few exits but Overmars’ job is to prevent an exodus while putting aside his pride and indifferent feeling towards Mino Raiola to tie Kenny Tete to a new deal. Overmars was not overjoyed with Donyell Malen’s departure to Arsenal which was facilitated by his agent, Raiola. Losing youngsters has come part and parcel with Ajax having such a feted academy as even though De Ligt and Kluivert have progressed in their careers at such a tender age, 16-year-old Daishawn Redan still decided to depart Ajax at the end of this season, even after Ajax pitched him a progress plan to the first team.

It is a shame that Cruijff is not here to see Ajax’ fearless run to the Europa League as one can only wonder what he would have thought. Bosz adored him and recently Borussia Dortmund manager, Thomas Tuchel spoke of anxiously jotting down Cruijff’s words into a book during a meeting with the iconic Dutchman. A few parts of his velvet revolution have come to fruition while others have frittered away like most ideas do. The stadium will be named after him while the team will play in his honor. Bosz has changed Ajax for the better while Overmars has a job on his hands this summer to finally earn plaudits from the passionate Ajax fanbase.