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.
Last season was one of mixed results; losing the Eredivisie title once again to PSV is a disappointment, but we showed good signs of improvement in the Champions League. In terms of individual awards, Mitchell Dijks and Kasper Dolberg finished 2nd and 3rd respectively as the best players in the Eredivisie, with Dolberg tying for 2nd place on the top-scorers list. Jairo Riedewald, Dolberg, and Anwar El Ghazi ran the table for the Young Player of the Year award, and Andre Onana was runner-up for the Goalkeeper of the Year award. Jong Ajax had a great season in the Second Division, finishing in 5th place thanks to some quality performances from our young starlets. New arrival Alexander Isak claimed the title as the Jupiler League’s top goalscorer and Player of the Year after scoring a ridiculous 30 goals in only 34 appearances at only 17 years of age! Winger Che Nunnely finished 2nd in the Player of the Year voting, scoring 7 goals and creating 16 assists during the season. Isak, Nunnely, and Gino Dekker finished 1st to 3rd respectively in the Young Player of the Year award.
One strange occurrence in the Eredivisie was that AZ Alkmaar ended up relegated from the division; a rare happening for such a well-structured and talented club. Sparta Rotterdam and Go Ahead Eagles were also relegated, while VVV-Venlo won the Jupiler League and were promoted along with Telstar 1963 and NAC Breda. Financially, Ajax had a turnover of €118 million (€79 million profit). This huge monetary gain will no doubt keep me in good standing with the board, and is a testament to the transfer strategy I have and will continue to employ at the club. Unfortunately, the Eredivisie’s ranking in Europe dropped from 10th to 13th, which means that the Eredivisie champion won’t automatically qualify for the Champions League Group Stage (starting in 2018). On a more positive note, Ajax moved up from 31st to 28th in the European Coefficients; this move is a stepping stone to the larger goal of European dominance.
A couple transfers were completed right away in the transfer window. Timothy Amaefule joins us from Enugu Rangers for €325k and Simon Larsen joins for free from Hobro IK. Amaefule is an 18-year-old Nigerian center back who has great speed and mental awareness for such a young defender. Larsen is a 17-year-old goalkeeper who doesn’t have too much potential, but he’s a decent sweeper-keeper and he cost peanuts to the club. Amaefule will be competing for a starting spot at the heart of Jong Ajax’s defense, while Larsen finds himself in the Under-19’s.
The first of many transfer bids of the window for one of my players was for an unsettled Riechedly Bazoer from wealthy Monaco. They offered €26m upfront with possible future fees driving the total to €32m. Bazoer wanted to leave and my asking price was €30m, so I decided to go ahead and accept the deal. Bazoer is a great player and a big part of our midfield, but he wasn’t a particularly good performer last season and we are more than capable of finding a worthy replacement for much cheaper. I mentioned in the first article that we would be forced to sell our best players in the beginning of this journey; this is a necessary evil to maintain a balanced squad and positive cash flow.
A big cause for concern last season was the left back position. Mitchell Dijks was arguably our best player, but his only suitable backup was Daley Sinkgraven. I do like the concept of an attacker playing on the flanks of our defense to aid our attacking play style, but Sinkgraven’s defensive attributes simply won’t cut it when facing some of the continent’s best teams. To solve this issue, I brought in Patrick Kpozo, a 19-year-old Ghanaian left back from Swedish club AIK for €1.1m. Kpozo has great wing back attributes and solid physicals. At only 19, he has a lot of room for improvement as Dijks’ backup. Kpozo’s report indicates that he doesn’t have a massive amount of potential but could be a solid first team player in the future.
We kicked off our preseason with a training camp in Germany. After a few days of warming up, we faced off against our affiliate club Greuther Furth and beat them easily. We then hopped the border to the Czech Republic to take on Plzen. Diederik Boer had decided to retire this summer, so I used this occasion as a final send off for our beloved backup keeper. Unfortunately, an Ajax side packed with young talent wasn’t able to avoid a pretty hefty defeat to one of Eastern Europe’s top sides. Back in Holland, young defender Connor Blote left to continue his career at Dordrecht for about €100k. Thanks to AZ’s relegation, this summer turned into a mass exodus for the Alkmaar-based club. Virtually all of their top players decided to join bigger clubs. We were not immune to taking part in this raid of players, as shown with our €1m purchase of 17-year-old AZ youth product Michael Jong. The Dutch playmaker has amazing potential; his teamwork and overall mental acuity are unmatched for a player his age. I look forward to seeing him develop along with our best young players.
Ajax took on 1860 Munich in the final friendly of training camp and produced a great win to head back to Amsterdam on a high note. A few days later, a solid performance against N.E.C. showed our ability to keep possession well in the opponent’s half. Robert Muric, who had recently rejoined the club from loan, was sold to Bastia for roughly €1m. Muric is a decent winger, but there is simply too much competition on the right side. I was getting peppered with so many low-ball offers for my young players, all of which are rejected without much thought. The goal of my transfer policy is to develop young players until they reach their maximum potential at the club (and, thus, their maximum transfer value). Selling players who haven’t even broken into the first team isn’t the best financial or footballing decision.
Our next friendly was at the Amsterdam ArenA against Russian giants Zenit St. Petersburg: a match that saw us get clobbered in the first half and nearly come back late thanks to a Mateo Casierra brace. We made a couple more signings around this time: David Buzek and Eric Tayou. Buzek is a 16-year-old Czech striker acquired from Viktoria Plzen for €550k. He’s got some great technical attributes and very good potential. Tayou is 17, bought from Standard Liege for €1.5m (potentially rising to €2.7m). The Belgian/Cameroonian left back has amazing potential and is already good enough to warrant a starting place in the Jong Ajax squad. He’s fast, smart, and has a professional attitude. To be honest, he’s probably already better than my other new left back signing Kpozo.
We welcomed Manchester City to Amsterdam in another friendly against a big European club. We came out of the gates strong; Mateo Casierra was having an amazing pre-season. Unfortunately, a City squad packed with world class talent was able to claw back for a draw. In a move surely to be praised by fellow AjaxDaily writer Lukas Schroder, Nemanja Gudelj was sold to AC Milan for €10.25m. It’s a pretty sizeable fee for the midfielder, and it allows Donny van de Beek to take up a starting role. In other transfer news, young winger Javairo Dilrosun was loaned to Excelsior.
A friendly against Amsterdam FC was as straight-forward as one would expect. However, we then flew to Spain to take on Barcelona in a friendly fixture against the two Cruyff-influenced clubs. Dolberg got off the mark with 2 quick goals before Messi scored 2 for himself and Barcelona ran away with it. We played just as good as Barca, if not better. This was definitely a promising sign heading into the new season. Two more loans were completed: Leeroy Owusu to KV Oostende and Frenkie de Jong to Kayserispor. Nick Viergever, a fringe player, was sold to Anderlecht for €1.2m. This allows youngsters like Zeefuik to compete in the first team squad. We completed our pre-season friendlies with a win at Emmen. Some players who took their chances well in the pre-season include Terry Lartey Sanniez, Matthijs de Ligt, and Mateo Casierra. All of these players are likely to play roles as either starters or rotational players this year.
The next transfer is one I have mixed feelings about. When a team bids for one of your best players, the usual reaction is to reject it immediately. However, after doing this for multiple bids for Jairo Riedewald, I finally decided to look at the offers in more detail. When Real Madrid came along and offered €34 million with the potential to rise to €59m, I took it. He was already a 4-star player at only 20 years of age; it was just a matter of time before he forced his way out of the club. The €34m itself was enough to set the record departure fee for Ajax. I’m very sad and partially nervous to let one of my most prized possessions depart, but Riedewald might have left a couple years later on a free transfer anyway. I’d rather get the gargantuan pile of money now and start imbedding younger players in the first team. As it stands, Davinson Sanchez and Matthijs de Ligt are the starting center backs, with Deyovasio Zeefuik in contention.
Young striker Kaj Sierhuis joins Utrecht on loan after a disappointing loan spell in the second half of last season with Go Ahead Eagles, where he didn’t score in 16 matches. Hopefully his play style will fit Utrecht’s tactics better. Richairo Zivkovic comes back the other way from his loan at Utrecht last season, but I accept a loan offer from Pescara for the rest of the season. The Italian club were relegated to Serie B, but I’d rather have the young striker find his rythmn in a slightly worse division than make a few substitute appearances in the Eredivisie. A big reason I accepted this loan was the performances of Alexander Isak in the Jupiler League last season; I believe he’s good enough at 17 years of age to backup Kasper Dolberg.
We kicked off our competitive season in the first leg of the Champions League Best Place Qualifying Round, the “semi-final” to qualify for the group stages. We were drawn against Belgian side Genk, with the first match being played on the away ground. Ajax were immediately on the back foot and we finally conceded after a few chances for the home side. We created some good chances ourselves and broke through in the 39th minute with an El Ghazi strike. In the second half, Ziyech came close with a few free kicks, but the match ultimately ended in a draw. An away draw with a goal is a positive result, but there was still some work to do in the home leg.
Young attacking midfielder Francesco Antonucci signed a new deal after we rejected a couple bids from Juventus. Fellow attacking midfielder Rafik Guitane was sent to join Kaj Sierhuis on loan at Utrecht. The Johan Cruijff Schaal, a pre-season match between the previous year’s league winner and cup winner saw us face off against champions PSV. Richairo Zivkovic was yet to head to Italy so I decided to start him in the Schaal to see how he’d perform. My decision paid off, as Zivkovic’s header was the only goal in a match certainly lacking in the excitement department. Although the game doesn’t count for much, it was a good win nonetheless. Arsenal bid €3.8m (rising to €6m) for young defender Sherel Floranus, who we bought only a year prior from Sparta Rotterdam for less than €1m. I accepted the deal because Floranus made it known how much he wanted to move to a bigger club, and with so much young talent in our back line I don’t blame him. A €3 million immediate profit is pretty good business by the club.
The home leg of the Champions League qualifier against Genk began with a slight advantage towards us, since we drew 1-1 in the away leg. We dominated the beginning of the match but couldn’t break through. The second half was uneventful, and we ended up going through on away goals thanks to a 0-0 draw. It wasn’t the dominating performance we’d expect against a mid-level Belgian club, but I’m glad we advanced.
Mikkel Duelund, the Danish winger we signed in the January window, moved to Lorient for €3.7 million rising to €4.7m. This is a guaranteed €2m profit for only half a season of developing the player. Now that Duelund has moved on, Justin Kluivert will get a lot more chances to come off the bench. Antonucci, who recently signed a new deal, was sent on loan to ADO Den Haag to get some Eredivisie game time this year. In arguably our most important signing of the summer, iconic striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar joined the club for free as a backup striker! I am so excited to see what the fan-favorite forward can do as an option to lead the line, but at 34 years of age I wouldn’t expect him to start too many matches.
Young left back Mauro Savastano joined Gent for €50k as his contract was running out soon, and striker Queensy Menig joined Esbjerg fB on loan for the season with the option to buy for €550k. To sure up the midfield, we bought Santiago Ascacibar from Estudiantes for €5 million. The 20-year-old box-to-box midfielder has some great potential, and is already good enough to back-up Davy Klaassen in the midfield. With this signing, there aren’t really any positions that need much strengthening for the season.
The last couple signings of the summer were both for youngsters: Fannar Freyr Valgardsson and Angel Girault. Valgardsson is a 17-year-old Icelandic center back with decent potential bought from Icelandic giants KR for €85,000. Girault was bought from KAA Gent for €375k (potentially rising to €2.3m). The Belgian left winger is 16 years of age and has great speed and massive potential. His technical play needs improvement, but that will be easy at such a young age. Girault will provide competition for young Dutch winger Idrissi, who was a part of the first youth intake.
This summer was an interesting one. Riedewald left the club for a record fee, Bazoer left for a large fee also, and Huntelaar made his return to Amsterdam. At other clubs, there might be a gaping hole left by such big players leaving, but our ability to quickly replace players with our “conveyer belt of talent” should see other players step up. We may not have the same star power we had last year, but all of our young players are constantly improving and, thus, improving the squad itself. I’m excited to see what this season brings domestically and in Europe; our priority has to be to win the league at all costs. With amazing players like Kasper Dolberg, Donny van de Beek, and Matthijs de Ligt already in the first team and Che Nunnely, Justin Kluivert, and Alexander Isak knocking on the door, the future is most definitely bright in Amsterdam.