Football Manager 2017: The Ajax Journey part 6

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.

The summer of 2017 was pretty insane for our virtual Ajax club. Young stars Riechedly Bazoer and Jairo Riedewald left for big fees, while we secured the signings of some great youth prospects. With a back line consisting of players all 21 years of age or younger, most clubs would chalk this year up to being a “rebuilding season”. Not Ajax, however. We know that this club can succeed with young players. Despite the majority of the squad being very young, they can look up to more experienced members like Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Lasse Schone, Davy Klaassen, and Hakim Ziyech. It will be exciting to see how young players who already claim starting spots like Dolberg, van de Beek, and Sanchez perform, while the likes of Kluivert, Svilar, Nouri, and Isak look to break through. The squad is slightly weaker in terms of talent than last year, but I still believe we can put an end to PSV’s run of 3 straight Eredivisie titles.

This is Ajax’s starting lineup to start the 2017/18 season. Dankerlui (DR), Zeefuik (DC), Nouri (MC), and Cerny (WR) are all challenging to take over the first-team place.

We kicked off the Eredivisie season with a home match against newly-promoted VVV. A dominating 4-0 victory with a slightly rotated squad surely gave the boys some confidence going into the season. We managed to sneak by Willem II away 1-0, thanks to some spectacular defensive work and a few great saves by Andre Onana. We dropped points for the first time at home against a strong Heracles; after going down 2-1, debutant Patrick Kpozo scored the equalizer from the left back position. After going through Genk on away goals, we squared up against German side Mainz for a spot in the Champions League Group Stage. The first leg was in Germany, and we definitely weren’t prepared for this game. Ajax got absolutely killed on the counter-attack and missed some easy chances, resulting in a 4-1 loss. We really put ourselves in a tough position for the second leg.

It’s never good to have to travel to Eindhoven to play PSV, especially when you have the Mainz second leg 3 days later. After a pretty slow match, PSV’s De Jong found a winner in the 89th minute to send us back empty handed. We found ourselves dominating in the home leg against Mainz, but somehow ended up drawing nil-nil. We are out of the Champions League, but I am hopeful that a deep run in the Europa League is on the cards. The first leg definitely showed our defensive instability after the Riedewald sale, but we’ve seen our ability to defend a clean sheet; we just need to finish our chances better.

Since we went out of the Champions League late in the qualifying process, we gain a birth in the Europa League Group Stage. We’ve been drawn against Celta Vigo, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, and Esbjerg fB: a group I believe we have a chance of winning. We faced off against rivals Feyenoord in our first game back in league action, and after a solid defensive performance by both sides, Huntelaar proved his worth with a late winning goal after coming on as a substitute. It’s a big win away to our biggest rivals, but we find ourselves 5 points behind PSV due to our earlier dropped points.

Davy Klaassen and Matthijs de Ligt have been given new contracts to start out the new season, at €40k per week and €11k per week, respectively. I hope that Klaassen’s massive wage will convince him to stay at the club for years to come. Next, we won easily against Roda JC (4-1) on our way to taking down Esbjerg in our first group stage match, 2-0. Dolberg scored two goals in each match, signaling his status as undisputed first-team striker. Our good form was broken away against NAC, where a counterattacking goal in the second half saw us unable to respond. In the Dutch Cup, I picked a side comprised of almost all youngsters to dismantle a lowly RBC Roosendaal 6-0.

We won away against a strong Vitesse side 2-1, with both goals coming from an El Ghazi assist and Dolberg strike. We stayed perfect in the Europa League in our home game against Maccabi Tel-Aviv (3-0) thanks to a Justin Kluivert brace. A lot of youngsters got chances in that game, including 17-year-old Romanian center half Ricardo Farcas. Farcas looks to be another top-quality defensive prospect, taking his chances well behind Sanchez, de Ligt, and Zeefuik. Our good run was put to an end with a 0-0 draw against Zwolle despite dominating possession. We really can’t be dropping this many points with PSV being as consistent as ever this season.

Star striker Kasper Dolberg signed a new contract that includes a €31m release cause, which worries me, but his agent wouldn’t sign without it. Ajax was lucky to scrape by Twente, with the only goal coming from a deflected Dankerlui cross into the net. The two top clubs in our Europa League group faced off when we visited Celta Vigo, but only the Spanish side was top at the end, after a 3-0 thrashing. We were easily 2nd best despite a pretty even spread of shots on target and possession. A Dolberg hat trick eased Ajax past Excelsior in the league to help us gain on PSV. Unfortunately, we lost to Twente 2-0 in the Dutch Cup in only the 3rd round, but I’m not too worried because the board has let me use a rotated squad in the competition due to it not being important to them. We responded well with a 2-0 win at Heerenveen, but on the same day we saw our B-team, Jong Ajax, go top of the Dutch 2nd Division. Will we be able to match the success of our understudies?

In our home match against Celta Vigo, we got our revenge with a 1-0 win after Dolberg struck a shot off the post and in. This was a huge win for us as it put Ajax behind Vigo at the top only on goal difference. I was forced to rest some of the starters for a game against N.E.C. because of how little time we had to rest after the European match, and we were made to pay for it with a 1-1 draw. Mile Svilar started his first match in goal in the Eredivisie and had a very good performance, despite the goal conceded.

In other news, the board informed me that our youth facilities had just finished being improved, making them some of the most advanced and efficient in the world. It is necessary that we keep up with global developments in youth policy so we can continue our tradition of imbedding young players in the squad, whether that be via our youth intakes or teenagers that we bring in from other clubs.

We dropped points again against ADO Den Haag. Tying 1-1 in the closing minutes, Dolberg missed a sitter that would’ve been his 2nd goal of the day. Argh!! We seem to be playing so well, but just lack that finishing quality that we need to become an elite team. Actually, that kind of reminds me of the real life Ajax!

The second game against Esbjerg was an easy walkover (4-0), but I was once again forced to rest players against Utrecht, a game we drew 0-0. We were lucky to even get a point, as our on-loan striker Kaj Sierhuis hit the post late on. Young striker Alexander Isak got his chance against Groningen with Dolberg suffering a pretty bad injury, and he repaid my confidence with a goal to cap-off a 3-0 win. To make things even better, we actually went top of the league ahead of PSV and Twente (albeit on goal difference). We once again scored 3 goals in a league match against newly-promoted Telstar, but so did they. Isak scored a brace to take his tally to 3 goals in 2, but we really need to be defending better. Zeefuik has become my preferred center back next to Sanchez, but his mistakes force me to rotate him with de Ligt constantly.

Despite our inconsistency, Alexander Isak has been a bright spot since his emergence as Dolberg’s temporary replacement. In our final group stage match against Tel-Aviv, we needed to overturn a 5 goal difference to go top ahead of Celta Vigo. We actually almost did it, winning 6-0 while Vigo only won 3-1, but Isak was the main talking point of the day having scored his first hat trick! In other news, Feyenoord are struggling in a relegation battle with only 14 points after 16 matches.

At VVV, Ziyech scored a brace within the first 10 minutes and we ended up closing out the victory with a 4-1 scoreline. Alexander Isak’s headed goal made it 4 straight scoring games for him, an unbelievable feat for an 18-year-old. In our last game before the winter break, Ajax managed to win against Willem II, 2-1. Isak was ineffective for much of the game, but when Huntelaar came on to replace him he scored a winning header.

At the halfway point in the season, the best players have been Zeefuik, Dankerlui, El Ghazi, and Klaassen. Zeefuik and Dankerlui have taken the starting spots from de Ligt and Lartey Sanniez, respectively, and El Ghazi and Klaassen have played important roles in our build-up play during attacks. Isak has been the biggest surprise, scoring 7 goals in only 6 starts. Hakim Ziyech has been frustratingly average for one of our most talented players.

I brought in a young winger from Mali, Alpha Kaba, for basically no fee. He’s really not that talented, but he’s fast and I’ll look to develop him over a couple years in the youth system. Surplus-to-requirements Django Warmerdam and Indy Groothuizen left the club for small fees. In our first big action of the transfer window, I sold young midfielders Carel Eiting (€6.5m) to Chelsea and Noa Lang (€6.5m) to Barcelona. Eiting was a fringe player with pretty good potential, but Patrick Gijzen is younger and performing better in the deep-lying playmaker role. Noa Lang is only 18 and has good potential, but if this story is The Godfather then Barcelona simply made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

We won all 4 of our friendlies during the break, 3 of them coming in Cyprus, but our warm weather success didn’t translate to a victory against title rivals PSV in our first competitive game of 2018. Once again, we couldn’t finish our chances and Jozefzoon scored the winner in stoppage time. We’re now 8 points behind PSV and 1 behind second-place Utrecht. No words can describe how frustrated I am with our consistent ability to drop points.

I bought a 17-year-old center back from VVV, Arkadiusz Stelmach, for €2.8m. The Polish defender is very physical but must improve his on-the-ball composure. VVV wanted to play him as a first team defender, so I let him go back on loan there for the rest of the season. Another incoming regen, Mark Knoester, is a young midfielder from Sparta that I got on the cheap. He’s fast but raw; definitely not a first team player for the next few years. Speaking of regens, our Nigerian center back Timothy Amaefule and Belgian wingback Eric Tayou was loaned to Vitesse and Heracles, respectively, for the rest of the season.

At Heracles, we ran out 5-1 winners to keep PSV looking behind their shoulders. Dolberg is back from his injury, so Isak will need to prove himself all over again to maintain his spot up top. El Ghazi scored an early goal away to Roda, but we weren’t able to hold on late as the home side scored a 90+2’ winner. Our late-game defense is absolutely atrocious. As the transfer window came to a close, we welcomed 16th-placed Feyenoord to the ArenA. Despite a few missed chances early, we ended up scoring a couple to win 2-0 and send our rivals back to Rotterdam dejected. We were just as bad in the next game as we were good against Feyenoord, losing 2-0 to PEC Zwolle. We really just didn’t show up to play at all.

We’ve been drawn against Swedish giants Goteborg in the Europa League first knockout stage, and we ended up drawing the first leg 1-1. Since it was our home leg, I’m pretty disappointed with the result but still positive going into the next match. Dolberg scored a ridiculous longshot to give us the lead, but we simply couldn’t hang on (once again). We really need to get back on track in the Eredivisie ASAP because we’re 10 points behind PSV. NAC visited Amsterdam in a match where everything that could go wrong did. They scored early but we came back, then Sinkgraven was sent off and they scored a late winner. I wrote in my match notes “we suck”, which I think perfectly describes how any Ajax fan would feel if this is how the club was performing in real life.

Against Goteborg in Sweden, we must score to go through because of the 1-1 result at home. We did that twice, and won 2-0 thanks to Dolberg and Ziyech. All hope isn’t quite lost! Back in Holland, we ran out 3-0 victors over top-of-the-table rivals Vitesse. We then went on to draw against Twente, 2-2, where we actually came back from 2-0 down but hit the post with a chance to win late on. After going through at the expense of Goteborg, we find ourselves travelling to France to take on Bordeaux in the Round of 16. In traditional Ajax style, we controlled much of possession and pressured the opposition into gifting us a few chances, but we couldn’t take those chances and came home 4-0 losers. Ji Dong-Won scored a hat trick off of counter attack goals, something I find pretty unbelievable.

We luckily won against Excelsior thanks to a Dolberg brace (2-1, and despite my efforts to overload Bordeaux in Amsterdam, the game finished 1-1 (5-1 aggregate). Our European hopes are over for the season, and with the Eredivisie all-but lost I wouldn’t be surprised if I was out of a job in a couple months. The board called me in for a meeting, and they gave me a month to improve results. I need to do all I can during the rest of the season to not only salvage my job, but prove to the players that Ajax is a club that can push on to higher successes. Sitting in 5th place, however, I need to do something drastic very quickly.

We could only draw against N.E.C.; we went up 2-0 and completely lost it. I have no idea why we’re so bad at holding on to leads, but I need to make some tactical and personnel adjustments over the summer. With our Eredivisie hopes mathematically finished, Davy Klaassen and Anwar El Ghazi have requested to leave. Will we see a mass exodus this summer?

We were back to our good form against Heerenveen in a surprising 4-2 win, but the performance was overshadowed by confirmation that PSV have won their 4th straight Eredivisie title. They’ve turned their success into a mini-dynasty, and we need to put a stop to it as soon as we can.

Ajax took on ADO Den Haag in my 100th game in management, and the game perfectly sums-up my tenure as manager. Klaassen scored a longshot and Den Haag was down to 10 men, but we found a way to let them equalize with their only shot on target. If Donald Trump were a big Dutch football fan, he might have tweeted: “Ajax playing like absolute wimps. Keep dropping points to average teams. Not elite. Sad!” Sorry Donald, I’m just as perplexed as you are.

We grinded out a 2-1 win against Utrecht and went on to triumph over Groningen 2-0, but with only 1 game left we are still sitting in 3rd place. Against Telstar, we knew that Vitesse were impassible in 2nd place but that Utrecht could still overtake us. Fortunately, we came back after going down early to win 3-1 and salvage a third place finish in the Eredivisie.

At the beginning of the season, I noted how I believe we could still succeed despite the big summer sales. I was wrong. The good thing about this team is that with all of this inexperience and all of this turmoil, we still finished in 3rd. That’s something that I intend to build on next year, and with the board gaining confidence in me I’d be surprised if they decide to let me go.

In terms of player accolades, Mitchell Dijks was voted the Fans’ Player of the Season for the second-straight season, with Damil Dankerlui in 2nd and Deyovasio Zeefuik 3rd. It really says something when the fans think the three best players in the team are defenders. We need to re-inspire the players and fans alike with open, attacking play next year.

The fans decided that young wingback Patrick Kpozo was the signing of the year, and Kasper Dolberg won the Eredivisie “Talent van het jaar”. The club made a €45.5m profit over the season, thanks mostly to player sales (over €90m).

The good thing about this season is that it proves our immortality. We had lost the title for 3 straight seasons previously, but we had never experienced inconsistency in performances quite like this year. The only thing to do is to keep kicking on, rejuvenate the squad, and develop our amazing young players. We’re still in phase 1 of my plan to get Ajax to become the best team in the world, but I feel next year we can take 2 steps forward after this year’s step back. As the great Johan Cruijff once said, “Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.” We will keep striving to play simple and effective football. I know we will succeed.

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!