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.
When we last left off, I was struggling to keep my job at Ajax Amsterdam. As the new season beckoned, I knew I needed to make some changes. We were way too leaky at the back, especially against weaker sides and their sneaky counter-attacks. I didn’t change my formation, but instead the roles I used and instructions I gave the players. We changed from an attacking mentality to a control mentality, one that lessens the opponent’s strength on the counter. I started using an advanced playmaker more than a box-to-box midfielder to partner the deep-lying playmaker, which adds a lot of creativity going forward. For matches against bigger teams, I put in place a second formation with a defensive midfielder and two midfielders, an advanced playmaker and central midfielder (both on attack). Going into the season, I was praying that this might be the change we needed to deliver success to Amsterdam.
The preseason was awesome. We won every single match, including a tough one against Crystal Palace. I took the lads down to the Caribbean for our pre-season tour, so we got to relax on sunny beaches and train in a tropical environment. We had a Europa League qualifier to look forward to, but I had to deal with some transfer activity first. And boy, was there a lot of activity.
I bought Orlando Hernández, an 18-year-old Colombian playmaker from Santa Fe for a mere €375k. This kid has massive potential, but he has a lot of competition with Rafik Guitane and Sead Haksabanovic both vying for first-team action in the advanced playmaker role. Some other youth transfers were Giles Decock (Zulte Waregem, €1.7m, center-back), Massimo Van de Voorde (Fortuna Sittard, €120k, left-back), Oliver Nguyen (Anderlecht, €150k, right-back), and Hans De Neve (AA Gent, €160k, left-back). In a transfer that I had arranged a couple years back, Bosnian striker Slavko Rajic joined Ajax from Sarajevo for only €150k. This seems like an absolute steal to me, as he is only 18, super-fast, and a great finisher. I hope these young players can vilify my decisions and make an impact in the future.
Being Ajax, we were forced to sell a few players. More than a few, actually. Young fullback Leeroy Owusu joined Leganés for €1.6m, but that was just the beginning. Amin Younes went back to his native Germany to link up with Hamburg for a fee of €8.25m. I have Justin Kluivert begging for first-team action, so I hope he’s able to step up and replace the inconsistent Younes. Kasper Dolberg (yes, I know) had his €31 million release clause triggered by Bayer Leverkusen, so my top striker was gone just like that. Alexander Isak is only 18, but I’m going to trust him to pick up where Dolberg left off.
Celta Vigo launched a €12.5m bid for Anwar El Ghazi, which I decided to accept. Vaclav Cerny and Che Nunnely are both amazing prospects who are almost as good as El Ghazi, so I feel I’m justified in doing this sale. In my most painful transfer to date, Davy Klaassen left for Juventus for €21 million. Our captain had been performing at average levels, which is why I decided to accept the bid, but I’ll still miss him dearly. At this point you might be thinking “Why would he sell almost all of the star players after losing 2 straight Eredivisie titles?” You are just going to need to trust me on this one.
Going into our Europa League 3rd Round Qualifying tie against Sturm Graz, this is how I picked the lineup: Svilar; Dankerlui, Zeefuik, de Ligt, Dijks, van de Beek, Nouri, Ziyech, Kluivert, Cerny, Isak. Dijks and Ziyech are the only players over 21 years of age in the lineup. Nouri slots into Klaassen’s position, but instead of box-to-box midfielder he takes up an attacking, advanced playmaker role. I think the 6-0 scoreline in our favor shows just how powerful the new tactic was. Nouri, Dijks, and Ziyech all had outstanding performances. The return leg in Austria saw us make no mistake, coming out on top 2-0 thanks to two Santiago Ascacibar longshots.
Damil Dankerlui requested a transfer, so I brought in 21-year-old Swedish right-back Joel Andersson from Norrköping for a million euros. The bids for Dankerlui were way too low, so I decided to keep an unhappy player in the squad for the time being. The opening day Eredivisie match against NEC was an exciting one. We went up 2-0 thanks to our two young wingers (Kluivert and Cerny), but NEC pegged them both back early in the second half. Thankfully, Ziyech scored a brace in two minutes to give us the win. We conceded early again midweek to Groningen, but Nouri equalized before Isak struck an amazing game-winning longshot in the 85th minute.
In my final transfer of the summer, I completed my most expensive buy during my tenure thus far. Juan Pablo González joins Ajax from San Lorenzo for €6m (rising to €8m). The 18-year-old Argentinean left-winger is already first-team quality; he’ll battle it out with Kluivert for a starting position on the flank. González has some superb attributes: fast, hard-working, smart, and an overall well-rounded player. I signed him for the same as I sold Younes for, and González easily has much more potential than the German.
We took on Den Haag in what was our best performance in the league yet. Isak and substitute youngster Patrick Gijzen scored some beautiful goals. Our 90% pass completion indicated how well the team is getting on with this new control mentality.
After progressing past Sturm Graz, we now face Slovenian side Olimpija to get into the Europa League group stage. Isak got an early brace before Ziyech and Nunnely made it 4-0 to finish off the tie in leg 1. At Volendam in the league, I rotated the squad due to fitness. I wasn’t disappointed: we ran out 5-1 winners to maintain our perfect league record. In the return leg at Olimpija, we couldn’t find a goal and it ended 0-0. That was actually the first game all season that we didn’t win. On transfer deadline day, I sold two players. Young winger Millen Baars joined Liverpool for €2.2m and Daley Sinkgraven joined Maccabi Tel-Aviv for €675k. Sinkgraven didn’t really have a place in the squad and his contract was up at the end of the season. I won’t bore you with the complete list of players we loaned out this season, but some notable names included: Mateo Cassierra (Vitesse), Michael Jong (Sparta), Richairo Zivkovic (Willem II), Francesco Antonucci (Verona), and Eric Tayou (Twente).
Brage (Portugal), BATE (Belarus), and Westerlo (Belgium) make up our Europa League group. I can see us rolling through this group if we keep up our fine form. Alexander Isak scored a brace against Utrecht on the way to a 4-2 win before Ajax coasted to a 2-0 victory over Telstar. Che Nunnely scored a brace and González scored his first club goal when we took down Braga 4-1 in Portugal. We continued to roll in the league, beating NAC and Cambuur 3-1 and 4-0, respectively. Isak scored in both games, so I don’t think it’s outlandish to say he’s done a good job of replacing Kasper Dolberg.
Isak’s brace contributed to the 4-2 win over Westerlo in the Europa League, while him and Ziyech teamed up to score a goal each in 2 minutes to beat Heerenveen 2-1. Frenkie de Jong provided the only goal of the game in a victory over his former club, Willem II. Justin Kluivert helped himself to a man-of-the-match performance against BATE in a 4-0 victory to keep the Ajax train rolling in Europe.
Kaj Sierhuis repaid my faith in him when I rested Isak against Excelsior by scoring a goal to win the game 1-0. We went up 3-0 against AZ and barely held on as the visitors left with a respectable score line of 3-2. At this point in the league we have double PSV’s points (36 to 18), while 2nd place Feyenoord are a full 10 points behind. Talk about coming out of the gates strong.
BATE provided no competition in our 4th group stage match; we rolled over them 6-0. All seemed to plan as Ziyech put us up against Vitesse, but a brace from Rudnevs handed us our first loss of the season. We made it until November undefeated in all competitions. That’s absolutely refreshing considering how inconsistent we were the past two seasons.
French midfielder Rafik Guitane scored his first Ajax goal as we beat Heracles 2-0. As we kept rolling in the league, I wondered when our first Dutch Cup match was. I looked at the schedule and realized there was absolutely no cup this year. I cannot for the life of me understand why, only that it’s probably a glitch in the game.
Isak and de Jong scored to help us continue to roll in the Europa League against Braga. Against PSV, Isak struck an early goal before Nouri hit the woodwork twice! Luckily, the game ended with a score line of 1-0. In De Klassieker against Feyenoord, Isak and Chong matched each other’s goals to finish with a scoreline of 1-1. It was only the second time we dropped points thus far in the season, but I wish it didn’t have to happen against our biggest rivals.
Hakim Ziyech continued his amazing season with a brace against NEC, and Kaj Sierhuis scored a brace against Westerlo in a 4-1 win to finish a perfect group stage. We’re absolutely rolling in both competitions this season. Twente fell at the hands of Ajax 3-0 in the final game before winter break. If I had to summarize the first half of the season in one word, it would be superb.
As the winter transfer window came upon us, a new batch of youngsters arrived at the Amsterdam ArenA. Lars Vandenbroucke (Zulte Waregem, €450k, goalkeeper), Thuso Makhanya (Sundowns, €200k, South African international left-back), Dany Boone (WS Bruxelles, €59k, center-mid), Lachlan Forbes (FFA COE, Free, right-winger), and Johannes Hjärpe (Örebo Sk, €325k, box-to-box mid) all joined the club for small fees. Oscar Correa, an 18-year-old left-back from Once Caldas in Colombia, joined us for €900k. I’m singling Correa out because of his massive potential; he’s already good enough to backup Dijks and has some insane physical attributes already.
Mitchell Bakker (Liverpool, €3.4m, left-back), Zian Flemming (Helmond Sport, €81k, midfielder), and Patrick Kpozo (Club Brugge, €2.8m, left-back) were sent the other way. Kpozo played well as a backup but I have so many great young left-backs in the squad now. Wonderkid sweeper-keeper Mile Svilar decided to join Chelsea at the end of his contract on a free; I tried my best to open negotiations with his agent but he was unhappy at the club. André Onana is still a great option for the sweeper-keeper role, but I’ll look to bring in someone this summer because my youth keepers aren’t very good.
Deyovaisio Zeefuik had been a starter in the back line for over a year when Arsenal decided to trigger his €16.5m release clause. Like the Dolberg sale, my hands were tied. To put into perspective how good this kid is, he’s already a rotational player for the English giants at the age of 20. Since we’re on the topic, Jaïro Riedewald is basically a first-team defender for Real Madrid after his record sale last season. Ajax’s strong youth policy certainly hasn’t floundered under my reign.
Ziyech and Terry Lartey Sanniez, who has been competing with Dankerlui for the right-back position, left to play for Morocco and Ghana at AFCON as the squad returned from break. We took on second-place Groningen at home, and Vaclav Cerny scored the only two goals of the game to increase the gap between us and our competitors. Isak scored a hat trick against Volendam in a 6-1 win. If you doubted him before, it’s hard to doubt him now.
Youth player Noa Benninga joined Achilles for €63k in what turned out to be the last deal of the transfer window. I’m glad we were able to hold on to as many players as we did because there were many clubs putting in bids for youngsters like Ricardo Farcas and Arkadiusz Stelmach. In an absolutely stunning match, we went up 4-1 by halftime against Den Haag. However, Henrique scored a brilliant hat trick in the second half to bring the scores level. Nouri took a corner in added time that found the head of young Nigerian defender Timothy Amaefule who put it in the net! What a match and what a moment for the defender with great potential.
Our luck ran out against Utrecht the next weekend. We went down 2-0 in the first half before Amaefule scored another header off of a corner, but it wasn’t enough. We only managed a 3-3 draw against Telstar because of a 90th minute goal from Isak. I told the boys that they needed to stop their complacency despite the fact that we’re leading the league by so much.
They stopped their complacency at just the right time. Stade Rennais visited us in the first round of the Europa League knockout stage and left Amsterdam down 2-1. Cabaye scored a first half goal for the French side, but Kluivert’s crosses connected for an Isak goal two times to give us the win. We managed a 2-0 win over NAC in between the 2 legs, and came out with a 1-1 draw over Stade Rennais in France to advance. Who other than Isak to get us the goal to go through? Our next opponent is Southampton: probably our toughest opponent all season.
Ajax came out on top over Cambuur (2-1) and Heerenveen (1-0), but our minds were focused on the task in the Europa League. Southampton visited us in the first leg and we looked really strong to start out. Neither team could find a goal for 90 minutes before young defender Ricardo Farcas took out the Southampton attacker and was adjudged to be the last man: sent off. James Ward-Prowse stepped up and drilled the free-kick into the net from far out. The ArenA crowd was stunned. We needed to win in the south coast of England.
Against Willem II in the league I picked a rotated squad in preparation for the Southampton tie. Sead Haksabanovic and Kaj Sierhuis both scored braces as a youthful Ajax won 5-0. We traveled to Southampton with Matthijs de Ligt returning to the lineup from a long injury spell. Svilar denied Charlie Austin 1v1 early, before Cerny struck Forster’s post. Jay Rodriguez put Southampton up 2-0 on aggregate in the 47th minute, which forced me to get on the attack. We were punished a mere 2 minutes later, again by Rodriguez. At 3-0, we really needed some inspiration. Che Nunnely gave it to us in the 74th minute with a beautiful volleyed longshot to bring the aggregate score back to 3-1. It wasn’t to be, however, as Joe Gomez bundled the ball into the net with 10 minutes to go. Nunnely scored again in the 86th, but Southampton held on to advance. I’m disappointed we couldn’t get further into the competition, especially considering our scintillating form this year.
With European success off the table, I focused my attention solely on wrapping up the league. It took only one game, a 3-2 win against Excelsior, to mathematically declare us champions. We’ve done it, finally! It took us 3 seasons, but we’ve done it. I’m so proud of the boys for such a great run of form in the league, especially considering how many stars we sold in the summer.
Back to business: the annual youth intake. We’ve got a couple great Dutch players joining our academy this season: Jack Reekers and Lorenzo Hoogland. Reekers is a 16-year-old center-back with good first-team potential. Hoogland has huge potential. He’s a 15-year-old defensive midfielder who I’m going to retrain as a deep-lying playmaker. Hoogland reminds me of Patrick Gijzen when he first came through the youth ranks; now he’s fighting Donny van de Beek for a starting place. I have high hopes not only for these two players, but for all of the teens coming through our academy. It’s absolutely crucial for our long-term success that they focus and train hard to fulfill their maximum potential. I must also add that Ajax has formed a partnership with Elfsborg, a Swedish team, to bring young players through the Ajax academy. This is a similar partnership to the one I formed with Greuther Furth a few years ago. I accepted Elfsborg’s loan offer for Polish center-half Arkadiusz Stelmach until November (the end of the season in Sweden).
We got wins against AZ (3-2), Vitesse (2-0), and Heracles (4-0), the final of which included Oscar Correa’s debut goal for the club! In the second Klassieker of the year, we beat Feyenoord 3-1 thanks to a Ziyech brace and Nunnely goal. Cerny scored an 88th minute winning free-kick in De Topper, the PSV rivalry match. Hoogland made his debut for the club at the tender age of 15: an Ajax club record! We drew 1-1 with Twente to put an end to a quite spectacular season.
In terms of player acknowledgements, Alexander Isak scored 26 goals in an amazing season after replacing Kasper Dolberg. The Swede has already made his international debut at 19, so we certainly have a quality player leading the line. Hakim Ziyech was our Player of the Season. He scored 21 goals, created 11 assists, and was Player of the Match 8 times. I noted before that the 26-year-old needed to step up his game and become the leading creative force, something he certainly did this year. Competing right-wingers Che Nunnely (10 gls, 8 ast, 4 POM) and Vaclav Cerny (10 gls, 5 ast, 4 POM) were our 2nd and 3rd best players, respectively. This shows not only the depth that we have as a squad but also our strong youth system in place (20-years-old and 21-years-old).
90 points accumulated in the league is a new record for the Eredivisie in the modern era. I told you guys to trust me! After three seasons, we’ve finally completed phase one of the project: become the best Dutch team (Recovery). In Part 1, I said I would do this through tactical innovation, shrewd business, and a strong youth policy. I innovated our tactics this year to become a much better, stronger unit, I have bought players for cheap and sold players for large sums, and I have promoted youth players into the first team (average age of 22 in most starting lineups this season).
Step 2, Revitalization, is to keep doing this to strengthen my team for a European push. I need to keep handing debuts and competitive minutes to young players, and keep selling stars for large sums of money. Many people want to hold onto all of their best players, but I know that it’s an unrealistic goal for a Dutch club. Keeping players who don’t want to be here just creates a hostile environment in the dressing room, which leads to counter-productivity on the pitch. I want young players who are hungry for success in Europe, not for receiving a paycheck abroad.
This is certainly a good step for the club. For those of you who have stuck through all 7 articles, I thank you. I’m churning out as much as I can for each monthly article, so every piece from now on will likely cover a whole season. This is so we can cover as much time as possible, and hopefully reach that pinnacle of winning the Champions League.Thank you for reading and join me next time for the 2019-2020 season!