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.
Welcome back! Last time I recapped Ajax’s 2018-19 season, a footballing year in which we had massive success in the Eredivisie. Winning the league with a record 90 points (25 points clear of 2nd place Vitesse) is something I’d obviously love to repeat, but I certainly wouldn’t expect to do such a thing. As long as we keep consistently winning the Eredivisie I’ll be satisfied. Phase 1 (Recovery) is completed by claiming the title as the best Dutch team, but retaining that through shrewd business and an exemplary youth academy is the key to Phase 2 (Revitalization). While I’d quite enjoy repeating my domestic success year-after-year, I don’t want it to get to a point where the quality of the league is significantly lower than that of Ajax. Maintaining a solid Dutch foundation of talent is key to building up the youth structure of our club.
As the seasons progress, I’m going to focus less on the individual matches and more on the overall ideas during these articles. As is such, I’ll go over the summer transfers first instead of in-between matches.
Note: I remember that, in my first article, I laid out plans to never spend over €10m on a transfer. I’m actually going to be breaking this rule for two reasons: to truly succeed in an ever-growing market, we need to be spending more to compete with the “big boys”, even if it’s spent on a young player. The second reason is that we have so much money. So much. That is all.
Lukas Zajic: A 16-year-old Czech attacking midfielder from Sparta Prague for about €4m. Let me tell you, this kid has potential. His technique is out-of-this-world and he has the ability to back up our best midfielders already.
Clement Delmas: The 16-y.o. French sweeper-keeper was brought in from Montpellier for about €1m; he’s a natural sweeper but needs to improve his passing.
Atsushi Kagami: Our first foray into the Asian market sees us pick up 18-y.o. right-back Kagami from Urawa Reds for €1.5m. He’s a solid option already and will be plying his trade with Jong Ajax for the foreseeable future.
Philip Michiels: The 18-year-old Belgian center-back comes in from Mouscron for €7m rising to €11.5m. It’s our largest outlay on a single transfer, but it’s totally worth it. This kid is a ridiculously good defender for his age and his passing suggest that he’ll be a great fit as a play-it-from-the-back defender. As we progress into Phase #2, I’ll be spending more and more on transfers. We have over €200m in the bank for crying out loud!
Pablo Dragún: Woah. Dragún is an Argentinean right-back we brought in from River Plate for €7.75m, which looks to be a steal. He went on to be capped by the #1 ranked nation later in the season, showing just how good he is. Good competition for Lartey Sanniez and Dankerlui, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the defender displaces both of them soon.
Emanuel Gouveia: The 19-year-old Portuguese deep-lying playmaker joins for only €325k from Nacional da Madeira. This is going to be a super-lucrative deal for us, as Emanuel is already good enough to compete with the likes of van de Beek and Gijzen. He’ll be loaned back to Nacional for the season because they have great training facilities for him to develop and he’ll be a key player there, whereas he’d struggle for game time in Amsterdam.
Bakary Ouattara: Bakary is from AFAD Djékanou in The Ivory Coast, brought in for only €135k. If you thought Gouveia was a steal, this guy is a full-on bank robbery. Ouattara has great potential at only 17 and will play with the u19’s and Jong Ajax this year. We’ll check up on his progression in a year’s time.
Daniel Grim: The final transfer of the summer was completed in September. N.E.C. allowed us the rights of the 16-year-old winger for less than half-a-million euros. Grim is great for his age and makes me feel a lot better about buying so many foreign youngsters this window.
Hakim Ziyech: Arguably our most talented player leaves for Paris Saint-Germain for €31m (rising to €33m). The Moroccan was in superb form last year, so I thought I’d capitalize on that. While it may not seem like a blockbuster deal you’d imagine from Ziyech, I think it’s fair because of the huge amount of options we have in midfield.
Abdelhak Nouri: Joins Borussia Dortmund for €30m (€44m). Ziyech’s long-term understudy departs only a month later for what will probably end up being a larger transfer fee. Nouri is a really, really, good player, but at the 22-23 age mark, his progression has started to stagnate. Remember the transfer of Lukas Zajic? He’ll be getting some minutes this season.
Justin Kluivert: The sprightly Dutch winger is off to the Bundesliga as well, except this time to RB Leipzig for €30m (€43m). Kluivert was brilliant for us and at only 20-years-old is now a first-team regular in one of the Bundesliga’s top sides. Why did I accept, you ask? Juan Pablo Gonzalez. The Argentinean winger was awesome for us last year and at 19 is just as good, if not better, than Kluivert. We also have a young, pacey Belgian winger named Angel Girault to back him up.
Davinson Sánchez: The big teams really seem to have taken notice of our successful season. Our Colombian ball-playing defender joins up with his buddy Justin in Leipzig for a fee of €25m (€30m), which should see either Amaefule, Farcas, or new signing Michiels slot in next to Matthijs de Ligt full-time. We have a plethora of defending talent, so I’m not as concerned as I possibly should be with this sale.
Vaclav Cerny: My final large sale of the summer is probably the least risky one. Our Czech winger departs to Napoli for €13m (€20.5m), which is a solid fee for Cerny. Che Nunnely was competing with him for minutes and the Dutch wonderkid needs guaranteed action to keep progressing.
Low-profile youth departures accrued €749,500.
In terms of loans, the most notable are as follows:
Orlando Hernández (SC Bastia)
Thuso Makhanya (SC Heerenveen)
Yannick Koers (FC Twente)
Francesco Antonucci (Standard Liege)
Slavko Rajic (Greuther Fürth)
Oscar Correa (LOSC Lille)
Emanuel Gouveia (Nacional de Madeira)
*It is important to note that Hernández and Correa, both Colombian internationals, were recalled by me in January. It was pretty stupid of me to send them out in the first place, so keep an eye out for their impact upon returning.
After a successful preseason that included a trip to Asian nations South Korea, Japan, and China, we beat PSV in the Johan Cruijff Schaal to kick off the season. Isak led the line superbly in the start of our Eredivisie campaign, scoring 4 goals in our first 3 matches. We remained undefeated until the end of September; the run included a superb 4-1 win over PSV. Losses against NAC and Den Bosch were tough to take, but the squad was pretty rotated as we competed in the Champions League Group Stage. After our poor run of form in November, we picked it up before the winter break. I still felt horrible about our record: only 9 wins out of 18. I knew we wouldn’t repeat the form of last year, but come on boys!
I did some brainstorming during the winter break and decided to change up the tactics. I dropped our deep-lying playmaker into a defensive midfielder role, while the advanced playmaker dropped back next to our other playmaker. I decided to make these two center midfielders’ roles AP(Attack) and CM(Attack) for league games, while the CM would become another DLP for bigger European matches.
As you can see, three wins and a tough loss to PSV after the break gave us some confidence to push on with the season. After the recalls of our Colombian duo, we went undefeated in the league. Big wins over Vitesse and Feyenoord showed just how dominant this tactic makes us, but was it enough to come back and win our second-straight league title?
Yes! It technically came down to the last day, but Vitesse lost to Heerenveen and our comfortable win over Excelsior confirmed that the trophy came back to Amsterdam!
Before I go on to talk about our European adventures, I want to wrap-up the deals I did in the mid-season transfer window. Experienced midfielder Lasse Schøne implored me to let him follow his dream of playing in Spain, so I accepted a minuscule bid from Sochaux (French side: logic?). Anyway, he was only good for tutoring at this point and I’ll eventually look to bring him back as a staff member so don’t get all uptight about this sale, ok? Two-time Fans’ Player of the Season winner Mitchell Dijks went off to pursue his dream as well, this one with Everton in the Premier League. I got €13m for the left-back, which doesn’t come close to his contribution for the team, but I’ve got two replacements who are just as good with higher potential.
Damil Dankerlui was shipped off to Werder Bremen for a measly €3.2m, but with Dragún and Lartey Sanniez competing for starts I really didn’t need him anymore. Young midfielder Darren Ottenhoff joined Tottenham Hotspur for €3.9m (€7m) after requesting a transfer; I wasn’t too concerned with this as Gijzen and van de Beek hold his position and 16-year-old Lorenzo Hoogland has been developing well in the youth ranks.
The only “ins” were Patrick Stückler (Danish left-back, Free) and Erik van Dijkhuisen (Dutch, €120k). I’m always looking for cheap deals for youngsters that have good potential to develop; these two are great examples.
Thanks to our league win last year, we entered the Champions League Group Stage directly for the first time. What were we met with? Atletico Madrid and Dortmund. Ugh. Rapid Vienna should be easy enough to gain 6 points from, but I don’t see us doing much better than a 3rd place finish.
A pretty poor showing saw us lose one of our meetings with the Austrian side, and a final day victory over Madrid was simply a consolation. Luckily, we accumulated enough points to place in 3rd, so the Europa league it is!
Oh my. We’ve finally made a deep European run! Isak’s domestic inconsistency was forgiven when he scored a hat trick over two legs against Sporting Lisbon, a tie in which we just skated by. It was the Gonzalez show against Spanish side Villareal; Isak kept up his 100% Europa league scoring record also.
Another tie, another Isak hat trick. I thought we were quite lucky to draw Anderlecht in the Quarter Finals, but I was happy to dispatch of them easily. In the league Isak had been playing mostly as a complete-forward, but his False-9 role in Europe has been doing wonders.
Who other than Manchester United in the semis? We’ve come all this way just to go to Old Trafford and be run out of the park, right? Nope. My squad with an average age of 20, TWENTY, salvaged a draw in the Theatre of Dreams. Martial split our defense to score early, but Che Nunnely finished a beautiful dribbling run to score an equalizer on 60 minutes. Both sides had a man sent off, but we held on.
I was so nervous heading back to Amsterdam. My squad isn’t built to defend against world-class players, but that’s just what we did. United missed a few good chances but nothing too clear-cut and Ajax Amsterdam advanced to the Europa League final. Selling €150 million worth of players seems to have improved us!
Tottenham Hotspur greeted us at Wembley after narrowly defeating Liverpool in their own semi-final. A team featuring former Ajax stars Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld looked poised to win their second Europa League crown (in game) on a huge night in England’s capital, but my young Ajax squad had other plans.
The teams were set: my youngsters walked out next to the likes of Hugo Lloris, Harry Kane, and Dele Alli. It was Ajax, however, who struck first blood. Nunnely attacked the Spurs back line and left it for Isak to shoot past Lloris in the 3rd minute! What a way to announce ourselves on the big stage!
We didn’t let up and continued to dominate the opening half. With 5 minutes remaining before the halftime whistle, Isak latched onto a pass and struck a left-footed rocket into the top corner. Ajax were, ridiculously, in control of their biggest match in two decades. Poacher Harry Kane controlled a ball and struck it past Onana only seconds before the half, but a 2-1 lead over England’s top team is nothing to be ashamed of. The boys aren’t cracking under the pressure; in fact, they’re striving on it!
We continued to strive when 18-year-old newgen Patrick Gijzen fired a longshot into the net to regain our 2-goal lead only minutes after the restart. We kept up the pressure and it paid off, with Che Nunnely scoring a high goal that snuck through Lloris’s gloves: 4-1! Spurs were completely drained of energy and motivation when Isak scored in the 67th to solidify a Europa League Final hat trick and victory.
When the full-time whistle blew, the lads from Amsterdam lept for joy. It was personally my proudest achievement as a Football Manager player and (fictionally) one of the club’s best moments. We proved that the big clubs with loads of cash cannot, and will not, force us to be overlooked. Our passion, tactical play, intelligence, and pride won’t be outweighed by players with higher price tags. As the great Johan Cruijff once said, “Why couldn’t you beat a richer club? I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.” Not only did we triumph over much richer and more talented teams, but also ones with far more experience than my team.
Sead Haksabanovic: After filling the shoes of both Ziyech and Nouri, Haksabanovic won the vote for Fans’ Player of the Season. What an accomplishment for the Swedish playmaker in his first season as a first team player. Sead’s 6 goals and 10 assists were influential throughout the Eredivisie and European campaigns. Hernández will be competing with him for first team action next season, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can maintain his place in the squad.
Timothy Amaefule: Sánchez’s replacement at the back did more than I could ever ask of a replacement. He achieved the third-highest average rating on the team due to his solid defending, aerial threat, passing accuracy, and ability to play the ball out of the back. I wouldn’t be surprised if Amaefule is a mainstay in the team for years to come.
Che Nunnely: The wonderkid winger is already a guaranteed starter for the Dutch national team at only 20, and this season he showed just why. His 7 goals were great from the wing, but his 19 assists really caught my attention; that’s a new team record. Che’s amazing dribbling and creativity was on show throughout the year, but especially during the late stages of the Europa League. There’s no way we would be as competitive as we are with big clubs without this man.
Alexander Isak: Halfway through the season, I felt as though something was wrong. Isak was scoring a lot of goals, but he was so inconsistent. Once I switched him to the false-9 role, it was like a switch was flipped. The Swedish international forward scored 28 goals over the course of the season, while also providing 10 assists. I’m excited to see what he can do next season if I play him in his new favored role even more.
Patrick Gijzen: The wonderkid isn’t our best player just yet, but I felt he deserved a mention in this article. At only 19, he’s been a mainstay in the squad for a couple seasons. His physicals and technicals are growing quickly and he’s already a Dutch international. Gijzen could be one of the best players to ever come through the Ajax Academy ranks from a very young age.
This season was one filled with many ups and downs for me. I was displeased with the side’s first half performance, both offensively and defensively. I think my tactic change did a lot; it shows that I need to always be adapting and playing with different styles. We won the league again, but not nearly by the same margin as last season. I am obviously ecstatic with our Europa League win, a win that will definitely give us confidence in the Champions League Group Stage next year. The only next step is Phase 3: Redemption. Winning the Champions League is my highest goal. I will do everything in my power to deliver the trophy back to Amsterdam!