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.
Welcome back. If you haven’t read the previous article or this is your first time visiting this story series, please go back and read up with the helpful links above. For those who are all caught up, the journey continues. Our Europa League victory over the mighty Spurs is where we left off; quite the special ending to Part 8. As we advance into the 2020-2021 season we need to really pick up where we left off in terms of European form. After two-straight Eredivisie titles, I’m not as concerned with our domestic schedule as before (especially considering the annoying glitch that removed the Dutch Cup) and shall be focusing a lot more on our continental exploits. Before we get into the season’s on goings, let’s take a crack at the transfers.
In one of the most interesting transfer years in this save, I spent over €30m on incomings (ignore the 3 transfers completed in June of 2021, after the season ended). The big one came in January: Gauchinho. The Brazilian goalkeeper became the record signing for Ajax at an initial €15.5m fee. I feel it. I can sense your skepticism. Maybe you’re right, it was expensive. But the market, like in real life football, is ever-growing. And as an advancing club, I need to put my team in the best position to succeed in Europe. Onana has been superb for the club, but he’s the lowest-rated starting player in terms of current ability. Gauchinho blows him out of the water with his keeper attributes and potential resale value. The transfer signals another change in the club: the end of the sweeper-keeper era. Our Brazilian boy is a no-go when it comes to looking like Manuel Neuer, but I’ll talk more on the subject in the tactic section.
Robert Nees is a great transfer for us; much needed. Alexander Isak is a terrific player but needs backup. Bosnian youngster Slavko Rajic is still adapting to first team football, so I felt a striker signing was necessary. Nees was under a bid from his former club, Stuttgart, so I decided to capitalize on the moment and came away with what I believe to be a steal. Andjelko Kuburovic is a similar signing. The Serbian playmaker signed for us as a key player with pretty high wages, but will likely play as a backup to Hernandez in the advanced playmaker role for now. As you can see, both Nees and Kuburovic have the advantage of possessing outstanding physical attributes. Now it’s just a question of if they can sharpen the mental and technical sides to their game.
Ngongé (right-wing), Thüring (center-back), Inamori (right-back), Rodríguez (right-wing), and Hornby (free from Liverpool) will all join Jong Ajax, while Vana (striker), Merkel (advanced playmaker), Simr (defender), and Simpson (forward) will start in the U-19’s. It’s always important to purchase good youngsters to compete with home-grown players in the academy, but not so much that your youth intake lads’ development is stifled. I’ll admit that I’ve spent a little liberally, but I have around €350 million (!!!) in my transfer budget. Tell me you wouldn’t at least spend 10% of it; I spent less than that.
For the first time in this series, I’ve spent more than I’ve sold. For the purists out there who will notice that my goal was to always turn a profit, I apologize. I can be a little OCD about those things too, but I’m really trying to keep hold of players that I know give us the potential to be a world-class squad. Judging by the out-going transfers, I know I’ve done a good job at this.
Oscar Correa, the sole 8-digit departure, wasn’t even a necessary part of the squad. He was a first team member for sure, but the Colombian left-back was one of three in his position. Eric Tayou, the brilliantly pacey Belgian international starting full-back (I know, right?) is easily our best left-back, and South African Thuso Makhanya is more than capable of a rotation role following his successful loan spell at Heerenveen. Michael Jong was a good prospect we bought from AZ early on in the save, but at 20 he could only play as an attacking midfielder. No ability in the center of the park is a deal-breaker for me, as my tactic against bigger sides moves the playmaker deeper. Zivkovic, Antonucci, Andersson, Casierra, Sierhuis, and the rest of the small sales were all dispensable. I was hopeful that Kaj Sierhuis would be able to fulfill his seemingly huge real-life potential, but he simply never scored when given the opportunity.
As you can see, the league was an absolute cakewalk. With our only two losses being to PSV and Feyenoord early in the year, there was absolutely no chance for any competitors to catch us. The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice something in the scorers’ column appearing quite often. Do you see it? You’ll have to read until the end to see the stats.
86 points is a great return to end the domestic season with. Not only did we avoid defeat in 94% of our matches, but we only drew 5 (a win percentage of 85%). Remember the years of losing out to PSV? They are long gone. Three-straight league titles and hopefully many more to come.
Ah, what you’ve all been waiting for. This section really doesn’t need any introduction, but I will say one thing. We have proven that we can mix it with the big boys. If there were questions about this statement after we ran through the Europa League and won it, there surely aren’t now.
As you can see, a perfect group stage excluding the Barcelona losses saw us rise to 2nd overall. Knocking Bayern out of the competition was huge, especially considering the dominance we showed against them in our fixtures. However, I needed to make sure the boys didn’t become complacent as the knockout rounds beckoned.
Wow. Simply wow. I definitely counted myself lucky when I was drawn against Anderlecht in the first round, but we didn’t mess around and beat them quite handily. My luck, unfortunately, ran out when we were drawn against the ever-wealthy PSG in the Quarter-Finals. Or so I thought. A 3-0 away leg victory left me ecstatic, and a 2-1 defeat at home sent us through to the Semi-Finals of the Champions League. Hakim Ziyech came off the bench in Amsterdam, but I think he was dreaming of the times when he was still with us because he didn’t inject any willpower into the Parisian squad at all.
In a pot of Manchester United, Barcelona, myself, and Inter Milan, I felt extremely lucky to draw the latter. Inter really isn’t too strong of a squad; deserving of a CL Semi place, sure, but not amongst the world’s best. The first leg was easy, another 3-0 dismantling. Except this time, we almost crumbled in our visit to northern Italy. Nevertheless, we were triumphant by virtue of our first leg domination to advance to the…
CHAMPIONS. LEAGUE. FINAL.
Let me put this into perspective. Not since the 90’s has a Dutch club reached the Champions League Final. At this point in the save, that’s over 20 years ago. Just 2 seasons before this, we were barely making a dent in the Europa League. Our most expensive player may end up only costing us just north of €20 million: a fee that the bigger clubs dish out for backups on a consistent basis.
This moment is a culmination of so many factors. I’ve built this squad from academy players and young transfers. I’ve consistently sold my best players year-after-year, always somehow finding an even better, younger replacement. I’ve constantly adapted my tactics to counter those of clubs much larger than mine. I think the main factor that brought us to this moment is that of the club itself. Ajax is the world’s most beautiful club. The historical weight it carries, the impact it’s had on the game worldwide, and the overarching attitude of everyone at the club has brought us to this moment. So, naturally, we’ve come up against Manchester bloody United.
We kicked off in Istanbul in a match many felt we could win. I knew that Mourinho being who he is would sit back most of the game, so I didn’t force the issue too much. If I tried to attack too much then I’d be exposed on the counter. United didn’t need to counter early though. Striker Federico Bernadeschi took a touch at the top of the box and rifled it home in only the 7th minute. From that point on, it was basically a carbon-copy of the Europa League defeat in real life; we did our best to attack their backline but United’s superb defensive tactics kept us from having many real chances. The match ended 1-0. An utterly anti-climactic and disappointing end to our best season yet.
I was stunned at the final whistle, but nevertheless proud of our accomplishments. We made it to the ultimate finale of European football and fell just short, but made it nonetheless. If I can keep hold of this squad and make some tweaks, both of which I intend to do, I believe that we can win it next season.
It seems kind of strange to insert my tactical adjustments now, doesn’t it? Well, my thinking is now that you’ve seen my success, you’ll be more open to digesting it.
As you can see, I basically ran a 4-3-3 with a defensive midfield setup. My goalkeeper is no longer a sweeper, so I set a center-back to cover (something that Michiels is great at). The wingbacks are on support against the big clubs and attack when I line up this way domestically, and the defensive midfielder is set to defensive to cover the back line but also to provide support with his deep-lying playmaker role. The two playmakers in front of him are more attack-minded, but the other deep-lying playmaker still provides a good amount of defensive cover. Nunnely and González are superb at getting crosses into the box, while Isak is equally as good, if not better, at finishing the chances he’s given.
The instructions are still relatively basic. For Europe, I keep it on control, only switching to attack when I need to. I dropped my high line back a bit, but I’ve always maintained a high tempo to keep things moving. I will often narrow my width a lot, but I find that a balanced attack to start is most effective. One big change was the closing down; it used to be close down more with tight marking, but my players were getting skinned quite often. Having it on close down sometimes with tight marking still hassles the opposition, but my defense isn’t as exposed as before. Playing out the defense is a must for my Ajax squad, as is working the ball into the box until an opening is found. I switch between mixed passing with retain possession and just short passing, a change that I don’t believe really makes too much of a difference. Finally, I often go between dribble less and no instruction depending on how much of the ball I want to keep (dribble less usually results in fewer mistakes by my players) and my new instruction, roam from positions, really allows my team to play more fluidly and open.
Alexander Isak. What is there to say about him? 35 league goals smashed the previous record in the modern Eredivisie era. 13 league goals takes his tally for the season to 48, a modern-era Ajax record. What an amazing player; he’s replaced Dolberg and some. My only problem with Isak is that he’s kind of inconsistent, but 48 total goals really speaks for itself. He was the Champions League top scorer and also provided 8 assists on his way to earning a record 12 Player of the Match awards. He was voted Fans’ Player of the Season, and rightfully so. There will no doubt be many teams chomping at the bit to take him from us this summer, but I believe I can hold on to him. He’s only a 3-star player according to my assistant, but he sure does play like a superstar.
Juan Pablo González has been another great player in our attack. At 21, I feel like he’s really close to being labeled as a “world-class” player by the game. Six goals and sixteen assists is a great return, especially considering he achieved the most assists in the Champions League to partner Isak’s top goal scorer award. González is fast, technical, smart, and a hard worker: all I can ask for from a winger. If I can keep hold of him and Nunnely, we really stand a chance of winning it all next year.
Matthijs de Ligt, despite being one of the only original players left in the squad, is still one of the best. A 7.45 average rating throughout the season is indicative of his dominance at the back, and his ball-playing ability is unsurpassed. There are plenty of newgen defenders vying for his position, but I will always give de Ligt the benefit of the doubt. It is important to maintain a strong Dutch core, and Matthijs is the cornerstone of that core.
Pablo Dragún is a relatively new signing. I brought him in to compete with Dankerlui and Lartey Sanniez, and almost immediately he forced Dankerlui off the bench. It now seems that Dragún has gone and forced the latter out of the starting lineup for good. Already a full-fledged Argentinean international, the right-back has been a star for this Ajax squad. Not only is he reliable on the defensive end, he’s been superb at supporting our play along the right flank. Pablo can become a world-class defender; there’s no doubt about it. I just hope that the €62k per week I’m paying him is enough to keep him satisfied. Oh and speaking of contracts, take a look at these:
Newgens are one of my favorite parts of the game. If you’re the same way, take a gander at some of my best young prospects:
That’s it for now. As always, thank you so much for taking the time to read this. We’re definitely in the final phase of this series, redemption. Winning the Champions League will be everything next season.