The best storylines of the 16/17 season

Just like that, the 2016/17 season is in the books – and boy did it fly by. There were ups and downs littered throughout the campaign, which had a bit of everything. The year was filled with uplifting individual performances, disappointing departures, welcoming new faces, outstanding team performances and plenty of drama. Before we jump ahead to the summer months and turn the leaf on 2016/17, I take a look back at the biggest positives and best storylines surrounding the first season under Peter Bosz.

Peter Bosz

And that’s exactly where we’ll start. Frank de Boer’s departure came not a minute too soon. It was overdue, if anything. His loyal service to the club did not fall upon deaf ears, but his message was lost over the years. His unwillingness to adapt became dispiriting – their play grew predictable and stale, and the dejection was ever-apparent among the club and supporters. His departure at the end of the 2015/16 season was marked with relief, but optimism was not bountiful, either. Ajax were in need of a rebranding on the pitch and with a long line of candidates to replace him, it was crucial they made the right appointment.

Enter Peter Bosz. The ex-Maccabi Tel Aviv boss arrived in Amsterdam with the promise of a revitalised style of play, and he delivered in spades. Ajax fell upon some difficult times at the start of the campaign, encapsulated in successive defeats towards the end of August, 2-1 at home to Willem II and 4-1 at Rostov in Champions League qualifying. It only fueled speculation that Bosz was not the right man for the job, as the pressure mounted on the former Vitesse manager early in his tenure. But, as is the mark of any good coach, he persevered. His resilience and willingness to adapt helped Ajax rediscover the style of play that made them such a joy to watch for so many years. As the calendar flipped to 2017, the club rounded into form. They settled into their best XI and the results quickly followed, losing just one of 19 games to start the new year across all competitions. And it’s not just the results, but the way with which Ajax were winning that sparked a newfound source of hopefulness in the club – an unbridled confidence. There was a flair about them. Goals were flowing and the defence was holding firm. Possession without precision is pointless – but there was nothing pointless about the way they were playing. Their 25 league wins was their joint-highest tally since 2009/10, while making their first appearance in a European final in over 20 years. They did not end the campaign with a trophy, but they can hold their heads high after a remarkable season and look forward to 2017/18 with a warranted feeling of confidence.

Bosz has already declared he will be sticking at the helm for at least another season, and he will be welcomed back with open arms. Make no doubt about it, Ajax are fun to watch once again.

Matthijs de Ligt and Davinson Sanchez

This campaign was highlighted by a number of evocative individual performances, but there were perhaps none greater than the emergence of centre-backs Matthijs de Ligt and Davinson Sanchez. Defence was a real area of concern last season, and their problems trickled into the start of this campaign, with Ajax struggling to keep a clean sheet in the summer months. They had been leaking goals, still yet to find capable replacements for the likes of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. Joel Veltman had his moments, but struggled with consistency, while Niklas Moisander was nothing more than an adequately capable Eredivisie centre-half. Coming into the season there were still plenty of question marks surrounding the backline, but that is the case no longer.

Davinson Sanchez arrived with an aura of optimistic uncertainty, few supporters familiar with his body of work in South America. It took him a bit of time to settle in at the back, but once he grew accustomed to the European style of play, he never looked back, meriting Ajax’s player of the season award for 2016/17, exceeding expectations with flying colours. The Colombian boasts an exceptional skillset as an all-encompassing defender. His lethal combination of strength, awareness and pace makes him an intimidating figure at the back, while his outrageous vertical ability led to him scoring six league goals in his debut season.

And yet, while Sanchez’s dominance on the pitch earned him the accolades he deserved, his performance was still overshadowed at times by that of Matthijs de Ligt, which should speak volumes about the 17-year-old’s emergence in the senior team. The former Jong Ajax standout earned himself a place in Peter Bosz’s side at the start of the season, but he had to bide his time on the sidelines early on. His debut came in the KNVB Beker against Willem II, which he marked with a goal and a clean sheet. The young starlet made the most of every opportunity given to him, eventually becoming a permanent fixture on the team sheet. Wise beyond his years, De Ligt’s remarkable rise to stardom in 2016/17 caught the eye of the entire footballing world. He earned his place in the national team, becoming the Netherlands’ youngest debutante since 1931, while also setting a record as the youngest player to feature in a European final. The sky is the limit for this kid.

It is premature to say for sure, but De Ligt and Sanchez, provided they stay together, could be better than the partnership formed by Vertonghen and Alderweireld. They have the potential to be what Danny Blind and Winston Bogarde were to the club in 1994/95. But with the likes of Barcelona and Chelsea lurking, it will be curious to see just how long, or if, they get to spend a full season together at the heart of Ajax’s defence.

Jong Ajax

Arguably the most encouraging storyline surrounding the 2017/17 season in Amsterdam was the exceptional performance of their youth squad. Jong Ajax amassed 76 points, enough to finish second in the Erste Divisie, their highest since they started participating in the division in 2013/14, crushing their previous points high of 50.

Not eligible for promotion, they will stick in the second tier again next season, but their on-field performance this campaign encapsulated everything Ajax football stands for. The club scored an astounding 93 goals in 38 matches, 15 more than the league’s next most prolific attack, third-placed Cambuur.

Their remarkable season was a justifiable reward for the hard work put in at the academy, grooming an exceptional crop of talent that should feature regularly with the senior team for years to come.  While the likes of Andre Onana, Matthijs de Ligt, Donny van de Beek and Kasper Dolberg have already graduated to the first team, there’s a plethora of excitable talent threatening to climb the ranks in the coming years – Frenkie de Jong, Carl Eiting, Abdelhak Nouri, Deyoraiso Zeefuik, Pelle Clement, Vaclav Cerny and Noussair Mazraoui, among others. This is arguably the best crop of talent Ajax have had coming through the ranks in over a decade.
Jong Ajax

Europa League runners-up

If someone had asked you at the start of the season, would you rather crash out of Europe prematurely once again and win the league title, or come in second and make a run to the final, what would your answer have been? Of course there are extenuating circumstances that come into play, like the fact that Feyenoord were crowned champions and Ajax lost in the final, but neither should take away from Ajax’s special and long overdue foray deep into European competition.

Their run to the Europa League final was equal parts entertaining and incredible, but wholly special. It reignited the passion in the club that had been lost towards the end of Frank de Boer’s tenure. For anyone who has played team sports before, you know there’s a special bond created between team-mates when you go through something like this together. It’s new and exciting, and it becomes a story to tell for the rest of your life. You grow and experience it all together. There really is nothing like it. It’s this sort of thing that would prompt a player to stay with the club another season. These players got the taste for success and are hungry for more. It may be a longshot, but if this side stays together for another season or two, there’s no telling what they may accomplish.

Ajax’s previous success in Europe was lost upon this current crop of supporters – the one’s born after 1990 who were too young to enjoy their repeat Champions League final appearances. They had stories which had been past on from parents and grandparents, but it was all folklore. That generation has their own story to tell now. Ruthlessly efficient victories over Schalke and Lyon were proof that Ajax had more to offer. It was a way of announcing themselves as relevant competitors in Europe once again.

Furthermore, it provided us all with a much-needed distraction from Feyenoord’s unfortunate success. Their title win would have been a lot harder to accept had Ajax not made it to Stocklom.

Kasper Dolberg replaces Arek Milik

Following the record sale of Arkadiusz Milik, Ajax had a glaring hole to fill atop their attack. The Polish striker did an admirable job leading the line a season ago, and his untimely departure to Napoli left the club in a full-fledged panic to replace him with the season already underway and Champions League qualifying heating up. Enter Kasper Dolberg.

The young Dane was thrust into a major role in the XI while Marc Overmars frantically searched for a replacement while the transfer window was still open. In the mean time, Dolberg had some big shoes to fill. The 19-year-old made his first-team debut on July 26 against PAOK in the third round of Champions League qualifying, and he marked his unveiling with a delicious goal to salvage a 1-1 draw, while playing the full 90 minutes. He appeared in the next two matches, playing a total of 76 minutes scoring twice against Roda, before Ajax brought in Bertrand Traore on loan from Chelsea.

While he’s a natural winger, Traore was expected to come in and be relied upon heavily as Ajax’s main striker. Three days later Traore lead the line for Ajax in the first leg of their Champions League play-off with Rostov, flanked by Anwar El Ghazi and Amin Younes. Dolberg was an afterthought, making a late cameo in the 1-1 draw. It wouldn’t stay that way for long. After impressing at every opportunity, Dolberg became a fixture in the Ajax XI, leading the line with a poise and potency that Ajax spent the entire summer scouring the continent for. Little did they know at the time, their best replacement for Milik sat right under their nose.

Dolberg went on to score 23 goals over the course of the season, with the sort of clinical composure in front of goal that had been missing from the side for some time. It was not just his goal scoring, but his consistency and remarkable poise, especially considering his age, which has rightfully earned him the reputation as one of the continent’s best up and coming strikers.