Ajax's recipe for success: Ridiculously young players and a brilliant coach
I've never seen the Amsterdam Arena as happy as the other night when Ajax played Lyon. The stadium opened in 1996, exactly when Ajax's good days were ending. It's a low-atmosphere bowl in an out-of-town business park, a bad imitation of an outdated American model.
But that night, an absurdly young Ajax team hammered Lyon 4-1 in the Europa League semifinal on the way to the final against Manchester United in Stockholm on May 24. The crowd could hardly believe it. Old fat guys like me were singing their heads off like teenagers. "No cheering in the press box" is the ancient rule, but as a lifelong fan of Dutch soccer, I broke it. To make everything perfect, Ajax had just announced that it planned to rename the arena after the club's spiritual father, Johan Cruyff.
Ajax is back.
And the credit goes not to the famous ex-players who now run the club, but to a bald, uncharismatic 53-year-old coach who has never yet won a trophy and used to play for archrival Feyenoord.
In 2011, Cruyff led a coup at Ajax based on the belief that only great former players know how to run soccer clubs. Marc Overmars became technical director, Edwin van der Sar was made marketing director and later CEO, Frank de Boer coached the first team and Dennis Bergkamp worked as a humble youth coach. But the first five years were pretty miserable. Ajax won four Dutch titles, but got tonked in Europe every season. De Boer's teams played a slow game of endless square balls. Smart opponents would wait to intercept a sideways pass in Ajax's defense, then pounce. The Cruyff revolution's stated aim -- winning Champions Leagues again -- never looked like it would come true.
Ajax's academy continued to produce good players (though the only top-rank offensive player to emerge in the past decade is Christian Eriksen, who now plays for Tottenham), but they swiftly left for bigger leagues. The club's bank balance stands at about €100 million. Of all the clubs in Europe, only Arsenal, another famously stingy club, has built up a bigger piggy bank.
Overmars didn't hold with the old Ajax adage: "The capital should be on the field". He insisted, implausibly, that high spending might jeopardize the club's existence. For years he made only bargain-basement signings and refused to raise salaries to keep good players. The club has revenues of about €100 million a year, but Overmars says the wage bill for its entire playing staff is just €21 million. That means Ajax is spending only about 20 percent of revenues on salaries, whereas more conservative European clubs typically spend 50 to 60 percent. Ajax's best-paid players earn about €1 million a year, which means that there are dozens of foreign clubs where they can better themselves.
Overmars would probably have let De Boer stay forever, but last summer the coach himself decided to leave, for what turned out to be a brief, disastrous spell at Inter Milan. For once, the Cruyff clique gave a key post to an outsider. The new coach, Peter Bosz, had had his best playing days at Feyenoord, not Ajax. The biggest club he had ever managed before coming to Amsterdam was Maccabi Tel Aviv.
But Bosz was the one Dutch manager who had thought hard about how to update Dutch soccer. He had grown up on the Cruyffian style, even keeping a scrapbook of the great man's interviews that he consulted constantly. His biggest modern influence was another of Cruyff's pupils, Pep Guardiola. At Barcelona from 2008-12, Guardiola had developed a new brand of pressing soccer -- essentially, an updated version of what Cruyff's Ajax and Holland teams did in the 1970s.
At Ajax, Bosz introduced Guardiola's "five-second rule": As soon as his players lost the ball, they had to try to win it back within five seconds. It meant that, instead of retreating toward their goal, they had to push forward, pressing the opponents' defenders and keeper. (In the 1970s, before the word "pressing" entered soccer, the Dutch called this "hunting.") Pressing only works if every player plays his role. It's an exhausting style, and high-risk: Ajax's defense aims to station itself on the halfway line, so if any player is out of position, the road is open for a counterattack.
After a couple of early defeats, the players grasped the Bosz style. It helped that they are an exceptionally gifted lot. For years, Ajax didn't have a single player who could reliably dribble past defenders. Now it has several. The German outside-left, thickset little Amin Younes, has an entirely predictable trademark move of cutting inside the defender onto his right foot -- and it almost always succeeds. If Younes had a better pass or shot, he'd be at Barcelona. As it is, Germany has just named him in its squad for the Confederations Cup this summer, an unheard-of honor for a player in the Dutch league.
Last August, Overmars was saying that Ajax wouldn't sign midfielder Hakim Ziyech from FC Twente because he was too expensive and would only block the development of academy players. (Many at Ajax seem to think that the first team exists to develop youngsters, rather than to play well and win things.) Then Ajax lost 4-1 at Rostov -- a display that earned Van der Sar expressions of pity at a gathering of European soccer officials in Monaco -- and Overmars hurriedly forked out €11 million for Ziyech. It was Ajax's record transfer fee, and it's been worth it. Ziyech has a beautiful left foot but is also a master of the press, with a knack for winning balls back instantly. In the final minutes of games, you often see him with his tongue hanging out, his spindly legs spent, suddenly unable to place a pass.
Up front, 19-year-old Dane Kasper Dolberg was thrust into the first team last summer when Napoli pinched Ajax's Polish striker Arek Milik for €32 million. Dolberg has delivered 16 league goals and six in the Europa League (so far). A big man with a delicate touch and a repertoire of feints, he is often compared with a previous teenaged Ajax Scandi striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. In fact, Dolberg is more savvy than the Swede was at that age, though he lacks the mature Ibra's knack of spreading his body to ensure that any ball flying in his general direction is his.
On the right flank, Bertrand Traore, on loan from Chelsea, can dribble and create at top pace. If he had more precision, he'd be at Stamford Bridge. Justin Kluivert, Patrick's son, who turned 18 only this month, is a quick dribbler and has had a lot of game time on the wings. Bosz has preferred him to Ajax's latest record purchase, the Brazilian David Neres, who came from FC Sao Paolo for €12 million this winter.
In central midfield, Davy Klaassen controls the tempo of games, almost always making the right decision. But Ajax's key player is probably in central defense: the quick Colombian giant Davinson Sanchez, 20, who mops up whatever gets through Ajax's press. Overmars deserves all credit for signing him for €5 million even before Sanchez won last year's Copa Libertadores with Atletico Nacional. Sanchez's usual partner in central defense in recent weeks has been Matthijs de Ligt, just 17, who has already played for Holland, albeit too early. (He was at fault for Bulgaria's first goal in Holland's 2-0 defeat there in March and was substituted at halftime).
The goalkeeper is Cameroonian Andre Onana, 21, a brilliant player whose speed off the line and confidence in the air allows him to control almost the entire penalty area. Overmars picked him up at Barcelona two years ago. When Ajax's starting keeper Jasper Cillessen joined Barca at the end of last summer's transfer window, it was too late to sign a replacement. Onana filled in, and very soon nobody in Amsterdam was talking about Cillessen anymore.
This must be the youngest side ever to reach a European final. (Even Ajax's Champions League-winning team of 1995 had vastly more experience.) The current team's only veteran, Lasse Schone, 30, appears on the verge of losing his defensive midfield spot to Donny van de Beek, 20. The 10 Ajax players who finished the second leg of the semifinal in Lyon on May 11 had an average age of 20.5 years. It's astounding that they have come this far, even if they lose to the favorites United. What a shame that Cruyff didn't live to see it: He died in March 2016.
But this summer the team looks sure to fall apart. It is probably impossible to keep players like Klaassen or Sanchez, who are ready for big clubs. Dolberg might stay to give himself another couple of seasons of guaranteed first-team soccer before moving on. The worry, though, is that Overmars' stinginess might push out players who are willing to stay. Even with all that money in the bank, he has been musing about cutting salaries further. This spring he made a lowball offer to Onana, who was only asking to be put in Ajax's top salary category of players on about €1 million a year. Now that Onana is hot property, it may be too late to keep him.
Put simply, Ajax needs to spend more. The transfer fees for Ziyech and Neres were a good start. It's true that the club can never compete with the bigger English, Spanish or German sides. However, Ajax should benchmark itself against clubs like Lyon, Basel, Porto or Benfica, who also play in second-tier leagues and have budgets somewhere in Ajax's range. (If some of them have a bit more to spend, it's mostly because they've done much better than Ajax in the lucrative Champions League.)
These clubs regularly go far in European competition. Ajax could too. It should certainly be doing better in Europe than Belgian clubs, all of which have smaller budgets than Ajax. Success will cost money -- money that the club has.
But even if Bosz moves on to bigger things this summer, Ajax has an updated version of its house style -- call it Ajax 3.0 -- that can take it forward for the next few years. Ajax 3.0 might even revive the hopeless Dutch national team.
Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.