Ajax Are a Force Once More

Ajax are most definitely back, the Eredivisie side thumped Lyon 4-1 in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final on Wednesday evening.

With an average age of just 22, Ajax have produced a masterclass of attacking football at times this season, that stirred memories of the all-conquering teams of years gone by. Ajax are one of Europe’s most successful and evocative clubs. Not only have won they won four European Cups, they possess a clear identity about how football should be played, passed down from Johan Cruyff to every future generation, enshrined in the 4-3-3 formation that has become part of the club’s almost evangelical ideology. Ajax have a real chance of winning their first European trophy since 1995, when Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids and co. lifted the Champions League and Super Cup.

For most of the 20 plus years since, Ajax have become a glorified feeder club, forced to sell off their best players year after year to Europe’s richest teams. But now they have rebuilt again, and look like they could be on the verge of achieving something special.

The current Ajax backroom staff is almost a ‘who’s who’ of 1990s legends. Among them, Marc Overmars is the sporting director, Dennis Bergkamp is assistant manager and Edwin van der Sar is the CEO. Of the three it is probably Overmars who has had the biggest role in the club’s transition over the last couple of years. The former Arsenal winger runs the club’s famed scouting network and is in charge of a transfer policy that has become increasingly effective.

Overmars’ purchases have by no means all been successes since he took up the role in 2012, but bringing in the Cameroon under-20 goalkeeper Andre Onana from Barcelona for a nominal fee and the winger Amin Younes from Borussia Monchengladbach in 2015 have been two very shrewd purchases. Onana, now 20, has since become a full international and established himself as the club’s first-choice goalkeeper. Younes, brought in for just £2m, is a wide player in the Overmars mould.

Pivotal to Ajax’s success this season has been the skipper and No 10 Davy Klaassen, an attacking midfielder who plays with the Roy of the Rovers zeal of a Steven Gerrard or Bryan Robson. Born in Hilversum, 19 miles south-east of Amsterdam, Klaassen has been at Ajax since he was nine years old and has become the club’s talisman since being appointed club captain when just 22 in 2015.

Now 24, Klaassen has become a full Dutch international and scored 16 times this season. Klaassen’s calling card is timing his runs late into the box unchecked, similar to that of Frank Lampard, his performances this season have seen him linked with a move to Everton.

His relentless desire to drive the team forward was best demonstrated in a match against ADO Den Haag last OctoberWith the score at 0-0, Klaassen charged to the sideline to take a throw in, continued his run into the box and latched onto a lofted through ball to bury a finish into the bottom corner and give his side the lead. Confident and technically gifted, Klaassen is to use the local idiom “typical dutch”. Ajax will have a big job on their hands keeping hold of their captain marvel this summer.

Ajax’s success has always been underpinned by its unrivalled youth academy, which over the years has produced the likes of Cruyff, Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp, Frank and Ronald de Boer and Clarence Seedorf. The current Ajax team is no different, boasting a core of young Dutch players including Patrick Kluivert’s son Justin on the right wing. Kluivert Jr is growing in confidence with every game, and scored his first goal for the club in March.

Like any good side, Ajax have a lethal striker up front to finish off the approach play of their gifted creative midfielders. The 19-year-old Dane Kasper Dolberg has scored 20 times in all competitions this season, and established himself as arguably the most sought-after teenage striker in Europe. Dolberg can finish with either foot, is strong on the ball, and links the play with his quick feet and eye for a pass. Expect Ajax’s resolve to be tested in the coming years, with Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton apparently all interested in signing the Danish phenomenon.

Peter Bosz took over from Frank de Boer as Ajax manager last season, and has had an immediate impact. Since joining from Maccabi Tel Aviv, the former Holland midfielder has given five academy players their debuts and assimilated new signings like Ziyech and Neres into the side seamlessly. Wednesday evening’s impressive win against Lyon, once again proved that Ajax are back among the best teams in Europe.

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