EVERYBODY expected Ajax’s renaissance in 2018-19 would come to a shuddering halt as they started to lose their key players to Europe’s elite band of clubs. When Ajax were beaten in the semi-final of the UEFA Champions League, thanks to a heartbreakingly late goal, the conclusion was that an exciting young team had probably lost its chance of immortality.
Ajax certainly lost two of their stars, Frenkie De Jong (to Barcelona, € 75 million) and Matthijs de Ligt (to Juventus, also € 75 million), both of whom had charmed Champions League audiences, but the fire is still burning bright, judging by their first two group games this season.
The team has continued its free-scoring form of last season, in both the Eredivisise and in Europe. In eight league games, Ajax have scored 27 times, a similar goals-per-game ratio to 2018-19. They’ve netted four or more in five games. In the Champions League, they have won both group games by 3-0, including a notable trouncing of Valencia in Spain. UEFA’s reporter, impressed with the performance of Erik ten Hag’s team, called Ajax, “youthful Dutch technicians.”
Ajax’s domestic form – they are currently top of the Eredivisie, level on points with PSV – demonstrates the team is the product of a system rather than one that is over-reliant on one-off individuals. Recently, when Ajax under-19 faced Lille, there were more than 80 scouts from clubs around Europe watching the youngsters. Ajax have a number of teenagers who are shaping-up to step into the boots of De Jong and de Ligt, including 17 year-old winger Sonje Hansen, 16 year-old Devyne Rensch, a promising centre back, Eric Llansana, an 18 year-old defensive midfielder, and the versatile Naci Unuvar (16). This season, Ajax introduced American international full back Serginho Dest to the first team, who stepping-up from Jong Ajax. The 18 year-old has impressed with his pace and attacking ability.
With the Ajax talent production line working well once more, the club on a sound financial footing and the crowds flocking to the Cruyff Arena – Ajax averaged 53,000 last season – the Dutch champions are looking like credible contenders to the very top clubs in Europe, a place they once held in the 1970s when they won a hat-trick of European Cups and in the mid-1990s.
Ajax have been boosted by the signing of Quincy Promes from Sevilla. The 27 year-old cost the club € 15.7 million and has scored seven goals already this season, including a hat-trick against Fortuna Sittard. Promes only had a brief spell in Spain, having moved from Spartak Moscow in 2018.
Some pundits expect Donny van de Beek will follow de Ligt and De Jong out of Amsterdam, possibly in January 2020 when the next transfer window opens, but the 22 year-old has said he’s not going anywhere at the moment. There is a queue of clubs waiting to table big bids for van de Beek, including Manchester United, Tottenham and Real Madrid. Estimations of the size of the fee range from €40 to € 50 million, although what happens between now and when Ajax eventually sell the talented youngster could inflate the fee significantly. Other players such as Hakim Ziyech and David Neres are also coveted by other clubs.
Ajax may also have a battle to keep their coach, ten Hag, whose ability to work with young players and produce an exciting team that last season beat Real Madrid and Juventus on the way to the Champions League semi-final.
That run had a positive impact on Ajax’s balance sheet for 2018-19. Ajax doubled their revenues from € 93 million to € 199.5 million and made a profit of € 51.9 million. The Champions League added some € 15 million to gate receipts and revenues from UEFA went up by € 76.8 million to € 77.9 million.
Turnover of almost € 200 million, while a major improvement on 2017-18, equates to the amount reported by Newcastle United and West Ham United in 2017-18, but is only a fraction of what Real Madrid (€ 750 million) and Juventus (€ 394 million) earned, highlighting the imbalances in the European game.
For Ajax to be competitive, player trading has long been a major component of their strategy, although if their top talents could be retained longer, Ajax would surely be more successful on the European stage. Essentially, TV broadcasting fees helps to create the financial gulf as the Eredivisie’s broadcasting income is far lower than the likes of the Premier League and La Liga. The Eredivisie’s current deal has been running since 2013 and will continue to 2025, generating around € 80 million per season. This is a modest figure when benchmarked against the top leagues and underlines why it is difficult for the Dutch league to keep pace with the “big five”.
Ajax’s start to their Champions League campaign suggests the loss of two of the young players who were pivotal in last season’s run has not been too disruptive. They have two games with a Chelsea team in transition coming up, which should go a long way to deciding the group. Coach Erik ten Hag has admitted his defence is far from perfect – “we could have won 6-3” – and that the 3-0 win in Valencia was somewhat fortunate, but Ajax have only conceded six goals in the league and four in six Champions League games (Ajax went through two qualifying rounds, despite their impressive run last season). They must be doing something right.
Ajax may well repeat their Champions League success this term, providing an example of effective player development and an alternative to corporate football’s usual suspects. If they can keep their team intact, we may get to enjoy Amsterdam’s finest for a little while longer.