AJAX’s renaissance last season was always going to be short-lived as Europe’s big clubs were waiting in the wings for their chance to pounce on the best players. Those hung up on presentism expressed their surprise that a team from the Netherlands could compete with the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus, even though the Dutch have provided more European champion clubs than Spain and as many as Germany and Italy. Although their startling victories, seen to some extent as the announcement of a new order in European football, were among 2018-19’s highlights in Europe, nobody really expected the Amsterdam revival to be quite as dynamic in 2019-20.
There is still some mileage remaining before Ajax will have to cash their chips. This season, Ajax are six points clear at the top of the Eredivisie and they should get out of their UEFA Champions League group, even though they lost at home to that other monument to young talent, Frank Lampard’s Chelsea. The two teams meet again on November 5 in London.
While Chelsea are unlikely to fall prey to Europe’s monied elite, Ajax will surely lose one or two of their much-heralded youngsters either in January or the summer. It shouldn’t make much too much difference at home, for Ajax are well ahead of their rivals and have continued their free-scoring antics – 3.2 goals per game – this season.
Their latest victory, a 4-0 trouncing of Feyenoord in Der Klassieker, underlined the gulf between Ajax and the rest of the Dutch top flight. It was so demoralising for the Rotterdam-based club that manager Jaap Stam stepped down after the game. Last season, Ajax won the title by three points and there is every reason to believe the margin will be greater in 2019-20, despite the loss of key players.
Ajax have long valued the strategy of nurturing youth, going back decades. Their 1972 European Cup side, when the Cruyff era was at its peak, was built around young players, many of whom had come through the youth team. They often go through periods where they slip out of view – politics have invariably got in the way – but periodically, they are able to develop players that become the envy of Europe. In the mid-1990s, they did it and last season, we saw another golden generation successfully use the shop window that is the Champions League.
Those that know are aware that sustaining success and the pipeline of talent is not always possible. Nevertheless, player trading is an essential part of the Ajax business model but the products of the Ajax youth scheme appear to be leaving earlier these days. Timing remains an important element in monetising the system, as witnessed last season with De Jong and De Ligt.
It seems to creep up on European football. In 2017, when Ajax met Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League final, there was little hint to the broader football world that a new generation was coming to the fore. In fact, of the club’s starting XI in Stockholm, only goalkeeper André Onana and midfielder Hakim Ziyech are still first choice in Erik Ten Hag’s team.
In a relatively short timeframe, a couple of Ajax’s young players have made their mark, been identified as superstars in the making and sold for huge fees. Frenkie de Jong, still only 22, was sold to Barcelona and Matthijs de Ligt was just 19 when he went to Juventus, both players earning Ajax € 75 million. Both were developed at Jong Ajax, the Eerste Divisie team that plays in the shadow of the Johan Cruyff Arena at De Toekomst.
Jong Ajax are so strong now that they can win the Dutch second tier, as they did in 2018, even though progress isn’t possible because of their status as Ajax’s second string. De Jong, De Ligt and Donny van de Beek all spent at least one season in the Jong Ajax side before stepping up to the first team.
Van de Beek will be the next player to leave in one of the next two transfer windows. There are no shortage of clubs interested in the 22 year-old, ranging from Premier League Manchester United and Liverpool to Spanish giants Real Madrid and re-emerging Inter Milan. The price may deter one or two clubs because there are wild differences in estimates of what he’s worth – from € 60 million to € 100 million.
But there are others coming through, all of whom are Jong Ajax graduates. Defenders Sergiño Dest (18), Perr Schuurs (19) and Kik Pierie (19), along with midfielder Noa Lang (20) are all likely to emerge over the course of the next year.
Given Dutch football does not have the lucrative TV deals that characterise the big five European leagues, can Ajax ever consistently compete with the top clubs? Ajax are among the top 20 clubs in terms of attendances, drawing an average of almost 53,000 in 2018-19. As with Benfica in Portugal and Celtic in Scotland, they are a giant in a smaller pond than the likes of Barcelona, Manchester United and Bayern Munich. If a European Super League does evolve at some point, which would undoubtedly be constructed around the most financially powerful clubs, Ajax would struggle to be included, despite the fact they have won the European Cup/Champions League four times.
Yet Ajax’s finances took a very positive swing in 2018-19, obviously boosted by their exciting European campaign. They more than doubled their turnover from € 93 million to € 200 million and made a profit of € 51.9 million and an operating profit of € 34 million. While this is impressive, it is way off the Premier League clubs, which suggests the club has over-performed in the past three years.
The healthy financial position, buoyed by on-pitch performance and high levels of income from player transfers, has allowed Ajax to invest in new playing talent. The biggest, or most successful, signing was Quincy Promes of Sevilla, who cost the club € 15.7 million and has repaid Ajax with six league goals so far this term. Mexican defender Edson Álvarez (22) was signed for € 15 million from América, while Râzvan Marin, a 23 year-old midfielder, joined from Standard Liège for € 12.5 million. These new signings have cushioned the blow of losing De Jong and De Ligt. As well as Álvarez, Ajax have also signed another Latin American in Lisandro Martinez, a 21 year-old midfielder who was previously with Defensa y Justica of Argentina.
The home defeat at the hands of Chelsea was a blow to Ajax’s hopes of progression in the Champions League, but they are still favourites to go through to the knockout stage. The quality of their football still delights and it is refreshing to see a club prosper from giving young players their chance. It is the Ajax way, after all.