A new Ajax age unfolds

AJAX became one of the early qualifiers for the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, winning 3-1 at Borussia Dortmund to maintain their 100% record and bring their tally of goals to 14 in four group games.

This is a new Ajax side, the exciting batch of 2018-19 which reached the last four of the Champions League was largely picked-off by transfer market activists, bringing in close to 

€ 300 million. That team, which included Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie De Jong, both of whom were sold for € 75 million apiece, to Juventus and Barcelona respectively, would have surely provided tougher opposition for Liverpool than Tottenham Hotspur in that 2019 final in Madrid. 

The Ajax side of today is a curious mix of the remainder of the 2018-19 squad – the likes of Daley Blind, Nicolás Tagliafico, Dušan Tadić – some new academy products, bargain recruits and recent signings like the born-again Sébastien Haller. It may not have the purist ethos of a totally home-grown squad, but with Erik Ten Hag still in charge, Ajax look exciting, fluid and potent in front of goal. Although their Champions League group is relatively tame compared to others this year, healthy victories in Lisbon and Dortmund show that Ajax 2021 could enjoy another lengthy run in Europe while they continue to dominate at home.

Ten Hag is now being mentioned whenever a top job becomes available, so Ajax need success to keep him interested. He is an acolyte of Pep Guardiola – they were at Bayern Munich together – which means the influence of Johan Cruyff comes at him from two directions, the Ajax way and the Barcelona effect. Ten Hag has lost just 25 games in 183 since taking over as coach and has an impressive win rate of 73.22%.

Ajax continue to rely on player trading to maintain their financial strength; between 2018-19 and 2021-22, they have generated £ 341 million from sales, with a net positive in the market of £ 167 million, the fourth highest in the world in that timeframe behind Benfica, Lille and Red Bull Salzburg. This means that the current team’s prized assets will, eventually, be sold to some of the continent’s prominent clubs, cementing Ajax as the top provider of talent to clubs in the big five European leagues.

This aspect of Ajax’s model is vital and allows the club to go some way to competing with Europe’s elite clubs. In 2020-21, the club made a loss of € 8.1 million as revenues fell by 22.9% to € 125.2 million. Ajax’s wage bill totalled € 94.7 million, representing a wage-to-income ratio of 76%.

It’s not just in Europe where Ajax are running rampant this season. After 11 league games, they had scored 37 goals and conceded just two – they have kept nine clean sheets and have averaged over four goals per game at home. Their nearest challengers are PSV Eindhoven, but Ajax thrashed them 5-0 in Amsterdam recently. Nevertheless, Ajax have been unable to open up a healthy lead on fellow contenders as PSV have been going strong and Utrecht, who inflicted upon Ajax their only defeat, have also being keeping pace. Few would tip anyone other than Ajax to lift the Eredivisie title, there has been an air of invincibility about Ten Hag’s team this season.

Inevitably, though, Ajax’s team will be a short-term project and the young stars will depart. Of the current squad, Ryan Gravenberch (19), is a promising midfielder who has already won nine caps for the Netherlands, while defender Jurriën Timber (20) has six caps. Antony, a 21 year-old Brazilian international signed from São Paulo for € 15 million, is being touted as the next big superstar from South America by those that have been impressed by his trickery.

Ajax will not be among the favourites for the Champions League, but they will provide difficult opposition for most of the last 16. They are an inspiration for any club outside the elite bracket for a number of reasons, not least in finding relevance and purpose in an increasingly closed shop. Those that remember the Ajax glory days of Cruyff and co. in the 1970s won’t begrudge them their important place in the modern game.

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