Europe’s fairy-tale in 2022? Union Saint-Gilloise

IN 2020-21, three of the five big European leagues saw a changing of the guard, although it is unlikely to represent a seismic shift in the balance of power. In Italy, Juventus’ long reign was brought to an end by Inter Milan, Lille knocked Paris Saint-Germain off their perch in France and in Spain, Atlético Madrid were champions for the first time since 2014. 

As Manchester City opened up a six-point advantage in the Premier League, poundits were starting to predict a prolonged period of sky blue prominence, with City overtaking Manchester United’s 20 title wins. This is, of course, a possibility, but the chances are, a new contender or two will emerge in the coming years to change the competitive landscape.

Nevertheless, Manchester City are looking formidable again this season and after chasing Chelsea earlier in the campaign, they have raced ahead and it would be a fool who would bet against Pep Guardiola’s team lifting yet another title. At best, it could be a three-horse race in the Premier, involving City, Liverpool and Chelsea, although three may become two in the near future. City are not the only team in Europe who probably won’t have to return their championship trophy in the summer.

No change there, then

Red Bull Salzburg are, predictably, 14 points clear in Austria and look far too strong for the rest of their Bundesliga rivals. They also have a Champions League last 16 tie with Bayern Munich to look forward to. Rangers are six points in front of Celtic in Scotland and have transitioned well after losing their coach, Steven Gerrard, to Aston Villa. But after going undefeated in 2020-21, they were beaten at Tannadice, home of Dundee United, 1-0. It’s there only league defeat so far.

In Italy, Inter have surprised everyone by going top after the departure of coach Antonio Conte, Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakim. Inter signed the veteran Eden Džeko to replace Lukaku, and it seems to have worked, but Inter actually look a more fluid side and are playing very good football. Inter will play Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League, which could be much more difficult than fending off the Serie A challenge of AC Milan (4 points behing) and Napoli (seven).

Bayern Munich are on course for yet another Bundesliga title and have nine points more than second-placed Borussia Dortmund. Robert Lewandowski, so cruelly denied the Balon d’Or, has netted 30 goals in all competitions. Other champions from 2020-21 who look destined to retain their championship include Slavia Prague (Czech Republic), Slovan Bratislava (Slovakia), Olympiacos (Greece), Ferencváros (Hungary) and Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia). 

Surprise packages

The most eye-catching league leader in Europe has to be Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium. The Brussels-based team, who only a few years ago were in the third tier of Belgian football, are seven points clear of holders Brugge. It’s often forgotten that USG have been champions 11 times, but the last occasion was in 1935. The club has been owned by Tony Bloom, the chairman of Brighton & Hove Albion, since 2018.

Legia Warsaw, Polish champions in 2020-21, have been having a torrid time this season and are languishing in the bottom half of the top flight, which is more of a shock than Lech Poznań being top of the league. In Switzerland, FC Zurich are top of the table, ahead of Basel and Young Boys Bern. Zurich, who were last champions in 2009, have not been contenders for some time and finished eighth in 2020-21. There could be an unfamiliar face at the top of the Turksih league come the end of the campaign. Trabzonsopor are 10 points ahead of second-placed Konyaspor and could win their first championship since 1984.

Tight competition

Portugal is experiencing a keenly fought title race and the big three, Benfica, Porto and Sporting, are in a commanding position. Porto and last season’s champions, Sporting are both on 41 points and are unbeaten, while Benfica have four less. All three clubs are still involved in European competition, with Sporting facing Manchester City and Benfica playing Ajax in the Champions League last 16. Porto have been paired with Lazio in the Europa League play-off. As ever, the Serbian title will be decided between Partizan and Red Star Belgrade. The former have five points more than the champions and are unbeaten in their first 21 games. Similarly, it is a Shakhtar Donetsk – Dynamo Kyiv battle in Ukraine, with the former just ahead of champions Kyiv. Both teams have excellent away records.

Back on top

Real Madrid have an eight point cushion at the head of La Liga and have lost just once. Sevilla, Real Betis and Rayo Vallecano (!) are chasing Real, while champions Atlético Madrid are in fifth position but have been blowing hot and cold. Barcelona are way off the pace, largely due to their financial problems and the physical and psychological loss of Lionel Messi. His new club, Paris Saint-Germain, have a 13-point margin over second-placed Nice  and look certain to recapture the title they lost to Lille in 2020-21. Messi, who has taken time to adjust to Ligue 1 football, has scored just one league goal for PSG. 

Ajax have got serious competition this season in the Eredivisie and are in second place, one point behind PSV Eindhoven, who were last champions in 2018. Interestingly, PSV were beaten 4-0 at home by Feyenoord and 5-0 when they travelled to Ajax. With the Amsterdamers distracted by the Champions League, though, PSV have an opportunity to consolidate their leadership in the next few months.

European football has become quite predictable over the past decade, although the big clubs have always been successful over the long-term. While it is fair and responable that the best should emerge as winners, the joy of the unexpected is what makes football so interesting. We need more stories like Leicester City (2016) and Lille (2021) – could we find one or two from this season? If you’re a football romantic, cheer on little USG in Brussels!

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.

Ajax in unfamiliar territory

AJAX lost their unbeaten record in the Eredivisie last weekend, but they also published their financial statements for 2020-21 season, and like their 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Utrecht, they were a little tough to take.

That said, Ajax’s € 12 million pre-tax loss for the season could have been far worse, especially when compared to some of the huge losses racked-up by Europe’s big clubs.

Ajax’s revenues for 2020-21 totalled £ 125.2 million, a 23% drop on the previous campaign. This was largely attributable to an almost complete loss of matchday income. The total from this stream was just € 1.9 million, a 95% decline compared to 2019-20. The crowds are back this season, the gate against Utrecht was almost 53,000. 

There was also a slight fall in broadcasting revenues, from € 55.7 million to € 55.2 million. By contrast, Ajax’s commercial income was up by 5% to € 68 million, largely due to higher levels of merchandising and boosted by the Dutch governments covid-19 subsidy. Ajax are way ahead of their Eredivisie rivals in terms of commercial acumen, but their earnings are just a fraction of some of the European elite.

Ajax are not accustomed to making an annual loss, indeed in 2019-20 they made a profit of almost € 27 million and two years ago, € 69 million. They’ve only made a loss twice in the past 11 years.

Despite the fall in revenues and the negative bottom line, Ajax’s wages increased by 3% to € 94.7 million, representing 76% of income. In 2019-20, the wage-to-income ratio was 57%.

It is tough for Dutch clubs to compete at the highest level and Ajax are the only club that can look the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester City in the eye. But Ajax are a big fish in a relatively small pond, although both PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord have had their moments in the spotlight. The Eredivisie’s total income is just a fraction of what the leading leagues can generate.

Ajax’s success depends on two key factors: continued involvement in the UEFA Champions League; and player trading. Ajax’s ability to develop young players and sell them into the market is much envied. In recent years, they have sold Hakim Ziyech to Chelsea for € 40 million, Donny Van de Beek to Manchester United (€ 39m), Frenkie De Jong to Barcelona (€ 75m) and Matthijs de Ligt to Juventus (€ 75m). In 2020-21, Ajax made a profit of € 86.1 million from the sale of players, slightly up on a year-on-year basis. 

Champions League football is a prerequisite for the Dutch champions, although it is a challenge to emulate great Ajax sides of the past. Over the past five years, they have made around € 200 million from European competition, which gives them a huge advantage in their domestic market. 

In 2018-19, they were very close to reaching the final for the first time since 1996 with a team that is now largely dispersed. The current team has started its Champions League programme well in 2021-22, beating Sporting Lisbon away 5-1 and Besiktas at home 2-0.  Their big challenge will be against Borussia Dortmund in the group stage, although they should be able to qualify for the knockout phase.

Inevitably, Ajax will lose players at the end of 2021-22, but they may also have to say farewell to their highly-rated coach, Erik Ten Hag, who is seen as a possible replacement for Barcelona’s Ronald Koeman. But Ajax’s cycle will continue turning, as it has done in the past – they are one of Europe’s great football factories.