It was supposed to be an easy win for Manchester City as they squared up against ‘minnows’ Ajax in the Champions League. After a false start, the trip to the Amsterdam ArenA for a routine win would give them the spark they needed to get their Champions League campaign going and spur them on as they challenge Real Madrid for Group D’s top spot. But it wasn’t that easy as Ajax went on to ‘shock’ the Premier League champions with a 3-1 victory. But was the result and performance of the Eredivisie title holders really a surprise? The condescension and lack of respect the media showed the Dutch side suggested so, but the reality is different.
The pundits, commentators and journalists in the UK media before the match relentlessly spoke of the fact that Ajax are not the team they were in the 1970s. The period which saw Total Football take the world by storm and arguably changed football forever has been and gone and now Ajax are toothless. They reiterated the same points they shouted at us last season when the Amsterdam giants took on Sir Alex Ferguson’s men in the Europa League: the Amsterdam ArenA is merely a conveyor belt. Players are developed in the famous youth system De Toekomst and sold on as soon as possible for a handsome profit as more youngsters come through to replace them and the team fails to develop, going through an endless cycle.
They are right. It’s all true. However, they continually missed one important factor: Frank de Boer.
It’s easy to focus on the history of the club and compare it to the state it finds itself in now. But that is avoiding the bigger picture as it is important to note what is happening now. Johan Cruijff’s velvet revolution, which began in 2010, saw support for a return to the old ways increase immensely. It’s naive to think Ajax can immediately turn into a giant of European football, but the desire was there to see the club run by true Ajax men and for steps to be taken to see the Dutch powerhouse transform into one of Europe.
Much has changed since then as the club adopts a more proactive approach to get back to winning ways. The board are taking steps to change the selling philosophy of the club and have made big changes to the coaching staff to ensure the talent within De Toekomst are bred and educated properly.
But big changes have come on the field too and, as the likes of Sky Sports, Talksport and the rest of the UK media completely ignored, Ajax now have more potential and look more capable of making an impact on the continent than they have done for over a decade.
Frank de Boer, the first Ajax coach to win two consecutive league titles since Louis van Gaal, is playing with a very young side – Christian Poulsen at 32 is the most senior player by five years. De Boer and sporting director Marc Overmars have ruled out the possibility of buying a player for more than €6million. Ryan Babel, Poulsen and Lasse Schone arrived for free, Tobias Sana cost £350,000 and Niklas Moisander replaced Jan Vertonghen for a sum of £3.5million, whilst 17-year-old Lucas Andersen proved a somewhat costly investment for the future at £1.25million and is yet to play for the senior side.
The Ajax starting XI which faced Man City cost a total of £2.75million, by contrast, that of Manchester City came to an astounding £187.5million.
But there were no signs of inexperience in this Ajax side as they stepped up to Man City and took over the game. Ajax have been in the position of coming up against a much bigger, more fancied side many times before, and several times it has been the same. The hosts dominated possession from the beginning. The ball was moved around between the midfield at a comfortable tempo and the players, as always, moved with it. Playmaker Christian Eriksen and De Jong, as always, swapped positions with each other and interchanged with Sana and Babel whenever suitable. Ajax, as always, looked dangerous. Just as they did against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in the previous fixtures, and just as they did against Mourinho’s side and Manchester United the previous year, Ajax played their own game. Sacrificing the philosophy and style for a more cautious approach against strong opponents is never an option. It’s either totaalvoetbal or nothing. That’s exactly what Manchester City got.
Right-back Ricardo van Rhijn, although at fault for City’s goal, was key in his side sealing their first Champions League victory of the season. Last term’s Ajax Talent of the Year showed great speed, skill, attacking potency and awareness as he burst forward and created several chances for his side and, out with the game’s opener, looked sharp defensively. The youngster has moved from centre-back to full-back to cover for the loss of Gregory van der Wiel and is enjoying his first full season in the senior squad.
Van Rhijn was outstanding, but there wasn’t a poor Ajax player on the park on Wednesday night. Moisander and Toby Alderweireld are still getting used to each other, but they seemed impenetrable as a centre-back pairing and played like veterans. Left-back Daley Blind and goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer are considered the weaker points of the side, but they could hardly be faulted against the Premier League champions.
The midfield controlled the game. Eriksen, who has received a lot of criticism for some poor performances, was integral to the victory. The 20-year-old midfielder has a great relationship with captain De Jong and Schone and the width, understanding of the system and experience offered by Babel puts the icing on the cake.
Ajax tend to start the season slow before hitting full speed, as we saw last term as a poor first half to the season was followed by a 14 game winning streak which lead them to the league title.
The victory over Man City is very important for this fresh side which is still developing. The performance proves that De Boer’s men are on the right track to improving and cementing themselves as Champions League mainstays before taking the next step.
They are a long way from regaining their status as giants of Europe, but under their current coach and his partners in crime Dennis Bergkamp and Overmars, they are certainly taking the correct steps.
These are the points the British media ignored completely. The danger was always there, but the sloppiness and laziness of the experts saw it overlooked and the victory was seen as a bigger travesty than it really is.
Mancini will suffer for the defeat, and rightly so, but he will pay over the odds for his side’s poor performance as a result of that, but it should be the pundits who do so just as much, if not more.