Football Features

Hit or miss? The seven key players Ajax sold after their incredible 2018/19 UCL run

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 18:30, 14 December 2021


In 2018/19, Ajax were the most thrilling side in the Champions League and were just seconds from reaching the final.

With the exception of legendary veteran Dusan Tadic, the young core of Erik Ten Hag’s side looked like they were ready to move on and take over world football. Even when Spurs pulled off a dramatic late win to eliminate them, no one thought less of the players.

After all, this was a squad of kids who emerged from their group stage unbeaten against Bayern Munich. They eliminated three-time defending European Champions Real Madrid, winning 1-4 at the Santiago Bernabeu in the round of 16, before dropping Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus in the quarter-finals too.

They were simply sensational. And so when Frenkie de Jong joined Barcelona and Matthijs de Ligt joined Juventus, and then a year later Donny van de Beek joined Manchester United and Hakim Ziyech joined Chelsea, the dissemination of dominance looked set.

And yet, it’s not gone as smoothly as all that with many men hitting speed bumps. We have looked at the major sales from that supreme side sold by Ajax and see if they’ve been a hit for their new side, or more of a miss.

Frenkie de Jong

Joined: Barcelona
Transfer fee: €75m
Trophies won: 2020/21 Copa del Rey

Frenkie de Jong joined Barcelona to be the heir to midfield, the one to finally allow Sergio Busquets to stroll off into the sunset. It didn’t quite work out like that as De Jong wasn’t comfortable playing as a lone pivot in a 4-3-3.

Still, he was reborn in a box-to-box midfield role and excelled playing with Busquets and newcomer Pedri. Together they were one of the best midfield’s in Europe let down immensely by their attack and defence as Barcelona twice threw La Liga away, twice got humiliated in Europe and won only the Copa del Rey in Leo Messi’s last two seasons in Catalunya.

When grading De Jong, context is important. Yes objectively he has mostly played really well, but this was expected given the form he showed at Ajax. He was supposed to take over the Blaugrana midfield, and not only has he not done that but he’s been outshone by younger midfielders (Pedri and Gavi) who look closer to being the midfield generals Barcelona want. And when you consider how poorly Frenkie has started life under Xavi, and how far from the world-conquering midfielder he looks right now, you can only say he is a miss.

VERDICT: MISS

Matthijs de Ligt

Joined: Juventus
Transfer fee: €75m
Trophies won: 2019/20 Serie A, 2020 Supercoppa Italiana, 2020/21 Coppa Italia

De Ligt was “supposed” to join Barcelona in the same summer as De Jong but Barcelona devoted their money to other signings and so the defender went to Juventus to learn from epic duo Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, with an eye to replacing them.

And while De Ligt has definitely taken a starting spot at Juve, with the two veterans rotating next to him; he has presided over the collapse of the dominance Juventus had over Serie A for damn near a decade. He was meant to take over from Bonucci and Chiellini, instead he merely replaced them, watching as Inter took the Scudetto from Juve, leaving them to trickle down the table, looking further and further away from winning back the title many had considered “theirs.”

Like with De Jong, the talent contained within De Ligt, and the leadership as well, means that he has to be graded differently and just playing well is not enough. He has to lead, to unify and to improve the team as a whole and he has most emphatically not done that.

VERDICT: MISS

Kasper Dolberg

Joined: Nice
Transfer fee: €20.5m
Trophies won: n/a

Dolberg was one of the brightest prospects for Ajax in their run to the 2017 Europa League final, and although he wasn’t a regular in their Champions League run he was an important supersub, and was sold to Nice in the same summer De Jong and De Ligt left.

And while theirs were big money deals to big money clubs, Dolberg moved quietly to Ligue 1 to play for Nice and things have been… mixed for him. Obviously 20 goals in 67 games is a decent return, but when you consider that over half his goals came in his debut season, the picture changes a bit. This season could prove decisive, but right now it’s a miss.

VERDICT: MISS

Lasse Schone

Joined: Genoa
Transfer fee: €1.5m
Trophies won: n/a

Schone was a quiet presence in Ajax’s run, the stable presence next to Frenkie de Jong’s more enigmatic excellence. He also scored a ridiculous golazo at the Santiago Bernabeu. Anyway given his age he left the club for a low fee and joined Genoa.

His first season was ok, but new manager Rolando Maran froze him out, not even listing him in the club’s Serie A squad. Schone threatened legal action, and was released from his contract in January. Big miss.

VERDICT: MISS

Hakim Ziyech

Joined: Chelsea
Transfer fee: €40m
Trophies won: 2020/21 UEFA Champions League, 2021 UEFA Super Cup

Hakim Ziyech was one of the most dazzling players at Ajax both in the season where they reached the Champions League semi-final but even the season after as well. Ziyech didn’t leave right away but stayed another year before finally joining Chelsea.

The Moroccan looked like he was set to be the central playmaker in Chelsea’s new side, especially as he scored in his first two starts for the club. However injuries, a change of coach to the more stringent Thomas Tuchel have severely limited Ziyech’s impact.

Again: like De Jong and De Ligt, it’s not that Ziyech has been bad. He usually finds a way to impact games when he plays, but he just doesn’t play all that much. Thomas Tuchel has spoken of a desire to integrate him more, but until Chelsea actually do that and build around his creative prowess (which will, incidentally, make them a terrifying force in football), Ziyech is a miss.

VERDICT: MISS

Donny van de Beek

Joined: Manchester United
Transfer fee: €41m
Trophies won: n/a

Donny van de Beek stuck around an extra year just like Hakim Ziyech and his reward was a move to Manchester United. Right from the off this seemed a strange move as Van de Beek’s best position was the one occupied by club saviour Bruno Fernandes; but maybe he would replace Paul Pogba? Except Paul Pogba didn’t leave. So maybe he would partner Pogba in an incredibly offensive midfield? Nope.

In fact, he didn’t do much of anything. In his debut season in England, the brilliant Dutch midfielder played just 512 minutes. This season he’s managed just over an hour with not one single start. As a result he’s lost his starting spot in the Netherlands national team and has become, in all honesty, something of a meme.

VERDICT: MISS

Joel Veltman

Joined: Brighton
Transfer fee: €1m
Trophies won: n/a

Veltman spent much of the historic 2018/19 season recovering from a cruciate ligament injury but managed to play serious minutes in the Champions League quarter-finals against Juventus. He stayed another season, building himself back to his best level, then joined Brighton.

Playing on the south coast for Graham Potter, Veltman has been really impressive. He’s not been a world-beater or anything but given they signed him for a miniscule fee, expectations were lower than for some of his team-mates. And besides that, he has been very solid.

VERDICT: HIT

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