The four next big things to replace Ajax’s outbound crop of stars
Ajax will not be contesting a seventh European Cup final in 2019 but the wheels keep on turning.
Erik ten Hag’s men agonisingly grabbed semi-final elimination from the jaws of progression against Tottenham Hotspur thus ending their incredible (at times defying) Champions League run.
They’re down, but have something left to go for this season. A 34th Dutch championship is within their grasp. All eyes will be on their penultimate Eredivisie game with FC Utrecht this weekend.
Following their championship battle with PSV Eindhoven – both currently level on points albeit separated by goal-difference which puts the Amsterdammers on top – expect a summer of upheaval. Ajax, like every Dutch side, will go through another process of rebuilding. However, don’t expect an exodus, Frenkie de Jong is Barcelona bound and Matthijs de Ligt could follow him to the Camp Nou.
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— AFC Ajax (@AFCAjax) May 9, 2019
Hakim Ziyech is another expected to leave, but he’s keeping his cards close to his chest and may even remain. A number of first-teamers have committed to another season (André Onana, Noussair Mazraoui, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Nicolás Tagliafico).
Also, sporting director Marc Overmars been active: goalkeeper Kjell Scherpen (FC Emmen), defender Kik Pierie (Heerenveen) and midfielder Razvan Marin (Standard Liège) have already been signed. Aside from replacing those departing, manager Ten Hag is expected to bring a couple of players through which has always been the Ajax way.
So, looking towards next season and beyond, who could be the next off their conveyor belt of talent or thrust into the spotlight after proactive scouting?
Position: Central defender
It’s not definite but Ten Hag doesn’t expect his central defensive captain De Ligt to be leading Ajax next season. Despite being at the tender age of 19 he’s going to be a huge loss. Ajax, though, saw this coming and have been recruiting enthusiastically. Lisandro Magallán was signed from Boca Juniors in January, but it remains to be seen whether the Argentine is the one to succeed him.
The expectation is that unenviable task will be given to Perr Schuurs who joined last summer from Fortuna Sittard and has predominantly represented Ajax’s second team. To date Schuurs, who turns 20 in November, has made no fewer than four official first-team appearances. Possessing similar characteristics to De Ligt, a partnership with the much-experienced Daley Blind might be a safe bet for continuity sake.
Position: Central midfielder
Frenkie de Jong has been the revelation of the season. It’s unfortunate for Ajax they won’t enjoy mastery in midfield for another year or two. That being said, the show must go on, replacing him like for like will be a challenge and Ten Hag & Co. aren’t expected to go down that road. On announcing the aforementioned Marin from Standard Liège, many saw him as De Jong’s natural heir but given his more attacking nature that won’t be the case.
Instead, someone who could be the closest in terms of playing style, Ryan Gravenberch is not a bad shout. Already, like his more experienced compatriot, he’s been making headlines. Earlier this season, in a 3-0 defeat at PSV, he surpassed Clarence Seedorf to become Ajax’s youngest league debutant. Sparingly used by Ten Hag until now that is soon expected to change.
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Position: Attacking midfielder
“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” as the legendary Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby once said. Ajax, who are synonymous with youth development, can always be expected to bring through one of their own. Given the high level of education their youngsters receive, you can be sure many are ready by the age of 16, one potential breakthrough next season is the insanely talented Naci Ünüvar.
The deep-lying forward has been a viral hit in recent months following a number of incredible displays whilst turning out for their various youth teams. A place in Ten Hag’s first team might be premature, but getting a seat on the bench in a KNVB Beker game might be within the realms of possibility.
If there’s one position where Ajax could strengthen it’s Ten Hag’s striking options. He’s rotated between three in the ‘centre forward’ role: two classic No. 9s Huntelaar and Kasper Dolberg plus Dusan Tadic as a ‘false nine’. In what they’ll hope to be a long season they can’t just rely on this trio. Huntelaar is entering his twilight years, Dolberg can be erratic (but remains promising) whilst Tadic can be useful elsewhere.
Chances are the powers that be aren’t sweating. It’s easy to open the chequebook as they’ve done prior, but there’s someone within their ranks who is bubbling beneath the surface and ready to grab that opportunity. Brian Brobbey is that kid, a regular scorer at youth level, it might be that he’s fast-tracked into mingling with the senior team.