Football Features

How Ajax have plugged De Ligt and De Jong holes to prove doubters wrong

By Harry Edwards

Published: 18:25, 21 October 2019 | Updated: 10:12, 23 October 2019

Ajax’s run to the Champions League semi-finals was exciting to watch last season, as they overcame the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus.

At the same time, Erik ten Hag’s side claimed a first Eredivisie title in five years, coupling it with a KNVB Cup win, Netherlands’ first double since 2005.

It capped off a wonderful rise for the Dutch club who had been looking some way off the giant side of the 1990s and early 2000s which won the 1994/95 Champions League.

But there were some fears of Ajax regressing again for the 2019/20 campaign as Europe’s biggest clubs came calling for their stars. Before the season was even up, Frenkie de Jong’s future had been secured by Barcelona while Matthijs de Ligt also left Ajax in the summer for Juventus.

There were also departures for Kasper Dolberg and Lasse Schone of last season’s regulars, with the latter capping off the excellent win over Real Madrid with a fantastic free-kick.

So, how have Ajax been coping?

How have Ajax coped in the past?

Before we look at this season, it’s worth taking a trip down memory lane, as Ajax having to rebuild is not a new thing.

Renowned for being one of the best talent factories in the world, Ajax have spent years nurturing young stars, only for them to move on to bigger things.

Although things haven’t exactly gone to plan for Justin Kluivert so far, the Dutchman had been a big part of Ajax’s 2017/18 side before earning a move to Roma. As everyone now knows, Ajax remedied that by signing Dusan Tadic from Southampton, with the Serbian playing a huge role in their domestic double and Champions League semi-final journey.

And, in recent years, Ajax haven’t actually fared too badly – at least domestically – after losing their stars. The 2016/17 season saw Arkadiusz Milik and Jasper Cillessen leave but also brought the signing of Hakim Ziyech and a run to the Europa League final, in which Ajax narrowly lost to Manchester United.

Across a four-season period between 2010 and 2014, Ajax lost the likes of Christian Eriksen, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Luis Suarez but still managed to win four consecutive Eredivisie titles. They also managed two Dutch Cup finals, but the European journeys left a lot to be desired with four Champions League group stage exits shortly followed by early Europa League knockouts in each campaign.

Going back slightly further, though, it hasn’t all been rosy for Ajax. Between 2004 and the first half of 2010, the Dutch side saw the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wesley Sneijder, Ryan Babel, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Thomas Vermaelen all leave the Johan Cruijff Arena. In that same period, Ajax’s only successes came with the KNVB Cup – which they won three times – finishing as low as fourth in the Eredivisie in 2005/06, their lowest position this century.

There were also struggles between 1998/99 and 1999/00 when Ronald de Boer, Frank de Boer, Benni McCarthy and Jari Litmanen leaving combined with Ajax finishing sixth and fifth in the Eredivisie. But the 90s do still provided some hope as Ajax bounced back from the sales of Marc Overmars and Patrick Kluivert in 1997/98 and Dennis Bergkamp in 1993/94 to win the Eredivisie in both seasons – adding to the 1994/95 Champions League glory.

How have the latest replacements fared?

Right, back to the present, and Ajax haven’t really looked back at either De Jong or De Ligt thus far.

Their departures brought over £130m into Ajax but rather than spending it on big names, the Amsterdam club have smartly invested their funds into younger utility players.

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At the time of their transfers, Edson Alvarez and Lisandro Martinez might have looked to be replacements for De Ligt, joining Ajax as centre-backs. But Ten Hag has actually used the pair more as defensive midfielders, with Alvarez and Martinez holding firm while the likes of Quincy Promes, Tadic, Ziyech and David Neres press forward.

Alvarez and Martinez’s consistent presence in midfield has seen Ten Hag test various centre-back pairings across Ajax’s 10 Eredivisie games so far this season. Martinez has been tried alongside Perr Schuurs and Joel Veltmann at the back, while Daley Blind and Schurrs were also tested before Ten Hag came to his favoured pairing of Blind and Veltman. And it’s been working.

In their 10 Eredivisie games so far this season, Ajax have conceded just seven goals, keeping four clean sheets, currently sitting top of the table. The Amsterdam club are still unbeaten with eight wins and two draws, only dropping points in away games against PSV Eindhoven and Vitesse, who sit second and third respectively.

Ajax did, however, get the better of PSV before the start of the Eredivisie, running out 2-0 winners to secure the Johan Cruijff Shield – Netherlands’ Super Cup.

As well as boasting the best defence in the Eredivisie, Ajax also have the most potent attack, scoring 31 goals at an average of 3.1 per game. And this hasn’t been down to just one player. Tadic and Promes lead the way for Ajax with regards to goals, scoring six each, but they are closely followed by Huntelaar on five and Ziyech on four.

But can Ajax carry that form over to the European stage in the long run?

Are Ajax ready to challenge the elite again?

Despite their run to the Champions League semi-finals and winning the Eredivisie, Ajax had to start their campaign in the third round of playoffs, such is the low stature of the league’s Uefa coefficient.

Ajax did eventually make their way to the group stage, but it wasn’t easy. First, they had to overcome a tricky tie against PAOK, coming from behind in each leg to secure a 5-4 aggregate win. This set them up with another potentially tough opponent in APOEL, but Ajax recovered from a goalless draw in the first leg to win 2-0. Their reward? A group with Chelsea, Lille and Valencia.

But, so far, Ajax have been perfect in Group H, winning both of their opening two games, scoring six without conceding to top the table. Again, the goals have been spread out with Promes, the only Ajax player scoring more than twice, joined by Alvarez, Ziyech, Nicolas Tagliafico and Donny van de Beek.

And, once again, the centre-back pairing of Blind and Veltman has been utilised to keep two clean sheets, while Andre Onana has been an exquisite final line of defence, making 11 saves so far. Only Andrey Lunev of Zenit St Petersburg and Lokomotiv Moscow’s Guilherme have made more saves, with 12 each, but they have also conceded two and three goals respectively.

After their pair of 3-0 wins over Lille and Valencia comes what should be Ajax’s biggest test of the Champions League so far, a doubleheader against Europa League holders Chelsea.

The first meeting takes place on Wednesday evening at the Johan Cruijff Arena and Ajax know they could go some way to confirming their place in the last-16 if they beat Chelsea – subsequently throwing their opponents’ chances into serious doubt.

And it appears Chelsea are not taking this game lightly, with striker Tammy Abraham praising the work going on at Ajax.

“We know it’s a massive game for us,” Abraham told reporters after Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Newcastle at the weekend.

“Ajax are like us, with a lot of young players that like to keep the ball and play good football.

“Off the ball as well, they like to win it back quickly. It’s not going to be easy but I believe in myself and my team. Hopefully, we can get a result there.”

Abraham has scored eight goals in the Premier League so far this season and opened his Champions League account in Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Lille, having taken six shots across his first two games.

Willian scored the other Chelsea goal in that game, but the Blues did draw a blank in their opening defeat at home to Valencia, with the visiting side frustrating Stamford Bridge with a solid defensive display. If Ajax can do the same, they could just make it three wins from three.