Since the Champions League’s inception no Dutch club, not even the legendary mid-1990s Ajax team who won it, had won their opening four matches. That was until this season.
A couple of years removed from an unlikely semi-final run, the Netherlands’ most decorated footballing institution are once again putting Europe on notice.
Not since Louis van Gaal’s last three years in charge has the Dutch club been spoken of in such glowing terms; respect for Ajax’s current team has replaced reminiscences of its mythical past. Since the success of 2018/19, just seven clubs (Bayern, Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona and Juventus) have outperformed Ajax in European competition according to Uefa’s own coefficient rankings. This means they are trailed by recent three-peat winners and the competition’s most successful club Real Madrid, a statement and then some.
ℹ️ 2021/22 round of 16 (so far):
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) November 3, 2021
As for the current campaign, De Godenzonen were drawn in another fascinating group. Borussia Dortmund were made immediate favourites to win Group C given their status and place in a more demanding league, leaving a potential three-way fight between Ajax and fellow domestic champions Sporting and Beşiktaş for the coveted second spot in the round of 16. But football’s beauty, as Arsene Wenger once said, is that it’s completely unpredictable.
Despite losing Jadon Sancho, there was reason to believe Dortmund would be too much for the others heading into the penultimate matchday. They still boasted the goal machine Erling Haaland (for two of their first three games, at least) among many other exciting up-and-comers such as Jude Bellingham.
But Dortmund were mercilessly beaten 4-0 in Amsterdam by Ten Hag’s swashbuckling outfit, the Black and Yellow’s biggest-ever loss in the Champions League, and the reverberations across Europe are still being felt. There are statements of intent and this one is right up there. Unlike the ‘super clubs’ that dominate the conversation, Ajax lack a single transcendent star. Rather, each individual’s strength in Ten Hag’s side combines to form a unified eleven, the whole greater than the sum of its parts; it’s a well-oiled machine built on the foundation of exemplary scouting and faith in what made the club great in the first place.
Going into the return game, Ten Hag made no changes to his starting eleven, spotlighting a transfer policy implemented by sporting director Marc Overmars that truly came into fruition in 2018.
Signing former academy graduates turned superstars, past Eredivisie greats who never played for the club or from the western hemisphere is not a new approach (see Edgar Davids, Jaap Stam and Maxwell). But the difference now, at least concerning the first two categories, is an emphasis on recruiting such players who can still contribute at the highest level.
One instance came at the request of former teenage centre-back and skipper Matthijs de Ligt, who desired to play alongside an experienced name. “That turned out to be Daley Blind,” Overmars recently revealed.
“As a result, we worked even harder to get Daley on board. That has worked wonderfully.”
Blind, son of their last European Cup-winning captain Danny, and Tadic were signed in the summer of 2018 before that sensational European campaign, and since then Ajax have followed this blueprint (see Quincy Promes, Maarten Stekelenburg, Davy Klaassen and Sébastien Haller).
This new structural makeup goes a long way to explaining their mature performances in Europe under Ten Hag’s leadership. Talent can only take you so far and even though Ajax’s starting XI is still on a weekly basis laced with the superstars of tomorrow, a club tradition dating back generations, those youngsters need on-field guidance to fulfil their potential. The Amsterdammers’ chances of competing with the very best only drastically goes up when deploying battle-hardened stars who have been there, done that and bought the T-shirt.
— AFC Ajax (@AFCAjax) November 5, 2021
To illustrate their influence, there’s no bigger examination for an Eredivisie club than Champions League away days and under Ten to date Hag, they’ve played fourteen such games outside the Netherlands.
Of those road trips, nine ended in wins at AEK Athens (0-2), Real Madrid (1-4), Juventus (1-2), Tottenham (0-1), Valencia (0-3), Lille (0-2), Midtjylland (1-2), Sporting (1-5) and Borussia Dortmund (1-3) while four ended in stalemate at Bayern Munich (1-1), Benfica (1-1), Chelsea (4-4) and Atalanta (2-2). The only loss came at Liverpool (1-0).
The Bernabéu rout stands out the most, because it was a 0-4 humiliation of Real at home in November 2010 which ultimately led to Overmars’ appointment through spiritual hero Johan Cruyff’s new vision for the club. To hold their own against those aforementioned giants is a remarkable feat; four of those opponents have been European champions in the last decade, in addition to three post-2010 finalists.
The key players of Ajax’s 2021/22 Champions League season so far:
Lining up in Ajax’s most recent away-day triumph at the imposing Westfalenstadion was a team composed of three Ajax academy graduates, Noussair Mazraoui, Jurrien Timber, Ryan Gravenberch. Then there were key duos signed directly from Dutch top-flight rivals (Remko Pasveer, Steven Berghuis) and the Premier League, albeit with Eredivisie roots, in Haller, Tadic. Alumni of England’s top division were represented again by Blind, who came through Ajax’s youth set-up. And finally making up the XI was the Latin American cohort of Lisandro Martínez, Edson Álvarez and Antony.
Eagle-eyed observers would have noticed their goalscorers — Tadic, Haller and Davy Klaassen, who came off the bench — all recently spent time in England with varying degrees of success. Even more noteworthy are their ages, each being older than Ajax’s first-team average age (25.7). It’s this injection of experienced individuals who are no strangers to Dutch top-flight football into Ten Hag’s current squad that has transformed Ajax from a team that is simply making up the numbers into a genuine problem for Europe’s elite. It’s also worth noting just two members (André Onana and David Neres) were playing first-team football in Amsterdam before Ten Hag’s appointment four days before New Year’s Day 2018.
Going back to Ajax’s brief overnight stay in North Rhine-Westphalia, this was another evening that demonstrated their cut-throat instincts, even more so when fate dealt them a ten-man Dortmund side. By claiming all three points, this current incarnation etched their name into history, becoming the first Eredivisie-based club to win their opening four Champions League group stage games, and that landmark achievement can never be taken away from them. It also further highlighted the club’s scouting prowess in South America, as Brazilian winger Antony stole the show by creating each of Ajax’s three unanswered goals in the second half, as well as being at the centre of Mats Hummels much talked-about sending off. Tadic would cancel out Marco Reus’ penalty and by doing so the Ajax skipper matched 1995 hero Patrick Kluivert on nine Champions League goals. Only Jari Litmanen (20) now sits above him.
Sébastien Haller AGAIN! 💪
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) November 3, 2021
Haller, who joined from West Ham in January 2021 and thus reunited with his former Utrecht boss, was on the scoresheet again. He’s now scored seven goals across four outings, including four on his Champions League debut in Lisbon. Only once before had this many goals been scored in a single Champions League game, by Marco van Basten for Milan against IFK Göteborg in 1992. From another historical perspective, he’s the fifth player to score in his opening four appearances after Ze Carlos (FC Porto, 1993), Alessandro Del Piero (Juventus, 1995), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid, 2014) and Haaland (Red Bull Salzburg, 2019). To say Haller has taken to this competition like a duck to water is an understatement, and he presently trails only Ballon d’Or contender Robert Lewandowski (8) in the scoring charts.
As for Antony, a left-footer who primarily operates from the right flank, no one has assisted (5) more than him. Another signing from São Paulo, following in his compatriot Neres’ footsteps, Antony recently broke into the Brazil national team and scored on his debut while stealing attention away from the usual suspects (Ajax will know his price tag can only go up and up with every standout performance, especially on this grand stage). His relationship with Haller is proving to be devastating; they’ve combined for no fewer than four goals, which is more than any other pair in this current Champions League campaign.
How does this Ajax compare with the heroes of 2018/29?
Comparisons will naturally be made with Ten Hag’s semi-finalists. Based on early observations, it’s clear the 2018/19 squad edges out this present side on pure talent. But despite those ‘shortcomings’, there’s no question they are now much stronger when it comes to depth. Ten Hag has so far used 18 players in the Champions League, with 11 featuring in all four games to date. A lack of credible options off the bench played a critical role in Ajax’s fairytale run coming to an end in the cruelest way possible. Now, given the availability of at least nine players who embarked on that unexpected Champions League journey, it’s a far more prepared group, one that already feels more stable. Consequently, supporters are hopeful this intuition will mean collapses as the one they suffered against Tottenham are yesterday’s news.
Only Chelsea (one goal conceded) have a meaner defence, but Ten Hag’s attack is beautifully relentless, having netted 14 goals (one every 25.7 minutes). To put that in some perspective just two sides from a possible 31 are currently more prolific. They are Manchester City (15) and Bayern (17), the current and former teams of Pep Guardiola, who Ten Hag previously worked under as Bayern’s reserve team coach. This close proximity to this century’s most revered European coach was an enlightening experience that shaped Ten Hag into the coach he is today.
But just as his coaching philosophy echoes Guardiola-esque traits, Pep’s vision draws heavily from the Amsterdam School. That is, combination football heavily based on possession and positional interchange. The current Ajax boss upholds this tradition, and we are seeing that vision expressed on the pitch. So far only Chelsea (71%) and Liverpool (67%) average larger swathes of possession than Ajax (63%), who sit directly above Bayern (61%) and City (60%).
Right now, everything’s in place for another deep Champions League run. If that comes to fruition, Ten Hag’s reputation will be cemented and the same will go for Overmars, whose exemplary work behind the scenes — refocusing their scouting and transfer policy to complement an existing successful youth academy — cannot be undersold. This partnership has seen the four-time European Cup winners go from the wilderness (we live in an era where economic might is the determining factor, after all), to being a continental force once again.