It’s expected to be another interesting summer at record 35-time Dutch champions Ajax with manager Erik ten Hag, who recently penned a contract extension, seeking another deep Champions League run as well as successfully defending both of their domestic prizes.
Since reaching an improbable Champions League semi-final two years ago, Ajax have lost at least one star player across subsequent transfer markets: Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt (2019) plus Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek (2020).
Several of their big names have already been linked away in 2021, but sporting director Marc Overmars is reportedly looking far and wide in terms of recruitment. So far this window Ajax have completed two purchases in goalkeepers Jay Gorter and Remko Pasveer, in anticipation of André Onana’s inevitable departure, whilst moving on five players including academy graduates Noa Lang and Carel Eiting.
Unlike the ‘super clubs’ littered across Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues, we are unlikely to see Ajax splash the cash and pay extortionate transfer fees. Being a sensibly run club, they live within their means, even if they are the Eredivisie’s richest side, it makes sense in the long run to implement a frugal business model, a very good scouting network at home as well as overseas and youth program to match. Armed with this piece of knowledge, we’ve predicted three ways they will be lining up next season.
Unless a certain Haaksbergen-born tactician has been greatly inspired watching the ongoing European Championships, where back-threes are seemingly en vogue, there’s no reason to expect Ten Hag deviating away from his tried-and-tested 4-2-3-1 formation which he’s fielded in the vast majority (81.4%) of Ajax matches since taking charge.
One area where the Amsterdammers continue to excel is out wide and when it comes to wingers/forwards Ten Hag doesn’t have a preference, often rotating between deploying an out-and-out speedster and playmaker who cuts inside to cause damage. Right now Ajax are blessed in this department but that hasn’t stopped them being linked with new faces. The most controversial is Feyenoord skipper Steven Berghuis, this potential Bayern-esque transfer would gut an immediate championship rival whilst strengthening their chances. Berghuis was directly involved in more goals than any other player in the Eredivisie last season, scoring 19 goals while providing a further 13 assists and was one of only two players to hit double figures for both (alongside Ajax’s Dusan Tadic).
So, you can already imagine how devastating Berghuis would be in this relentless Ajax attack, which mustered 102 goals last term (three per game). He’s not the only touchline hugger associated with a move to Amsterdam, with highly admired 19-year-old Ghanian winger Kamaldeen Sulemana reportedly on Overmars’ radar. Dealing with his club FC Nordsjaelland is not a new experience for Ajax as the Dutch champions secured the services of Sulemana’s compatriot Mohammed Kudus from the Danish outfit last summer. Sulemana managed an impressive 10 goals and five assists in 29 league appearances last season but it’s his potential which has got the Dutch champions scrambling with rumours of Manchester United monitoring the situation. With both occupying the flanks in this hypothetical XI, Tadic returns to playing as a ‘No. 10’ behind the impressive Sébastien Haller with Davy Klaassen and Ryan Gravenberch forming a double pivot in front of a vastly experienced back-five.
Keeping the same XI throughout an entire season is not guaranteed. Injuries, suspension and loss of form are distinct possibilities. Now more than ever, it’s a squad game, meaning there is strong competition for places so anyone can be replaced. Ten Hag used 30 players last season with just over a half (53.3%) playing over 1,000 minutes.
The likes of Jurriën Timber, Edson Álvarez and Lisandro Martínez began the 2020/21 campaign either on the bench or on the outside looking in. Through strong performances, both cemented their respective places in Ajax’s starting lineup. Martínez in particular benefited from Daley Blind’s misfortune of suffering a serious knee injury. Now the Dutch international has regained his fitness, Martínez is likely to drop out, though it’s understandably a difficult choice for a manager to make.
Timber usurped the more experienced Perr Schuurs and in the process earned a spot in Oranje’s team at this summer’s Euros while Álvarez was nothing short of a revelation in midfield. Having been signed as Matthijs de Ligt’s successor, the Mexican. who can naturally play in the middle of the park, found himself in a ‘No. 6’ role alongside the vastly improving teenager Ryan Gravenberch and if both are retained this summer their partnership should only go from strength to strength.
As for the front-four, last year’s major acquisition Antony is expected to continue on the right flank with Tadic on the opposite side and signing of the 2020/21 season Davy Klaassen operating behind Haller who, despite joining in January 2021, ended up grabbing 11 goals across 19 appearances.
If there’s one thing Ajax are hugely synonymous with, it’s promoting from within. This philosophy stretches to include scouting world football’s best and brightest young talents. In their current squad of 26, no fewer than 13 are 23 or younger with three being teenagers. Ten Hag could realistically field a competitive youthful XI which boasts an average age of 20.9.
New recruit Jay Gorter could settle into goal as fellow 21-year-old shot-stopper Kjell Scherpen is likely to depart for Brighton & Hove Albion this summer. In front, a backline consisting of two impressive up-and-comers Devyne Rensch and Jurrien Timber as well as experienced duo Perr Schuurs and Lisandro Martínez which coincidentally was Ajax’s defence in their last game of 2020/21 (a 3-1 win at Vitesse). Also starting was Kudus, who endured a topsy-turvy debut campaign but when fit he’s a strong contender to feature given his incredible engine.
Jurgen Ekkelenkamp, another from the club’s esteemed academy, can rotate with Kudus as both are equally capable of playing in central midfield or as a deep-lying forward. The front-three is a Brazilian affair. Antony and David Neres have developed a strong bond on and off the field. Both have a strong eye for goal which hasn’t gone unnoticed as Milan are reportedly keeping tabs on Neres who has registered 43 goals across 158 appearances for the Amsterdammers to date.
Someone yet to make inroads is 22-year-old São Paulo-born centre-forward Danilo, to date he’s only made three appearances, and with Brian Brobbey and Lassina Traoré departing this summer to RB Leipzig and Shakhtar Donetsk respectively he’ll fancy his chances of obtaining a squad role in the forthcoming season.