Football Features

How Ajax replaced their biggest transfer sales, from Suarez to De Jong

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 18:26, 5 February 2021

Since the mid-1960s, when former player Rinus Michels took over the reins at his boyhood team, Ajax have been the Netherlands’ premier football club, winning 34 national championships and four European Cups.

However, following the infamous Bosman Ruling in 1995, there has been a seismic economic shift, consequently meaning each passing summer — and this one is no exception — Eredivisie squads weaken and lose any consistency built over the previous season.

Despite enjoying an enviable status at home, the Amsterdammers remain prone to losing their most important players, but in most cases, they’ve made a tidy profit as the bulk of those leaving graduated from arguably football’s most impressive academy.

To date, no fewer than 11 players spanning across the last 12 years have been sold for at least €20m. This reality has kept Ajax (and similar sized clubs) on their toes. In some cases they’ve reacted to a signing by dipping into the transfer market themselves or promoting from within, but more so under the current leadership of sporting director Marc Overmars, it’s a case of preempting, meaning the individual that has left had already played alongside his successor.

We’ve taken a look at the players who’ve stepped into the shoes of their 11 most expensive departees.

Sold: Kasper Dolberg (€20.5m) | Successor: Lassina Traoré (free transfer)

Transfer window: Summer 2019

Profit: €20.5m

Ajax stats: 29 league appearances | 12 league goals | 1.7 take-ons attempted per 90 minutes

Verdict: Let’s see…

If there’s one nation outside their own which has greatly contributed to Ajax’s fortunes down the years it’s Denmark, some of the greats from that European nation have worn their fabled jersey, from Michael Laudrup to Christian Eriksen and the powers that be felt they had another star on their hands when Kasper Dolberg broke through after signing from hometown side Silkeborg IF.

Life began so well, bagging 16 goals across 29 league matches in the 2016/17 season but he’d soon tail off, registering 17 strikes across his next 49 outings. Following their incredible 2018/19 campaign, the decision was made to part ways, Ligue 1 side OGC Nice acquired his signature for a reported €20.5m and he’s slowly returning to form. In the meantime, former boss Erik ten Hag assimilated former U-21 striker Lassina Traoré into his first team. The 20-year-old has so far made 29 appearances, finding the net on 12 occasions, with five of those coming in Ajax’s sensational 13-0 win at VVV-Venlo earlier in the season.

Sold: Luis Suárez (€26.5m) | Successor: Kolbeinn Sigthórsson (€4.5m)

Transfer window: Summer 2011

Profit: €22m

Ajax stats: 80 league appearances | 31 league goals | Scored a goal every 153 minutes

Verdict: Miss

Losing a player of Luis Suárez’s calibre is not easy to digest, especially after that season the Uruguayan marksman struck 35 goals across 33 league games, which saw Ajax miss out on the championship by one point, but it was inevitable he’d move to a more demanding top division. His successor wasn’t immediate as Suárez left for Liverpool in January 2011, but that gave manager Frank de Boer some time to weigh up his options as he was guiding them to a 30th league triumph.

Icelandic centre-forward Kolbeinn Sigthórsson — who registered 15 goals in 32 games for AZ that season — got the nod. Again, like with Dolberg many years later, this seemed a natural fit but as De Boer constantly switched up his tactics and system, he struggled with form as well as confidence. Injuries also never helped, ultimately leaving him with 35 goals in 105 appearances before moving onto French club Nantes.

Sold: Davy Klaassen (€27m) | Successor: Donny van de Beek (youth)

Transfer window: N/A

Profit: €27m

Ajax stats: 118 league appearances | 28 league goals | 2015 Ajax Talent of the Future

Verdict: Hit

Such was Davy Klaassen’s rise to prominence, he was named along with Toni Kroos and Xavi by Johan Cruyff as an example of how a midfield player should dictate the game. “All three of these players have a perfect first touch,” the legendary ‘Number 14’ commented. “As soon as Klaassen plays from midfield, the ball is played faster.”

Though not an Amsterdammer, born in Hilversum, he nonetheless embodied their universalism and in particular, was comfortable transitioning between the lines. Seeing him depart for Everton was a blow, considering his ability to freely score from midfield. Thankfully, Ajax had a ready-made replacement in-house in the guise of Donny van de Beek, who seamlessly picked up the baton and never looked back prior to his own big move to England.

Sold: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (€27m) | Successor: Marko Pantelic (free transfer)

Transfer window: Summer 2009

Profit: €27m

Ajax stats: 25 league appearances | 16 league goals | Involved in a goal/assist every 70 minutes

Verdict: Hit

Heads were turning back in 2005 when young and impressionable Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was bagging goals for amusement while representing Heerenveen, a number of clubs were keeping tabs but it was Ajax who came out on top. It proved to be an incredible purchase with him going on to score 105 goals in 136 matches before Real Madrid wanted to get in on the action. That move turned out disappointing and lasted just one season, the same length of time his successor got in Amsterdam but Marko Pantelić hardly struggled in front of goal.

The much-travelled Serbian centre-forward ended the 2009/10 campaign with 16 goals across 25 league matches, subsequently forging an impressive partnership with the aforementioned Suárez. Initially signed on a one-year deal, Pantelić felt he earned a multi-year contract but the powers that be thought otherwise. It was a short and sweet stay, but effective nonetheless, and he remains a cult hero at the Johan Cruijff Arena.

Sold: Wesley Sneijder (€27m) | Successor: Siem de Jong (youth)

Transfer window: N/A

Profit: €27m

Ajax stats: 193 league appearances | 61 league goals | 4x Eredivisie winner

Verdict: Hit

Homegrown talent Sneijder was near unplayable in his final year wearing Ajax’s iconic colours. The two-footed Dutch playmaker recorded 18 goals across 30 league outings while creating a further 10 for his teammates. Benefiting most from his service was Huntelaar, with whom he struck up an irresistible tandem, but they couldn’t replicate that duet in Madrid where Sneijder enjoyed a modest spell. Before heading to Spain, he’d be a mentor to emerging deep-lying forward, Siem de Jong.

In time, De Jong became the ‘man’ and though not as talented as Oranje’s all-time record cap holder the Swiss-born midfielder could be equally depended upon to score and no moment illustrated that ability better than when he struck twice against FC Twente in the final day of the 2010/11 season. Ajax’s 3-1 win — De Jong also forcing Denny Landzaat to score an own goal — saw them end a seven-year title drought as well as becoming the first Dutch side to win 30 championships.

Sold: Arek Milik (€35m) | Successor: Bertrand Traoré (loan)

Transfer window: Summer 2016

Profit: €35m

Ajax stats: 24 league appearances | 9 league goals | 84 shots

Verdict: Miss

Just when it was going so well, Napoli had to prize Arkadiusz Milik away from Ajax, but the Neapolitan outfit simply made an offer they couldn’t refuse, and can you blame them after the Polish striker hit the net 47 times across 75 matches in all competitions? His future hangs in the balance, however, and that could also be said for Bertrand Traoré, who turned up after Milik embarked on la dolce vita.

The former Chelsea youth star had previously experienced what the Eredivisie had to offer when he enjoyed a brief loan spell at Vitesse Arnhem, then managed by Peter Bosz, and both reunited in the Dutch capital. But this working relationship only lasted for one season, that ended with a Europa League final, Traoré wasn’t always consistent and needlessly surrendered possession.

Sold: Davinson Sánchez (€42m) | Successor: Maximilian Wöber (€7.5m)

Transfer window: Summer 2017

Profit: €34.5m

Ajax stats: 30 league appearances | 1 league goal | 61% of aerial duels won

Verdict: Miss

Such is life that it didn’t surprise anyone when Tottenham Hotspur made Davinson Sánchez their record signing (until Tanguy Ndombele arrived two summers later) after experiencing just one completed season of European football. The all-action Colombian centre-back made a great impression during his only year at Ajax, not only proving to be a striker’s nightmare, but also looking handy going forward, registering six goals in all competitions.

He undoubtedly left a big hole alongside exciting talent Matthijs de Ligt, one they never felt needed to be filled so soon, but Overmars got working and signed Austrian central defender Maximilian Wöber, though his impact wasn’t as felt. The six-time international struggled for playing time and would soon lose out to the returning Daley Blind, who immediately forged an incredible partnership with De Ligt, thus forcing Wöber to join Sevilla on loan before resettling at RB Salzburg.

Sold: Hakim Ziyech (€45m) | Successor: Quincy Promes (€15.7m)

Transfer window: Summer 2019

Profit: €29.3m

Ajax stats: 20 league appearances | 12 league goals | 67 chances created

Verdict: Hit

The fact Hakim Ziyech only left Ajax this summer is remarkable, sporting director Overmars had been planning for his exit as far back as 2018 when he signed Zakaria Labyad and Dusan Tadic. However, the latter has since evolved into a devastating ‘false nine’. This inspired tactical conversion opened up a position on the flank to be filled by a predominantly goalscoring winger that can also be effective in the build-up play — enter former academy graduate Quincy Promes, who has made the best of a second chance.

He’s been exclusively utilised in a wide role, though Ten Hag has experimented with Promes in the ‘number ten’ position — where Ziyech has often performed to devastating effect — and even hinting this is where the 47-time Netherlands international could predominantly be fielded during the 2020/21 campaign. Even if he’s not, Promes is more than a handful for opposition full-backs. Also, given Ajax’s fluidity in their attack he’ll often pop up behind the centre-forward or even in his place. However, it’s been a difficult 2020/21 campaign, although he’s netted six goals across 16 league appearances, Promes is expected to re-join former club Spartak Moscow.

Sold: Donny van de Beek (€45m) | Successor: Mohammed Kudus (€9m)

Transfer window: Summer 2020

Profit: €36m

Ajax stats: N/A

Verdict: Let’s see…

Before joining Manchester United, there was a strong possibility of Van de Beek learning at the feet of Zinedine Zidane, but for whatever reason, Real Madrid never made that dream transfer happen. This speculation came on the back of him playing a pivotal role in Ajax’s unexpected Champions League semi-final run. These are big shoes to fill and highly promising Ghanian midfielder Mohammed Kudus is looking to do just that.

The 20-year-old received rave reviews during his stay at Danish outfit Nordsjælland, where he displayed the kind of skillset Van de Beek brought to Ajax’s game. Even before the season has got underway, he’s impressed his new coaches with head boss Ten Hag expecting big things from him. There’s strong competition for places, but in pre-season, Kudus looked to be made of the right stuff to eventually make Van de Beek’s former spot his own which he subsequently did. Unfortunately, after just making four league appearances, the new signee picked up a serious knee injury against Liverpool in the Champions League which he’s yet to recover from.

Sold: Frenkie de Jong (€75m) | Successor: Ryan Gravenberch (youth)

Transfer window: N/A

Profit: €75m

Ajax stats: 28 league appearances | 4 league goals | 29 interceptions

Verdict: Let’s see…

No one was more highly spoken of during Ajax’s recent Euro conquering than Frenkie de Jong, who many felt symbolised the next wave of modern passing midfielders, though he retains old school ingenuity. Barcelona — with their love for tempo-setting footballers — acquired his services, which subsequently meant De Jong realising a life ambition.

His exit meant someone else would be fulfilling their dreams. Even before leaving for the Camp Nou, many observers were earmarking big things for promising youngster Ryan Gravenberch, who only truly broke through and was considered for regular starts last season. During that time, he demonstrated his abilities, including ball-carrying and intricate passing. Gravenberch is currently playing an important role during this campaign and though he doesn’t turn 19 until May 2021 there’s a wise head on young shoulders

Sold: Matthijs de Ligt (€85.5m) | Successor: Perr Schuurs (€2m)

Transfer window: Winter 2018

Profit: €83.5m

Ajax stats: 30 league appearances | 1 league goal | 42 clearances

Verdict: Let’s see…

Natural born leaders in football are hard to come by these days, but there are some obvious exceptions, such as Matthijs de Ligt who, after breaking through, became Ajax’s youngest-ever captain. His leadership saw the Amsterdammers come to within seconds of reaching a first Champions League final since 1996 and those impressive performances — beyond his years — earned De Ligt a big move to Juventus, where he continues to develop.

Long before that switch, which Overmars understandably preempted by 18 months, he signed Perr Schuurs from Fortuna Sittard (before sending him back on loan) and only until last season — after De Ligt bounced to Serie A — did Ten Hag started to ease him into Ajax’s first team. Last summer’s pre-season saw Schuurs regularly play in their preparation games and the expectation of him partnering Blind, to chase another championship, was since realised. That said, his position in Ten Hag’s lineup isn’t firmly nailed on, given he only recently turned 21 inconsistency is to be expected but the Dutch centre-back has shown enough signs of being a future star.