These days it’s unrealistic to be universally considered an elite footballer whilst plying your trade outside Europe’s ‘top five’ leagues.
However, football is football no matter where the beautiful game is being contested, and there are two other ‘leagues’ worth factoring when deciding to lavish praise on today’s stars. Those being Europe’s premier club tournaments: Champions League and Europa League.
Both competitions in recent years has seen Ajax skipper talismanic skipper Dusan Tadic thrive since leaving the bright lights of Premier League action for Amsterdam in 2018.
In fact there’s a strong case to be made that the Serbian playmaker-cum-forward is the most outstanding talent outside those Europe’s top five leagues.
Following their European Cup elimination this season, after finishing behind Liverpool and Atalanta in Group D, Ajax looked destined for a lengthy Europa League stay. Pulling the strings was deep-lying forward Tadic but there was nothing false about his performances. Only finalist Bruno Fernandes created more chances than Tadic since the knockout phase got underway.
Fernandes heading into Manchester United’s showdown against Villarreal will be looking to improve on the 23 he’s registered so far while Tadic ended his campaign on 21 despite playing two games less. The influential Portuguse attacking midfielder also beats Ajax’s skipper when it comes to assists (four against two).
It goes without saying no matter the level of competition Tadic is making the ball dance. Michael Laudrup’s teammates at Barcelona used to say the Danish playmaking magician would find them no matter what. You get the same feeling watching Ajax where, for a third consecutive season, he’s finished with the most goals created; cementing his status as the Eredivisie’s undisputed ‘assist king’.
Since returning to Dutch top division football after four years at Southampton where he often blew hot and cold, the mercurial forward has posted 44 assists in 93 appearances, with 10 coming in the Champions League — only Paris Saint-Germain duo Ángel Di María and Kylian Mbappé have Tadic beat during this period. Last season was his most prolific, where he created 17 league goals which included a ‘hat-trick’ of assists against Sparta Rotterdam at home.
Leadership, or leading from the front, is something he’s always taken seriously. Tadic was a beast during the home stretch: 87.5% of his assists came in Ajax’s final 16 matches. There was even a five-game stretch where he found a teammate, among those victims were rivals Feyenoord and AZ, neither — or anyone else for that matter — could stop him. And if they were able to somehow restrict Tadic’s supply lines then Ajax’s ‘number 10’ would punish them by finding the net which he did 14 times across last season.
A relentless goalscorer who can regularly assist, or vice versa, is what you would call a double threat. It’s not a common phenomenon if we look across Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues this past season. With the domestic season over no fewer than nine players scored at least 10 goals whilst creating that same exact amount or more.
- Harry Kane (Tottenham): 23 goals and 14 assists
- Romelu Lukaku (Inter Milan): 24 goals and 11 assists
- Memphis Depay (Lyon): 20 goals and 12 assists
- Bruno Fernandes (Man Utd): 18 goals and 12 assists
- Thomas Müller (Bayern Munich): 11 goals and 18 assists
- Son Heung-Min (Tottenham): 17 goals and 10 assists
- Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo): 14 goals and 13 assists
- Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Roma): 13 goals and 10 assists
- Marcos Llorente (Atlético Madrid): 12 goals and 11 assists
If we include the next five top divisions — Primeira Liga, Russian Premier League, Belgian First Division A, Ukrainian Premier League and the Eredivisie — then add five more players to this exclusive group.
- Raphael Holzhauser (Beerschot): 16 goals and 16 assists
- Dusan Tadic (Ajax): 14 goals and 17 assists
- Steven Berghuis (Feyenoord): 18 goals and 12 assists
- Mehdi Taremi (FC Porto): 16 goals and 11 assists
- Junya Ito (Genk): 11 goals and 14 assists
Once upon a time a critique of Tadic was a lack of goals. He’s been addressing that since his Twente days and it’s fair to say those worries are now a thing of the past. Before redefining himself at Ajax the Serbian forward managed 23 goals across 162 appearances for Southampton with all but three coming in England’s top division.
A modest return it must be said which makes what he’s been doing since 2018 seem outwardly. 76 goals for Dutch football’s most illustrious club through 149 appearances to date is nothing to laugh about especially with just over 11% of that return has come in continental action. It was Ajax’s duel at Bayern Munich which ultimately changed everything subsequently thrusting Tadic into a newfound role which he’s made his own and hasn’t looked back since.
Having initially played out wide, occasionally alternating with the ‘number 10’ position depending on the opposition, Ajax manager Erik ten Hag channeled his inner Pep Guardiola by deploying Tadic in a ‘false nine’ role. It worked wonderfully, and that has since been the Amsterdammers blueprint in European competition since. A memorable performance came during their 2018/19 Champions League round-of-16 second leg meeting against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. Tadic dominated the game, providing two assists and scoring another in a sensational 4-1 victory. L’Équipe subsequently gave him a rare perfect 10 score.
He’s not exactly resting on past success though it’s a challenge staying on top whilst those around him keep leaving. He’s doing a good job so far and his commitment to Ajax’s cause until June 2023 when he will be 34 is encouraging. Keeping up these numbers theoretically becomes difficult. Tadic currently averages 18 goals and 15 assists per season or to use a basketball parlance he’s averaging a double-double. It’s no wonder the powers that be recently crowned him Dutch Footballer of the Year and you can only imagine with Ajax growing in stature he’d be up there again next season.
You would be hard-pressed to find a player outside Europe’s preeminent leagues as consistently impressive not just in his domestic competition but in a Uefa sanctioned tournament. When analysing the last three seasons it becomes clear that he’s been at the right place at the right time. Ten Hag’s approach — partly influenced by Guardiola-era Bayern and Ajax’s own in-house style — is tailor-made for him. Tadic is simply afforded the freedom as their “9½” to create for himself and others. But who is his competition? Well on the back of the season that has just gone there is one name worth considering and that’s FC Porto central midfielder Sérgio Oliveira.
Just like Tadic he’s produced the goods at home and in Europe where the Dragons reached the Champions League quarter-finals after eliminating Juventus against whom he netted the all-important deciding goal. His fifth of the campaign. The 28-year-old Portuguse international also finished as Porto’s second leading Primeira Liga scorer on 13 goals behind Iranian striker Mehdi Taremi (16) but it’s worth noting this effort is by far the most he’s registered during a single campaign for the club. It’s the level of consistency which separates Tadic from the pack. Anyone can have one productive season, but Ajax’s left-footed wizard in comparison to his non ‘top-five’ rivals is operating on another level, delivering season upon season of greatness.