What Man United can learn from the reawakening of another European football giant

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OF ALL the large European clubs, Ajax person had 1 of the much absorbing trajectories successful caller years.

Steeped successful the past of the game, Wednesday’s triumph implicit Heerenveen saw them assertion a 36th Eredivisie rubric since they were established backmost successful 1900.

Their aureate play remains the aboriginal 1970s erstwhile a Johan Cruyff-inspired broadside secured a singular 3 successive European Cups.

The mid-1990s, however, is simply a adjacent 2nd successful presumption of what they achieved.

In summation to 4 league titles successful 5 years, Louis van Gaal guided a squad that mostly comprised of breathtaking youngsters to back-to-back Champions League finals, triumphing successful 1995, arsenic a precocious Patrick Kluivert extremity sealed a memorable 1-0 triumph implicit a acold much experienced Milan outfit.

Yet Kluivert and galore much of the stars of that large Ajax broadside were subsequently snapped up by other, richer European clubs and the Dutch champions struggled to header successful their absence.

Within a mates of years, astir their full Champions League squad on with Van Gaal, 1 of the astir palmy and innovative coaches of that era, had departed.

The concern was made worse owed to the information that galore of those who had been instrumental successful their occurrence near for small to nary interest owing to the caller instauration of the Bosman ruling, which dictated that players could permission a nine for escaped astatine the extremity of their contracts.

Not lone did they ne'er get adjacent to having the aforesaid interaction successful Europe, but betwixt 1999 and 2010, Ajax won the rubric conscionable doubly successful 12 attempts. By contrast, their biggest rivals, PSV, were champions 7 times during this period, with Feyenoord, Twente and AZ besides winning a rubric apiece.

So what went wrong?

Journalist Karan Tejewani has a caller publication out, ‘Glorious Reinvention: The Rebirth of Ajax Amsterdam.’ It focuses chiefly connected however the nine person fared successful the 21st century, arsenic they experienced a comparatively fallow play earlier a rejuvenation successful the 2010s and beyond, which yet saw them travel adjacent to emulating their 1995 triumph.

“It was a operation of factors for Ajax that caused their downfall,” Tejwani tells The42. “They won the Champions League successful ’95 and reached the last successful ’96. But instantly after, the nine went public, truthful they were allowing [outside] investors and the funds they got from that were wasted.  

“They weren’t spent adequately connected improving the nine oregon improving the team. It was based connected [trying to instrumentality vantage of] overseas opportunities that were truly mishandled.”

These problems down the scenes, coupled with the nonaccomplishment of truthful galore talented players, paved the mode for the wilderness years.

Between 1996 aft getting to the last and 2016, Ajax made the knockout stages of the Champions League conscionable doubly — reaching the quarter-finals successful 2003 and the circular of 16 successful 2006.

Failure to adjacent suffice for the radical stages of the contention became a predominant occurrence and a decent tally successful the Uefa Cup/Europa League invariably looked similar the champion they could anticipation for.

Source: AFC Ajax/YouTube

Increasingly, they were struggling to header with the fiscal mightiness of teams successful Italy, Spain and England successful particular. 

“Whereas clubs wrong Europe’s large 5 leagues were creating opportunities overseas and forming partnerships, Ajax weren’t capable to bash that,” explains Tejwani. “So that became a large occupation for them. And that’s wherever they were benignant of near down successful wider European football.”

It was successful the adjacent decennary that Ajax’s fortunes began to alteration for the amended and intriguingly, it was an illustrious fig from their past who instigated this transitional signifier that has go known arsenic the ‘Velvet Revolution’.

“The archetypal large turning constituent came successful 2010 erstwhile Johan Cruyff made the telephone for change,” recalls Tejwani. “He utilized to constitute a file for a section paper called De Telegraaf, connected wider Dutch shot and Ajax. One time aft a 2-0 nonaccomplishment to Real Madrid successful the Champions League, helium said that the nine needed a wider alteration due to the fact that they were struggling successful European football, truthful helium called for erstwhile players to travel backmost and help. He called for Ajax itself to halt wasting wealth connected transfers and commencement investing successful their ain academy, which was the accepted Ajax way, and to commencement playing shot successful an Ajax sense.

“Martin Jol, the erstwhile Tottenham and Fulham manager, played successful a much pragmatic mode and [Cruyff] wanted Ajax to play successful the other absorption and play much attacking football.

“So that was successful November 2010, and determination was a benignant of snowball effect wherever radical started responding to him and Ajax fans got connected committee due to the fact that obviously, Cruyff is the biggest Ajax fig successful history.

“People similar Marc Overmars and Edwin van der Sar each came backmost to Ajax and they had an interaction connected the club.

“They had a fewer struggles, wasted a spot of wealth present and there. They were trying retired things that they weren’t trying retired before, and it was mostly moving out.

“[Cruyff] asked for a batch of things, and a batch of requests weren’t met, but they did clasp respective of the halfway values helium asked for Ajax to person — focusing connected the academy and not spending excessively overmuch connected players from different leagues and different clubs.”

nijmegen-netherlands-april-23-general-director-edwin-van-der-sar-of-ajax-during-the-dutch-eredivisie-match-between-nec-nijmegen-and-ajax-at-het-goffertstadion-on-april-23-2022-in-nijmegen-nether Edwin van der Sar has go a cardinal fig astatine Ajax. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

This thought of giving legendary erstwhile players a salient relation successful the moving of the nine is often cited arsenic significant. But what was it that the likes of Overmars and Van der Sar really did?

“It was rather important for them due to the fact that the main knowing for Cruyff was that helium wanted to person these players backmost due to the fact that they understood the existent worth of Ajax and the existent worth of representing Ajax.

“And a batch of these players that came backmost were portion of palmy teams, chiefly the 1995 Champions League-winning team.

“There were radical determination similar Dennis Bergkamp, Frank de Boer was the caput manager [between 2010 and 2016], Wim Jonk was progressive from a strategical capacity. But the 2 main figures are Van der Sar and Overmars.

“Van der Sar was the selling manager [initially]. And helium did rather a bully occupation successful securing sponsorships from overseas companies and besides improving their main sponsorship truthful the nine got much gross because, successful the Netherlands, TV gross isn’t arsenic important arsenic it is compared to different leagues. He did specified a bully occupation that helium ended up becoming the club’s CEO successful 2016.

“Marc Overmars was rather similar. He joined arsenic Director of Football successful 2012. He already had erstwhile acquisition successful concern having tally a concern arsenic a player, and having been the Director of Football astatine Go Ahead Eagles, which is simply a [smaller] Dutch nine successful the Eredivisie. So helium had a spot of acquisition determination and did a precise bully occupation betwixt 2012 and 2022 erstwhile helium had to permission because of the allegations against him.

“But successful that time, helium ran Ajax successful a benignant of frugal mode and they started to marque up the wealth [that had been lost]. And erstwhile they had capable wealth to spend, they were 1 of the healthiest clubs successful European football. And they were capable to interruption their transportation ceiling and their wage ceiling, truthful they could walk much connected players similar Dusan Tadic, Daley Blind, and adjacent present Sébastien Haller. So it’s due to the fact that of the proceedings and mistake and a spot of stinginess astatine the commencement that they are capable to walk truthful overmuch close now. And it’s a argumentation that has worked for galore years.”

Of course, 1 of the much evident improvements the nine made was successful recruitment, with astute acquisitions some successful presumption of players and coaches.

The consequent results talk for themselves. Since 2011, Ajax person won the league connected 7 occasions (and it would apt beryllium 8 had it not been for the information that nary trophies were awarded successful the 2019-20 run aft the play was cancelled during the pandemic). Their European signifier has besides improved significantly, notably reaching the Europa League last successful 2018 and the Champions League semi-final successful 2019.

But speechmaking the passages astir their erstwhile fallow period, it is tempting to gully parallels betwixt Ajax and the existent concern astatine Man United.

amsterdam-ajax-coach-erik-ten-hag-celebrates-the-national-championship-with-his-selection-after-the-dutch-eredivisie-match-between-ajax-amsterdam-and-sc-heerenveen-at-the-johan-cruijff-arena-on-may Ajax manager Erik 10 Hag and players observe aft winning the league title. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

As with the Red Devils, determination was a wide feeling that the Dutch giants had prioritised concern interests implicit footballing ones. They were excessively focused connected short-term results, with the academy suffering arsenic a effect and less talented players coming through. Behind the scenes arsenic well, the nine was marred by in-fighting and ineptitude.

Perhaps 1 of the lessons that Man United and others tin instrumentality from Ajax’s rejuvenation is that it is naive to presume 1 fig tin drastically alteration a struggling club’s fortunes, alternatively a deeper alteration successful doctrine and operation is required?

“Even earlier Erik 10 Hag and Peter Bosch, they had immoderate bully managers in, but they didn’t truly person the occurrence to backmost it up purely due to the fact that the operation wasn’t there,” says Tejwani. “They weren’t a football-centric nine for a agelong play of clip successful the aboriginal 2000s. And the grounds of that was there. They had 1 of the strongest teams, and they were spending rather heavily. People similar Klaas-Jan Huntelaar were signed for large fees. And they were scoring tons of goals. But they weren’t capable to triumph things purely due to the fact that the operation wasn’t successful spot for them to succeed.

“So it’s not conscionable astir the personnel, it’s astir the wider shot operation that you request to go a due shot club, which respective teams crossed Europe close present deficiency — clubs similar Man United, Barcelona, adjacent Juventus you could accidental — they were lacking existent shot minds.”

Yet portion 1 fig cannot instrumentality each the recognition for transforming a club’s fortunes, it helps to person 1 of Europe’s apical coaches connected the books, and the Dutch outfit surely had that successful Erik 10 Hag.

“Even earlier helium joined Ajax, helium was mostly considered the crown prince of Dutch shot coaching. And that’s due to the fact that of the enactment helium did astatine Utrecht and Go Ahead Eagles and astatine Bayern Munich erstwhile helium was moving determination arsenic the manager of the 2nd team.

“If you deliberation of Dutch coaching, determination is simply a spot of a spread conscionable similar Ajax successful the 2000s, wherever the Netherlands weren’t capable to nutrient bully coaches for a precise agelong time. But Ten Hag breaks that mould and has been seen arsenic the adjacent large happening for the past decennary oregon so.

“That chiefly came from getting a promotion with Go Ahead Eagles, a 2nd part team. And his enactment astatine Utrecht, who are benignant of a mid-level team, similar Leicester you could say, who were pushing the apical teams successful the Netherlands and they astir qualified for the Champions League astatine 1 point.

“So his estimation mostly came from there. And each idiosyncratic I spoke to for the publication said helium has a bully quality touch. He whitethorn not beryllium the warmest person. But helium has a decent capable knowing of quality emotion. And from a tactical standpoint, helium is quite, rather revered.”


Like Man United now, the Ajax squad Ten Hag inherited had plentifulness of imaginable having reached the Europa League last conscionable six months previously. Nonetheless, a atrocious ambiance permeated the nine astatine the clip of his appointment.

“When helium joined, Ajax were retired of European shot altogether [early] for the archetypal clip since 1966. They hadn’t adjacent played a radical signifier run successful either the Champions League oregon the Europa League.

“And conscionable a mates of months earlier that, determination was the calamity with Abdelhak Nouri, who suffered a bosom onslaught connected the pitch.

“So the wide temper astir the nine was rather low. And erstwhile Ten Hag joined, Ajax were struggling successful the league arsenic good — they were second, but it was evident, they were worse disconnected than [other] teams who were warring for the league title.


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“In the start, helium mislaid [the title] to PSV. But erstwhile helium got his afloat transportation model successful the summertime of 2018, and his archetypal afloat preseason with them, helium was capable to prime it up.”

A memorable 2018-19 play followed, wherever Ajax claimed a uncommon league and cupful double, but adjacent this accomplishment was overshadowed by an astonishing Champions League run. They initially had to navigate 3 qualifying rounds simply to get to the radical signifier and proceeded to acceptable the contention alight, dumping retired Juventus and Real Madrid successful the knockout stages with an breathtaking marque of football, earlier an agonising last-gasp semi-final decision to Tottenham, erstwhile they were seconds distant from going done earlier a Lucas Moura extremity silenced the bulk of fans astatine the Johan Cruyff Arena.

Explaining the landmark campaign, Tejwani says: “They changed their wage argumentation successful the erstwhile summer. In presumption of transfers, they were capable to walk more. So radical similar Daley Blind and Dusan Tadic came into the club, and they were paid a importantly higher wage than Ajax players were paid before.

“The ceiling was to wage a cardinal euros a play to a player, but that was broken, massively, with Tadic. So that was 1 of the main factors — the much you spend, the much apt you are to win.

“Secondly, determination was the tactical acumen of Ten Hag, who had a antithetic strategy for European shot compared to Dutch football. When helium played successful the Netherlands, helium played 4-3-3. But successful Europe, helium played with a 4-2-3-1, and that required Tadic to play arsenic a fig nine, with Hakim Ziyech and David Neres connected the wings and Donny van de Beek playing successful the fig 10 position.

“And thirdly, determination was a bully squad determination and a bully squad to physique on. The halfway of the squad was André Onana, Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Ziyech, and Tadic eventually. So those 4 oregon 5 players were changeless players successful those teams, and they were determination close from the start.

“So gathering connected that halfway was rather important. But determination was a wide feeling astir Amsterdam and Ajax arsenic good that this squad could yet bash good and execute thing successful the Champions League aft truthful galore years of disappointment.

“Nobody expected the semi-finals. For them, the circular of 16 was bully enough. But erstwhile they bushed Real Madrid astatine the Bernabeu, and the mode they did it arsenic well, determination was a feeling that they could spell a precise agelong way. I deliberation the semi-finals was arsenic bully an accomplishment [coming from] Dutch home shot arsenic it tin beryllium successful this modern day.”

villarreal-spain-23rd-november-2021-estadio-la-ceramica-vila-real-spain-uefa-champions-league-villarreal-cf-manchester-united-donny-van-de-beek-of-manchester-united-credit-action-plus-sports Some players specified arsenic Donny van de Beek person struggled to support the heights they reached astatine Ajax. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

There is simply a feeling successful immoderate quarters that this unforgettable incarnation of Ajax was greater than the sum of its parts. Tadic and Blind, portion being bully players, had hardly acceptable the Premier League alight amid erstwhile stints astatine Southampton and Man United respectively.

In addition, younger players similar Van de Beek, De Ligt and De Jong person since struggled to support the remarkably precocious standards they had acceptable previously.

“There are 2 ways to look astatine it,” says Tejwani. “There’s often a feeling that these players can’t bash what they did astatine Ajax extracurricular of Ajax. But I don’t needfully deliberation that’s the case. Because they achieved truthful much, it’s casual to hide that they’re inactive truthful young. De Ligt was 19 years aged erstwhile helium made a €75 cardinal transfer, that’s a beauteous large woody for immoderate 19 twelvemonth old. Similarly, Frenkie de Jong was 22 erstwhile helium moved. Donny van de Beek was 23.

“So it’s not casual for young players similar them to accommodate to overseas leagues truthful quickly. Especially with the unit of the terms tag and the unit of the media that comes in. 

“And they are inactive talented players. With Van de Beek, it’s a lawsuit of him not getting capable opportunities. I deliberation De Ligt and De Jong person improved implicit the past year. De Jong has had 4 antithetic coaches astatine Barcelona. And the aforesaid for De Ligt arsenic well.”

Perhaps the biggest nonaccomplishment of each though is Ten Hag, who is acceptable to instrumentality implicit astatine Man United pursuing the extremity of the existent season.

Restoring the Red Devils to their past greatness would beryllium arguably an adjacent bigger accomplishment than thing helium managed astatine Ajax, but whether the highly-rated manager tin bash it is different matter.

“There was already a bully capable shot operation astatine Ajax erstwhile helium joined, adjacent though they were struggling. About six months oregon truthful before, they played successful the Europa League last against Man United. And they had 1 of the brightest young teams successful Europe, and they had a agleam capable squad to turn with — radical similar Onana, De Ligt, De Jong, Ziyech, they were already there. And they conscionable needed to find the close manager to instrumentality them forward. 

“And determination are a bully fewer players astatine United that tin instrumentality the squad forward. But determination needs to beryllium much enactment done determination than astatine Ajax. United are a nine who are struggling, there’s an adjacent worse temper determination due to the fact that the past fewer years person been truthful antagonistic for them.

“One of the main reasons helium was hired is due to the fact that helium has a bully estimation [with young players] and helium perpetually gave academy players a chance. If you ticker Ajax academy games, Ten Hag is often astatine the stadium itself oregon astatine the grooming and keeping an oculus connected however things are going there. So helium has a bully grounds with it and I’m definite helium tin enactment good astatine United arsenic good successful that regard.”

Source: MH10 Show/YouTube

And arsenic for Ajax? In galore ways, they look a akin situation to that which they experienced aft the mid-1990s, with European occurrence prompting a wide exodus of talent. Will they grip the circumstances amended this clip around?

“I don’t deliberation it’ll beryllium arsenic atrocious arsenic the 2000s. But I deliberation it volition beryllium much hard than it’s been for a agelong time, purely due to the fact that they person not conscionable mislaid Erik 10 Hag, they person mislaid their sporting manager successful Marc Overmars.

“And determination are going to beryllium tons of players going retired similar Ryan Gravenberch, Noussair Mazraoui, André Onana, they’re going to permission for sure. So determination are going to beryllium a batch of caller faces coming in, and that’s going to beryllium rather challenging for them to handle.

“But astatine the aforesaid time, astatine slightest successful the Netherlands, their nearest rivals are PSV, who are going done a spot of a modulation themselves. They’re going to suffer Roger Schmidt. Ruud van Nistelrooy is coming successful to instrumentality implicit arsenic caput coach. So determination are clubs astir them that are going done changes arsenic well.

“I americium not optimistic astir them doing good successful the Champions League — that’s up to fate, we’ll spot however it goes. But successful presumption of home football, I deliberation they’ll bash rather good for the adjacent 2 years astatine least.”

Glorious Reinvention: The Rebirth of Ajax Amsterdam by Karan Tejwani is published by Pitch Publishing. More info here.

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