Ajax’s youthful team has been the feel-good story of the Champions League, but is it about time that the world starts to recognise Ajax as the best team in the world?
Ajax has always been a good team despite their lack of competitiveness in the Eredivisie let them down when qualifying for the Champions League, but it seems that Erik ten Hag has finally found the key to success.
Their side has been raining youth this season. The average age of the starting side in the first leg of their semi-final against faced Tottenham was just 25, and that’s when players are only meant to be entering their prime. In other words, if Ajax were somehow able to hold onto every one of their players next season and over the course of the next few years, they could be well on their way to becoming the European powerhouse they once were.
Erik ten Hag has played a young star next to or near a very experienced player all season, which has allowed them to keep controlled and has made them a much more compact team. For example, 19-year-old Matthijs de Ligt has been playing next to veteran centre-back Daley Blind.
Daley Blind, who left Manchester United last season because of a lack of game time, has been one of the two starting centre-backs for Ajax this season has been in the best form of his career. He’s actually done better this season than he did at Manchester United while starting pretty much every game. He is making a mockery of the decision to let him go.
In the defensive midfield there is an 11-year age gap between 21-year-old Frenkie de Jong and 32-year-old Lasse Schone. Youngsters David Neres and Donny van de Beek are accompanied in attack by the likes of Hakim Ziyech and Dusan Tadic, and although they aren’t very old, they have experienced football at a high level and are still experienced.
One thing that makes Ajax so hard to shut down in attack is the fact they don’t actually have an out-and-out striker. Because there is no natural striker, everyone is free to move around in attack, and it means that their front four become almost impossible to mark.
Dusan Tadic, the false nine, will come short for the ball, which will pull out both centre-backs and create a big gap in the middle of the park. The Ajax front four have come to know each other so well that their moves are constantly flowing, and they all move around so much that once the right-back who was marking David Neres ended up at left-back due to the movement of Ajax’s stunning front four.
The opposition ended up with their right-back completely out of position and Nicolas Tagliafico was left with way too much space.
The other two names who constantly get mentioned when deciding the best team in the world are Barcelona and Liverpool, but they both had arguably easier draws than Ajax. In the Round of 16 Barcelona faced Lyon and Liverpool faced an underwhelming Bayern Munich. Ajax, meanwhile, was facing Real Madrid, the winner of the four previous Champions League tournaments.
Ajax beat Real Madrid 5-3 on aggregate, Barcelona smashed Lyon 5-1 won on aggregate and Liverpool won 3-1 on aggregate.
In the quarter-finals Barcelona took on a disappointing Manchester United and won 4-0 on aggregate. Liverpool played arguably the easiest team still in the Champions League and prevailed 6-1 on aggregate. Meanwhile, Ajax, who were meant to be swept away by Juventus, won 3-2 on aggregate after a stunning 2-1 win away from home. They now lead Tottenham 1-0 and are yet to play their leg at home.
Ajax has always been a good team, but this year they have taken their game to another level. But could they win the Champions League? And if they do, just how far off will they be from becoming the best team in the world?
Simon Hill has long been an avid critic of the VAR’s introduction into football. While I regard Hill as one of the best football commentators and pundits in this country, this has always been the one thing I’ve strongly disagreed with him on. His latest article in The Daily Telegraph seemed to echo a lot […]