Who would have thought that the powerful back to back to back UCL champions Real Madrid would be knocked out by the Dutch team Ajax when the results of the Round of 16 were revealed? At least not Real Madrid’s captain Sergio Ramos, who received a yellow card on purpose so he would serve the one match suspension in the second leg clash against Ajax and not in the quarterfinals against a potential stronger rival- karma! Only few people believed Ajax would eliminate Real Madrid, mostly their fans.
Well, that happened, Ajax has come from behind overcoming a 1-2 defeat in the first leg at their own home, beating Real Madrid 1-4 in the second leg at the Bernabéu on Tuesday with an amazing performance, with the Ajax playing style.
Back in the 1970’s Ajax revolutionized football with a playing style called Total Football, which is a tactical theory in which any outfield player can adopt the role of any other player on the field, passing the ball, maintaining possession to attack and score. Ajax won three consecutive European Cups (now known as Champions League) from 1971 to 1973, playing Total Football. This playing style was also adopted by the Dutch National team, which made it famous around the world, when they succeeded with it in the 1974 World Cup, reaching the Final of the tournament. Both Ajax and the Dutch National Team of that time were led by manager Rinus Michels and their star player, the legendary Johan Cruyff. Cruyff also brought this playing style to Barcelona, having a lot of success there, both as a player and as a manager. Cruyff changed the philosophy of FC Barcelona forever. Since then, Barcelona has become a role model to different clubs around the world with their unique playing style, implemented by Cruyff and then by Pep Guardiola, who played under Cruyff in Barça and then became manager of the team in 2008, leading a team that became a modern dynasty. Now Guardiola is trying to somehow recreate that success at Manchester City, which have advanced as well to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
Ajax has always been known for its youth academy, producing some of the world’s best players there, such as Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Edwin van ser Sar, Wesley Sneijder and most recently Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong, between many other GREAT players.
The last time that Ajax won the Champions League was in 1995, when a team led by manager Louis van Gaal defeated AC Milan in the Final.
If Ajax would have kept with them for a longer time all of these great homegrown talent, maybe they would have would have won many more Champions League titles, but the problem is that they can’t compete economically with the rich clubs in European top leagues, so they sell all of their best players to top clubs in Europe. Recently they sold the highly talented midfielder Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona for a reported fee of €75m, but he will stay with Ajax for the reminder of the season. It’s very probable that their other main young talent, the 19 year old central midfielder and captain Matthijs de Ligt will also be sold very soon. So every time they produce a talented player, the chances for them of keeping the player are pretty low. That’s how modern football is, rich clubs buy all the great players and the other clubs have to deal with it.
In 2017, Ajax reached the Europa League Final, becoming the youngest team to play a major European final with an average age of 22 years, most of those players are current squad members, they lost 2-0 to Manchester United. This Ajax squad, two years later is more mature now, having played in the Champions League, they are more prepared for big matches like this one.
Ajax has certainly already made history on this season, getting all the way to the quarterfinals from the second qualifying round, then going unbeaten in the group stage, where they had two great performances against Bayern which both ended up in a draw, then after losing the first leg at home against Real Madrid, they went up to stun the world humiliating them at Madrid’s home. But they are not satisfied yet, they want to continue writing history, as their captain Matthijs de Ligt said: “Getting to the quarterfinals is quite an achievement, but we are not done yet”.
From the quarterfinals on, it will be very difficult to progress, as only the best teams make it there, but they have a team that can make fans dream.
They are the youngest team in the competition with an average age of 24 years old, a team that is composed by homegrown talent as well as a few great players that they got as bargains.
From goalkeeper André Onana, to a backline featuring the most promising young central defender in football and team’s captain at just 19 years old- Matthijs de Ligt. A very experienced defender that came back to Ajax after his spell in Man Utd- Daley Blind. A left back that has been a key player for the team and they got him as a bargain from an Argentinian club- Nico Tagliafico. One of the best young talents in the world, an unbelievably talented midfielder who has already displayed great performances in both Ajax and the Dutch National Team, future Barcelona player- Frenkie de Jong. And among others, two key players in attack who have combined for most of the Ajax goals and assists this season, both whom Ajax got as bargains- Dušan Tadić and Hakim Ziyech.
The club may not be able to retain these highly talented players, as the big clubs in European top leagues will probably pay big sums of money for them, but I’m sure that Ajax is already forming a new generation of players to replace them and when these ones get sold, a new generation of players will come and this is the way that it will go on.
It’s been an amazing run for Ajax, now they’re waiting for the results of the draw for the quarterfinals next week, time will tell if they continue to stun the world, for now let’s enjoy watching them in the next round.