For the first time in four years, Cristiano Ronaldo will not be playing in the UEFA Champions League semi-final round. The team that beat him and Juventus… Ajax.
Ajax plays in the Eredivisie (Dutch) League. They are the same team who manhandled Real Madrid in the Round of 16 after coming out of a group that included Bayern Munich, Benfica, and AEK Athens; each the winner of their respective leagues last year, with both Bayern Munich and Benfica looking to repeat. So how did they do it? How did they pull off the impossible, not only once, but twice? Let me explain.
TALENT, TALENT, AND EVEN MORE TALENT
Don’t be mistaken; Ajax is one of the best teams in the world. They are a star-studded squad with lots of talent making up their starting eleven. The difference between Ajax and the rest if the field is that the average age of their starting eleven is 21 years and 2 months old. To put this in perspective I have listed below, the average age of the rest of the teams that made it into the Round of 16:
- Atlético Madrid: 26 years, 7 months
- FC Barcelona: 27 years, 5 months
- Bayern Munich: 26 years, 6 months
- Borussia Dortmund: 25 years
- Juventus: 28 years, 7 months
- Liverpool: 26 years, 7 months
- Lyon: 24 years, 3 months
- Manchester City: 27 years
- Manchester United: 27 years, 6 months
- Paris Saint-Germain: 26 years, 2 months
- Porto: 27 years, 2 months
- Real Madrid: 26 years, 2 months
- Roma: 27 years, 5 months
- Schalke: 25 years, 7 months
- Tottenham: 26 years, 9 months
The closest team is Lyon, who still have an average age that is 3 years and 1 month older than Ajax. How could a team that has players barely over the legal U.S drinking age beat some of the best teams in Europe? One word; talent.
Ajax has long been known for developing world-class talent with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Luis Suarez, and Christian Eriksen being some of the most recent players to come out of their ranks. This isn’t a recent revelation though. Ajax has been producing world-class talent for decades, such as Johan Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert, and Edwin van der Sar.
This year is no different, with future Barcelona member Frenkie de Jong, and 19-year-old captain Matthijs de Ligt leading the rising crop of young talent, that also features André Onana, David Neres, Donny van de Beek, and Kasper Dolberg. Each of these players came through the academy and will look to join the previously mentioned players as some of the most well-renowned players in the world.
After spending 4 years with Southampton in the Premier League, Tadic joined Ajax this past summer for a modest fee near 15 million euros. At thirty years old, not many would have expected Tadic to have the breakout season he has had. He has contributed to 52 of his teams 142 goals in all competitions, with 32 goals and 20 assists. He has had a hand in over half of their goals in the Champions League this season with 6 goals and 4 assists in 10 matches. To put it simply: he has been out of this world. The only other players to have surpassed these numbers in Europe are Lionel Messi (47 goals, 17 assists in all comps.) and Kylian Mbappe (40 goals, 12 assists in all comps.).
It was Tadic’s performance in the second leg versus Real Madrid that spurred his team to their first improbable upset. After trailing 2-1 on aggregate, Tadic tallied the assist for Ajax’s first two goals in the match before scoring one himself. He secured himself a perfect 10 out of 10 rating from L’Equipe, becoming only the 9th player in history to do so.
CONSISTENCY AND DEPTH
The most important aspect of Ajax’s play this season has been their consistency and the key to that has been their potent strike force. In the 51 games the team has played in this season, they have scored 142 goals, while only conceding 38, putting them at a 2.78 to 0.75 goals scored vs goals allowed ratio. In particular, their 106 goals in the Eredivisie makes them the only team to reach the century mark for goals scored in the league this season.
Another key to Ajax’s success has been their squad depth. They have 7 players that have scored at least 5 goals and 10 different players that have contributed to at least 10 goals. They have 19 different players with at least 17 appearances, which has allowed them to rotate their lineup daily and keep their players fresh.
DAVID VS. GOLIATH
Coming into this season, if you told me Ajax would be playing in the Champions League semi-final for the first time since winning it all in 1996, I would’ve told you were crazy, and I don’t think I would be alone in that judgment.
I by no means am saying that Ajax will win it all. Each team they could potentially play in the semi-final present their own challenge for Ajax to break down. None of the teams remaining will underestimate what Ajax can do after their dominant performances in the last two rounds. If they want to win it all Ajax will have to continue to play their game. I believe that if they continue their dominant form, then they will at least have a shot at bringing home some silverware. Even if they bow out next round, Ajax has produced some of the most exciting football, in all of Europe this season.