European Football

My Apology to Ajax Amsterdam

Time to address my worst take from the Podcast…

So, time for a quick apology. I had a take that was so bad, that aged so poorly, that I needed to respond to it.

On our Champions League preview podcast, I made a prediction that I thought was at least a bit bold but not quite revolutionary. In Group C, I thought Ajax, a team we all still remember for their Champions League Semifinal run in 2018/19, would disappoint. The stars from 2018/19 were mostly gone, they had crashed out of the competition in the Group Stage in each of the past two seasons, being eliminated from the Europa League in the Round of 32 in 2019/20 by Getafe and in the Quarterfinals in 2020/21 by Roma, and it looked like they had fallen to a point where they faced significant domestic competition from rivals PSV. I questioned the solidity of their defense, operating with two smaller and less physical center backs and without star goalkeeper Andre Onana, and I questioned whether their attack could be as vibrant as it was in 2018/19 with the main stars either gone or that much older. I even went as far as to say that Sporting Club, the Portuguese representation in their group, were the team that had the most potential to pull off a run similar to what Ajax did three seasons ago.

And, well, I was quite wrong.

I could tell my whole prediction was not going to be spot on pretty quickly, as Ajax’s 5-1 demolition of Sporting in Lisbon in the first Champions League match day was a pretty resounding way to demonstrate the Dutch side’s superiority. But it was after that game where I really saw just how wrong I was. After a fairly simple 2-0 win over Besiktas, Ajax then ripped presumptive group favorite Borussia Dortmund to shreds in a convincing 4-0 win in Amsterdam that was every bit as deserved as that scoreline can indicate. They added a nice little cherry on top with a comfortable 5-0 win over PSV in the league and a 3-1 win away to Dortmund to basically seal their knockout round passage. This Ajax team became the first side in the club’s history to start a Champions League Group Stage with four consecutive wins, and keep in mind that this is a team that has won this competition in the “Champions League Era” before (their other three European Cups came in a wildly different time for the competition but are no less valid).

Ajax did not just want to seemingly prove me wrong, they went through all the effort to dismantle every bit of my hot take and disintegrate every minute idea.

So yeah, sorry Ajax. I was definitely wrong about you. I expect they will probably win their umpteenth Eredivisie title this season, and they may end up pulling away about as early as they did last season. They are likely already through to the Champions League knockouts and should probably finish first in their group. They are a very strong team with quality all over the pitch.

But let us ask the question that this sort of begs: do they have the capability to repeat what they did in 2018/19 and go for a long run in the Champions League? Honestly, I think they definitely can.

This Ajax team is different from the 2018/19 team in many ways, but they are also quite similar in many ways. Tadić, currently the club’s captain, stands tall as a connecting thread between the two teams, as does Nico Tagliafico, Daley Blind, David Neres, and Noussair Mazraoui. They still have the same manager, they still play the same formation, it is still a very similar playing philosophy. They do not have the same young superstars of the 2018/19 team, but you have some fairly similar placeholders. Instead of Frenkie de Jong, it is Ryan Gravenberch. Instead of Hakim Ziyech, it is Antony. Instead of Matthijs de Ligt, it is Jürrien Timber. Instead of Donny van de Beek, it is Mohammed Kudus. This is Ajax, it all feels very similar because it all fits the brand and identity of what this club is and always has been.

And those young stars are quite something. While Gravenberch has not been as brilliant as we all know he can be, he is still such an incredibly composed player for someone his age. Jürrien Timber certainly does not bring the physicality that de Ligt brought to a defense, but his composure and ability on the ball is at a very high level for a player his age. Antony is the true breakout star of this competition, looking every bit the dynamic and terrifying attacking player that Ziyech was for this team. In many ways, he is what we thought fellow Brazilian David Neres would be. Rapid, skilled on the ball, and composed in key moments packaged together with a remarkable mental fortitude and daring confidence that allows him to take on and sometimes humiliate defenders. It is what allowed him to wreck havoc on Dortmund’s defense.

But it is not just the young players, and that is the biggest difference between this team and the 2018/19 team. While the average ages of the sides are comparatively similar, and while the average age of this season’s starting XI is higher than the 2018/19 team largely due to the presence of 38 year old starting goalkeeper Remko Pasveer, it is interesting and different that the key players in this Ajax team are notably not young. Tadić, Davey Klaassen, Daley Blind, Sébastien Haller, and Steven Berghuis all play central roles in this Ajax team, and none of them certainly can be described as “young” players. While the 2018/19 team certainly had some more veteran figures, including the aforementioned Tadić and Blind, it was clearly spearheaded by the youthful vigor from the likes of de Ligt, de Jong, van de Beek, Neres, and Ziyech. That previous team was almost too young and naïve to be intimidated by the stage they were on, while this team is too experienced to be daunted by the challenge they face.

Can they do it again? Maybe. Do they have the right balance of talent and mentality to do it? Certainly.

So, sorry for doubting you Ajax. A team complete in their talent and mental composition, a team that is incredibly balanced, a team that can certainly make a run in this season’s Champions League akin to their run in 2018/19. They are certainly a team to watch this season.

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