BY BIKASH MOHAPATRA
Frank de Boer definitely deserved a better send off.
It was his sixth season at the helm of affairs at Ajax. In his first four he had guided the Amsterdam club to four successive Eredivisie titles – a first in the club’s glorious history. However, De Boer’s fifth year in management had been a failure – Ajax finishing a massive 17 points behind eventual champions PSV in the title race.
The turnaround had been impressive though.
Going into the final round of matches in the 2015-16 season Ajax had the led the standings for all of the 33 rounds and went into the season’s final day ahead on goal difference. They just needed to beat De Graafschap, who were second from bottom, to seal the title.
But Ajax could only draw and watch in exasperation as rivals PSV, who beat PEC Zwolle on the final day, were crowned champions for a second year running.
De Boer’s tenure didn’t quite have a deserving end.
And for Ajax, it marked the continuation of a long wait for another major trophy.
The four straight titles under De Boer’s management were followed by four years of finishing second – thrice to PSV and once to Feyenoord (2017). The last win in the domestic cup competition (2009-10) was when Martin Jol was in charge.
Peter Bosz, who succeeded De Boer, did impressively guiding Ajax to their first European final in 21 years – the 2016-17 Europa League. However, a defeat at the hands of Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, coupled with the second-place finish in the Eredivisie, meant he failed to convert his successes into something tangible – silverware.
A golden generation of players, comprising graduates from their famed academy (De Toekomst), the likes of Donny van de Beek, Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, as well as smart acquisitions like Andre Onana, David Neres, Hakim Ziyech, Kasper Dolberg and Nicolas Tagliafico, despite their consistently impressive performances, had nothing to show for their efforts.
Many feared these players would leave Ajax without any major honours to their name.
Ajax being a feeder club to Europe’s elite means the regular exodus of players cannot be stopped. Add to it the fact that most of the younger players in Amsterdam are keen to take up the first offer that comes their way and end up going to mid-table clubs in bigger leagues, thereby putting their career progression in jeopardy.
So even as De Boer, Bosz and then Ten Hag tried to build one competitive team after another they couldn’t restrict the many departures, and the constant disintegration of the squad.
Players like Christian Eriksen, Jesper Cillessen, Daley Blind and Ricardo Kishna exited when a formidable team was being built.
The duo of Amin Younes and Arkadiusz Milik, both plying their trade at Napoli these days, impressed during their stay but didn’t win anything.
The likes of Anwar El Ghazi, Riechedly Bazoer, and Nemanja Gudelj left in the middle of that 2016-17 Europa League campaign. And that Europa League final in Sweden proved to be the curtain call (in Ajax colours) for the likes of Davy Klaassen, Jairo Riedewald, Davinson Sanchez and Kenny Tete.
With 2017-18 proving to be another disappointing season it seemed the likes of De Jong, De Ligt and Van de Beek would also depart without winning anything for Ajax.
In fact, there was a major casualty. The very promising Justin Kluivert didn’t wait, not even heeding the advice of his legendary father Patrick, and joined the ever struggling AS Roma. How the Serie A club and the player have performed this season doesn’t even merit discussion.
It took the tactful, persuasive skills of CEO Edwin van der Sar and Director of Football Marc Overmars to convince the other promising players to stay on for another year.
It was a tactical masterstroke that benefited all parties concerned.
Besides this, the return of Blind and the smart acquisition of Dusan Tadic from Southampton – he went on to contribute 39 goals in all competitions – not to forget Klaas Jan Huntelaar who had returned a year before, ensured experience was available in abundance for Ten Hag’s talented but young squad.
The 2018-19 season seemed a final chance for these players to sign off on a triumphant note.
It is imperative here to mention that their consistency in Europe notwithstanding it was not smooth sailing for Ajax in the Eredivisie. Erik ten Hag’s side struggled for momentum early on.
Indeed, it was defending champions PSV, a side that failed to put up a semblance of a fight in the Champions League group stages, which led the way for the majority of the campaign.
The Eindhoven side took the top spot in the table after the third round of matches and held it for 27 weeks on the back of a run of results that included a comprehensive win over their rivals.
Ajax on the other hand were struggling. The aforementioned loss to PSV apart they started the year on a tentative note. A 4-4 draw in the third week of January, in a match they led on multiple occasions, was followed by a 2-6 thrashing at the hands of Feyenoord in De Klassieker and an away defeat at Heracles Almelo. The Amsterdam side also conceded all three points against AZ Alkmaar the week before hosting PSV.
It is sheer coincidence that Ajax’s turnaround of form and fortunes happened against their title rivals. Following a 3-1 win in Amsterdam there was no looking back as Ajax won eight league matches on the trot in what ultimately proved to be decisive run.
They also benefited from PSV’s generosity. Mark van Bommel’s side dropped points galore following draws against Emmen, Utrecht, Heerenveen, Feyenoord – having also lost to the Rotterdam side earlier in the season – and Vitesse Arnhem.
This strange medley of results helped Ajax wrest the lead from PSV – albeit only on goal difference – in Week 29.
However, by a twist of fate, a situation similar to the 2015-16 season had been created.
The KNVB’s decision to postpone the penultimate round of matches, in a bid to help Ajax prepare for the semi-finals of what was a glorious Champions League campaign, ensured the Amsterdam club another final round face-off against De Graafschap; the club from Doetinchem once again involved in a relegation battle.
Football experts and television analysts feared another meltdown. The Amsterdam club had been fighting on all three fronts, playing a match every three days and the fatigue factor was one of the reasons given.
A comprehensive win over Willem II in the KNVB-Beker final not only ensured the Godenzonen a first trophy in five years but also a welcome fillip ahead of the second leg of their Champions League semi-final showdown with Tottenham Hotspur.
Ajax, who had surprised many with their superlative performances in Europe’s top club competition and impressed almost everyone with their style of play – that ensured upset wins over three-time defending champions Real Madrid and Italian champions Juventus – had led by a goal after the opening leg in London and bolstered their advantage further at the break during the return leg in Amsterdam.
However, the manner in which they capitulated in the second half was inexplicable. The young Ajax side had not only missed out on their first Champions League final since 1996, they had simply gift-wrapped the match for the Premier League side.
De Jong summed it up perfectly:
“I think everyone enjoyed what we did in the Champions League this season, it was like a fairytale. Unfortunately, it was one with an unhappy ending.”
It was added fodder to the experts’ theories. Will the Champions League disappointment affect the league form of Ajax?
There were further warning bells when the Amsterdam side conceded in the opening minute against Utrecht in the penultimate round.
However, it turned out to be a false alarm. The Ajax players were in no mood to let the opportunity, that they had worked so hard to create in the first place, slip.
Regrouping from their European disappointment, and that shock early goal by Utrecht, they comprehensively won the penultimate round match. That result, coupled with PSV facing a reverse away at Alkmaar, all but sealed the title for the Amsterdammers.
The final round of matches became a mere formality. On this occasion Ajax visited Doetinchem with a three-point lead and a substantial goal advantage. They also won the match, in a comprehensive manner at that, to ensure there was not an iota of doubt as regards their title credentials.
PSV lost less league matches (3) as opposed to Ajax (4) but they also drew a lot more – five compared to their rivals’ two. In the final analysis those many draws tilted the title in Ajax’s favour.
“The season was very successful. You could say almost 100%. It was a fantastic European season. We played good football and made many people happy. That is perhaps the biggest compliment. Winning the double couldn’t be better,” Ten Hag told reporters afterwards.
A 34th league title on the back of a 19th KNVB-Beker title; the Dutch double was the club’s first since 2001-02. The titles were the decorated club’s first in five years, their Champions League showing impressed the whole world and it ensured this golden generation of players not only impressed all with their skills but also had the trophies to show for their efforts.
More importantly, it also ensured an increase in the market value of these talented players, as opposed to those who had accepted a pittance and left in a haste.
De Jong, for example, has already been signed by Barcelona for 75 million euros (plus add-ons). De Ligt and Van de Beek look set to follow a similar route, with multi-million contracts to boot.
The likes of Neres and Ziyech are being hounded by clubs in the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A. And even though Onana, Tadic and Tagliafico have pledged their immediate future to Ajax it is only a matter of time before tempting offers lead to a change of mind (and priorities).
Suffice to say the fragmentation of this golden generation is inevitable. What matters is the fact that they have a fitting farewell to remember.
Their story, unlike that of their immediate predecessors, had a happy ending, and a deserved one at that.
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