Once the embodiment of “Total Football,” but writing a new chapter with a generation of young, precocious, and dynamic stars, Ajax look to continue their unlikely run to the Champions League final Tuesday night when they face Tottenham Hotspur in the first leg of their semifinals at White Hart Lane.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Ajax were one of the premier teams of European club football, a Dutch powerhouse during the 1970s highlighted by their three consecutive European Cup titles from 1971-73. The man at the center of it all, Johan Cruyff, was a revolutionary of the sport as both player and coach, and his philosophies also took hold at one of his later stops — Barcelona.
Another generation passed before Ajax would have success at the continental level, winning the 1995 Champions League title and reaching the final the following year before losing to Juventus. The economics of the game and player movement following the Bosman Ruling resulted in a gradual ebbing of influence that was highlighted by a quarterfinal appearance in the 2003 tournament.
Ajax are the first club outside the big five divisions of European football to reach the semifinals since 2005.
At the beginning of this decade, Cryuff was part of a group of former Ajax players and Dutch legends of the generation after his — including Dennis Bergkamp, Edwin van der Sar, Marc Overmars, and Marco Van Basten — that went about the business of overhauling the once-proud club from top to bottom. That meant a focus on home-grown players, an unprecedented vertical integration of the entire club at every team level, and resorting on bringing outside players in as a last resort.
Players who were clearly talented were promoted to higher levels above their age groups and pushed out of their comfort levels at different positions to promote versatility and skill. The long-range and ambitious goal fell apart to a degree when some members of the team Cryuff assembled were fired, and the legend himself quit the club.
While Overmars and van der Sar remained, the seeds Cryuff planted had taken hold, and the result is the club that has turned Europe on its head in this tournament, eliminating three-times holders Real Madrid in the round of 16 and then eliminating Juventus and Cristiano Ronaldo in the quarterfinals by winning both second-leg contests on the road in the cauldrons of the Bernabeu and Turin, respectively.
(Dusan Tadic photo courtesy AFC Ajax official Twitter account)
“It’s amazing that we’re in the semi-finals of the Champions League,” Erik ten Hag, the Ajax coach said, at his Monday press conference. “No one would have predicted that a Dutch team would reach the semi-final.”
This edition of de Godenzonen is that blend of homegrown player and outsiders who play in seamless tandem. Nowhere is that more noticeable in the midfield and attack, where Barcelona-bound Frenkie de Jong pulls the strings and is joined by Donnie an de Beek. The two push and pull along with Lasse Schone and are joined by David Neres (Brazil), Hakim Ziyech (Morocco) and Dusan Tadic (Serbia), with the last of the trio factoring on 12 of Ajax’s 32 goals in Champions League play with seven goals and five assists.
For Tadic and central defender Daley Blind, it is a homecoming of sorts, both having played in the Premier League. For Tadic, it was four seasons with Southampton where he totaled 23 goals in 162 matches in all competitions. He has shattered that ratio since arriving at Ajax in June and enters this match with 34 goals in 51 contests.
The Serbia international, though, is more than a goal-scorer as he plays with a centre-forward nous similar to Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud in that he can knock down balls for teammates and makes intelligent runs off the ball to keep spacing and stretch defences.
In the case of Blind, he was part of the United makeover when Louis van Gaal succeeded David Moyes and played four seasons at Old Trafford under van Gaal and Jose Mourinho but failing to secure consistent first-team time before returning to the club where he began.
“We had a good young team but a lack of experience,” ten Hag said, referring to the veteran presence of both Tadic and one-time Manchester United defender Daley Blind. “It was a deliberate policy to sign players from the Premier League, with the knowledge and experience they bring.”
While the veteran presence is there, it does not account for all the success Ajax have enjoyed on the road in Champions League play, and that goes back to this summer since they had to navigate three qualifying rounds just to reach the group stage proper. And that group included heavyweight Bayern Munich, where they gained a vital draw.
They are the first team to reach the semifinals having played three qualifying rounds and have gone 4-4-0 on the road in Champions League, winning three on the trot outside the Netherlands.
Ten Hag bristled at the suggestion Ajax enters this match with an advantage as the fresher team after the Eredivisie postponed play for the weekend. De Godenzonen, though, are also in the midst of a back-and-forth title race and lead PSV Eindhoven — a team Spurs faced in Champions League group play — by goal difference.
“We get €10 million for playing in Eredivisie and they get many more millions for being in the Premier League. Is that not unfair on us?” the Dutch boss said. “There are always differing circumstances. Everybody has different circumstances. You just have to deal with them. That’s what we do.”
Some of those circumstances, though, clearly have Spurs at a disadvantage, especially up front. Harry Kane is still unavailable due to an ankle injury, and Heung-Min Son must sit out this match due to yellow card accumulation. There are also personnel shortages in the midfield as Moussa Sissoko is sidelined with a groin injury and Harry Winks is likely done for the season after undergoing surgery to correct his groin ailment.
The lack of signings in either transfer window — an unprecedented move by a Premier League squad — has in some ways left Spurs threadbare in the run-in as they are clinging to third domestically having lost three of their last four overall and only shown the pockets of brilliance that were once stretches that spanned multiple matches.
“To be in the semi-final with Tottenham was a dream five years ago and we are living the dream,” Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino said at his corresponding press conference. “But you must always dream with the moon if you want to get to the sky. When you are ambitious and you want to achieve big things, you need to set your dream.
“The principle objective was to help the club to build – to finish the training ground, to build the new stadium and to be competitive at the same time. We have done that and, after five years, we must congratulate everyone here. Maybe we still haven’t won a trophy but what we are doing now is more than just a trophy.”
The absence of Kane and Son — who have 44 goals between them — leaves Lucas Moura as the only Spurs player available with more than 10 goals. Pochettino has not given many clues on what formation he will use, but he has sometimes tried to slow down opponents with a diamond midfield in front of a back four, with left back Danny Rose pushed further up while Ben Davies occupies the left back slot.
Another option is to play a more defensive style to hold out for a result to have everything to play for the following week in Holland. That could mean leaving Moura as a lone striker and then bringing on Fernando Llorente on in a supporting role, with the veteran still the toast of the town after his goal allowed the Lilywhites to progress past Manchester City on away goals in the previous round.
There is also a sprinkling of Ajax dust throughout Pochettino’s Spurs side as centre backs and Belgium compatriots Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld came up through the Dutch system along with Danish playmaker Christian Eriksen. Colombian defender Davinson Sanchez can also trace back to the Dutch side, having joined Spurs on a £47 million move in 2017. Vertonghen was the first to join Spurs in 2012, followed by Eriksen (2013) and Alderweireld (2015).
(Photo of Christian Eriksen, Davinson Sanchez, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld courtesy Tottenham Hotspur official Twitter account)
The Spurs motto of “To Dare Is To Do” has been, in a way, hijacked by this upstart Ajax side who have played fearless football in putting two of the game’s mightiest to the sword in the two knockout rounds on their once-believed to be invincible grounds.
The moment has yet to be too big for this Dutch side, with its youth teeming in the spine and the flecks of nous protecting it on the edges. You must be doing something right if your club totals 160 goals in all competitions regardless of level.
What Spurs lack, especially for this match, looms large. Son’s breakthrough 2019 lessened the sting of losing Kane for a prolonged spell, but without the South Korea international, it is asking a lot of Moura to carry the offensive burden. That is not to say he is unable of doing so — there have been times he has been incandescent — but if you take away the hat trick against relegated Huddersfield Town, the Brazilian has one goal in 18 other matches around it.
Yet Pochettino can always play for the draw in this leg since it as at home. The midfield, though, is where the danger lies since Ajax often pour through in a relentless nature. It would not be surprising to see the diamond, a 4-5-1 or even a 5-4-1 to see if the Dutch side can solve the Spurs defence. Only one team has held Ajax off the scoreboard in Champions League play, and that came in a scoreless second-leg draw at Dinamo Kiev in which the Dutch club saw a two-goal lead through to the group stage proper.
This has the makings of a cagey match, one that will offer intrigue as to how hard Ajax push. Every time Spurs have been written off, they have gotten up off the mat to not only survive, but thrive. They came back from the brink in group stage to advance. They fought off an onslaught from Borussia Dortmund in the round of 16. They threw haymakers as well as they got in the quarterfinals at Manchester City.
This may finally be the match where it is a bridge too far, but know they will go down fighting to the last to make the second leg something to play for.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Tottenham 0, Ajax 1.
(Mauricio Pochettino photo courtesy Tottenham Hotspur official Twitter account)