The Dutch club sit IN 2nd position in the league table and face a tough challenge against Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16.
Amidst the violent clashes and moments of riot between AEK Athens supporters and the travelling Ajax fans that unfortunately went on to mark the night in and outside the Athens Olympic Stadium, a larger, more poetic narrative went amiss – Ajax, the club that revolutionised the beautiful game forever but fell on the wrong side of history in the modern era qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time in 13 years.
Dusan Tadic scored twice in a 2-0 victory over AEK Athens which must have been some consolation to the desperate travelling fans struck by petrol bombs and flares in the stands to see their club qualify after so long. But the showing wasn’t enough for Ajax’s 48-year-old head coach Erik Ten Hag.
Ten Hag subtly distanced himself from the revelry that embraced the Ajax dressing room after the game and seemed increasingly focused on the next challenges his team would face in world football’s most elite competition. Even in the post-match press conference, Ten Hag did not exactly cut an appropriate figure for someone who was leading a quiet revolution in Amsterdam, he instead chose to elaborate on his sides negatives during the game.
His side could not manage to create enough clear-cut chances. “There are still things that can and must be better if you want to go further,” he said with sharpened clarity on the Bayern game that awaited them. “We will have to create more opportunities and also take the first chance against them. They remain the big favourites so that means we will have to do a lot better.”
He was right. FC Bayern Munchen were no AEK Athens with all due respect. Despite what their current form might suggest, the club from Bavaria was a giant of the game and automatic favourite in every tie it participated in.
Erik’s assessment was spot on. But if you put things into perspective with how Ajax has struggled to match up to its history in the recent past, with how it became a club that could no longer hold on to its biggest exponents dwindling between sporting and financial mediocrity, surely the night, the players and the man that masterminded it all deserved celebrating more.
A couple of weeks and a topsy-turvy 90-minute match with six goals, two red cards and plenty of drama in the dying moments later, Ajax were undefeated to Bayern over two legs. And this is why Erik ten Hag’s reign is allowing the local Amsterdam supporters to dream.
Having spent time working under Pep Guardiola in Munich as Bayern reserves coach, Erik shares similar traits of obsession with the sport and tactical ingenuity that prioritises technique, flair and flexibility.
Erik Ten Hag’s display of football is fascinating
Much like Pep Guardiola, Erik Ten Hag likes to field a 4-3-3 or a staggered variation of the 4-3-3 prioritising on pressing, dominating possession, building from the back and adaptability on the pitch depending on how their opponents line up and press them.
A legend in the making
The mercurial talent of Frenkie de Jong comes in handy for Erik ten Hag who deploys him as a central fulcrum in the middle of the pitch. De Jong is adept at building from the back, dropping deep when his side has lost the possession to help out the defence and pushing forward when in possession with line breaking passes or swift dribbles.
Partnering the experienced Daley Blind in defence is the young and strong Matthijs de Ligt who has already made a name for himself at 19 and is being touted as the next big thing in world football. The fullbacks in the Ajax system adhere to the common trend in the modern era to push high in order to stretch the field of pay and offer offensive overload whereas the wide attacking midfielders Ziyech, Neres and Tadic often drift inside providing creativity, chances and goalscoring options while van de Beek pushes high to support either Huntelaar or Dolberg as the furthest forward.
They have a reliable young goalkeeper in Andre Onana who is also good with his feet and their defenders also adhere to the principles of total football and are quite good at carrying the ball with their feet as auxiliary midfielders in the build-up.
Total Football: Explained
Ajax press intensely and smartly often triggered by a loose touch from the opposition. And there is little doubt that the club that gave the world Total Football or Totaal Voetbal as it is known locally is now once again on the radar for the right reasons- possession some of the most exciting young talents in the world and a genius manager.
And to that end, it genuinely surprised me when so many people simply wrote Ajax off after they were drawn with Real Madrid in the Champions League Round of 16 fixtures. Sure, Real won three consecutive Champions Leagues over the course of the last three seasons but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that they have been extremely erratic, inconsistent and far from being vulnerable.
Real Madrid have slumped to shocking 1-0 and 0-3 defeats to CSKA Moscow in the group stage and have lost considerable points to mid-table clubs even in the domestic league. Florentino Perez’s arrogance in not replacing Ronaldo has exposed their flaws in the forward line and with Lopetegui’s brief spell in charge being replaced by Solari, an ageing squad and players having fallen off in the pecking order you can imagine not everything is too well at the Bernabeu.
Conquering the Champions League might seem like too grandiose a dream right now but Erik ten Hag is a methodical man who sets his team up one game at a time. And pulling off an upset against Real Madrid which not only seems possible but also probable if Ajax play their cards right, might just open the floodgates for Ajax to mark a very distinct and unique season that will be remembered for a long, long time to come and hopefully, be sustained in the long run and improved on under ten Hag’s able command.