What Man United can learn from the reawakening of another European football giant


OF ALL the big European clubs, Ajax have had one of the more interesting trajectories in recent years.

Steeped in the history of the game, Wednesday’s win over Heerenveen saw them claim a 36th Eredivisie title since they were established back in 1900.

Their golden period remains the early 1970s when a Johan Cruyff-inspired side secured a remarkable three successive European Cups.

The mid-1990s, however, is a close second in terms of what they achieved.

In addition to four league titles in five years, Louis van Gaal guided a team that largely comprised of exciting youngsters to back-to-back Champions League finals, triumphing in 1995, as a late Patrick Kluivert goal sealed a memorable 1-0 victory over a far more experienced Milan outfit.

Yet Kluivert and many more of the stars of that great Ajax side were subsequently snapped up by other, richer European clubs and the Dutch champions struggled to cope in their absence.

Within a couple of years, almost their entire Champions League squad along with Van Gaal, one of the most successful and innovative coaches of that era, had departed.

The situation was made worse due to the fact that many of those who had been instrumental in their success left for little to no fee owing to the recent introduction of the Bosman ruling, which dictated that players could leave a club for free at the end of their contracts.

Not only did they never get close to having the same impact in Europe, but between 1999 and 2010, Ajax won the title just twice in 12 attempts. By contrast, their biggest rivals, PSV, were champions seven times during this period, with Feyenoord, Twente and AZ also winning a title apiece.

So what went wrong?

Journalist Karan Tejewani has a new book out, ‘Glorious Reinvention: The Rebirth of Ajax Amsterdam.’ It focuses mainly on how the club have fared in the 21st century, as they experienced a relatively fallow period before a rejuvenation in the 2010s and beyond, which ultimately saw them come close to emulating their 1995 triumph.

“It was a combination of factors for Ajax that caused their downfall,” Tejwani tells The42. “They won the Champions League in ’95 and reached the final in ’96. But immediately after, the club went public, so they were allowing [outside] investors and the funds they got from that were wasted.  

“They weren’t spent adequately on improving the club or improving the team. It was based on [trying to take advantage of] foreign opportunities that were really mishandled.”

These problems behind the scenes, coupled with the loss of so many talented players, paved the way for the wilderness years.

Between 1996 after getting to the final and 2016, Ajax made the knockout stages of the Champions League just twice — reaching the quarter-finals in 2003 and the round of 16 in 2006.

Failure to even qualify for the group stages of the competition became a frequent occurrence and a decent run in the Uefa Cup/Europa League invariably looked like the best they could hope for.


Source: AFC Ajax/YouTube

Increasingly, they were struggling to cope with the financial might of teams in Italy, Spain and England in particular. 

“Whereas clubs within Europe’s big five leagues were creating opportunities abroad and forming partnerships, Ajax weren’t able to do that,” explains Tejwani. “So that became a big problem for them. And that’s where they were sort of left behind in wider European football.”

It was in the next decade that Ajax’s fortunes began to change for the better and intriguingly, it was an illustrious figure from their past who instigated this transitional phase that has become known as the ‘Velvet Revolution’.

“The first major turning point came in 2010 when Johan Cruyff made the call for change,” recalls Tejwani. “He used to write a column for a local newspaper called De Telegraaf, on wider Dutch football and Ajax. One day after a 2-0 loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League, he said that the club needed a wider change because they were struggling in European football, so he called for former players to come back and help. He called for Ajax itself to stop wasting money on transfers and start investing in their own academy, which was the traditional Ajax way, and to start playing football in an Ajax sense.

“Martin Jol, the former Tottenham and Fulham manager, played in a more pragmatic way and [Cruyff] wanted Ajax to play in the opposite direction and play more attacking football.

“So that was in November 2010, and there was a sort of snowball effect where people started responding to him and Ajax fans got on board because obviously, Cruyff is the biggest Ajax figure in history.

“People like Marc Overmars and Edwin van der Sar all came back to Ajax and they had an impact on the club.

“They had a few struggles, wasted a bit of money here and there. They were trying out things that they weren’t trying out before, and it was mostly working out.

“[Cruyff] asked for a lot of things, and a lot of requests weren’t met, but they did retain several of the core values he asked for Ajax to have — focusing on the academy and not spending too much on players from other leagues and other clubs.”


Edwin van der Sar has become a key figure at Ajax.


Source: Alamy Stock Photo

This idea of giving legendary former players a prominent role in the running of the club is often cited as significant. But what was it that the likes of Overmars and Van der Sar actually did?

“It was quite important for them because the main understanding for Cruyff was that he wanted to have these players back because they understood the true value of Ajax and the true value of representing Ajax.

“And a lot of these players that came back were part of successful teams, mainly the 1995 Champions League-winning team.

“There were people there like Dennis Bergkamp, Frank de Boer was the head coach [between 2010 and 2016], Wim Jonk was involved from a strategic capacity. But the two main figures are Van der Sar and Overmars.

“Van der Sar was the marketing director [initially]. And he did quite a good job in securing sponsorships from foreign companies and also improving their main sponsorship so the club got more revenue because, in the Netherlands, TV revenue isn’t as significant as it is compared to other leagues. He did such a good job that he ended up becoming the club’s CEO in 2016.

“Marc Overmars was quite similar. He joined as Director of Football in 2012. He already had previous experience in business having run a business as a player, and having been the Director of Football at Go Ahead Eagles, which is a [smaller] Dutch club in the Eredivisie. So he had a bit of experience there and did a very good job between 2012 and 2022 when he had to leave because of the allegations against him.

“But in that time, he ran Ajax in a sort of frugal way and they started to make up the money [that had been lost]. And when they had enough money to spend, they were one of the healthiest clubs in European football. And they were able to break their transfer ceiling and their wage ceiling, so they could spend more on players like Dusan Tadic, Daley Blind, and even now Sébastien Haller. So it’s because of the trial and error and a bit of stinginess at the start that they are able to spend so much right now. And it’s a policy that has worked for many years.”

Of course, one of the more obvious improvements the club made was in recruitment, with smart acquisitions both in terms of players and coaches.

The subsequent results speak for themselves. Since 2011, Ajax have won the league on seven occasions (and it would likely be eight had it not been for the fact that no trophies were awarded in the 2019-20 campaign after the season was cancelled during the pandemic). Their European form has also improved significantly, notably reaching the Europa League final in 2018 and the Champions League semi-final in 2019.

But reading the passages about their previous fallow period, it is tempting to draw parallels between Ajax and the current situation at Man United.

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Ajax coach Erik ten Hag and players celebrate after winning the league title.


Source: Alamy Stock Photo

As with the Red Devils, there was a widespread feeling that the Dutch giants had prioritised business interests over footballing ones. They were too focused on short-term results, with the academy suffering as a consequence and fewer talented players coming through. Behind the scenes as well, the club was marred by in-fighting and ineptitude.

Perhaps one of the lessons that Man United and others can take from Ajax’s rejuvenation is that it is naive to assume one figure can drastically change a struggling club’s fortunes, rather a deeper change in philosophy and structure is required?

“Even before Erik ten Hag and Peter Bosch, they had some good managers in, but they didn’t really have the success to back it up purely because the structure wasn’t there,” says Tejwani. “They weren’t a football-centric club for a long period of time in the early 2000s. And the evidence of that was there. They had one of the strongest teams, and they were spending quite heavily. People like Klaas-Jan Huntelaar were signed for big fees. And they were scoring lots of goals. But they weren’t able to win things purely because the structure wasn’t in place for them to succeed.

“So it’s not just about the personnel, it’s about the wider football structure that you need to become a proper football club, which several teams across Europe right now lack — clubs like Man United, Barcelona, even Juventus you could say — they were lacking true football minds.”

Yet while one figure cannot take all the credit for transforming a club’s fortunes, it helps to have one of Europe’s top coaches on the books, and the Dutch outfit certainly had that in Erik ten Hag.

“Even before he joined Ajax, he was largely considered the crown prince of Dutch football coaching. And that’s because of the work he did at Utrecht and Go Ahead Eagles and at Bayern Munich when he was working there as the manager of the second team.

“If you think of Dutch coaching, there is a bit of a gap just like Ajax in the 2000s, where the Netherlands weren’t able to produce good coaches for a very long time. But Ten Hag breaks that mould and has been seen as the next big thing for the last decade or so.

“That mainly came from getting a promotion with Go Ahead Eagles, a second division team. And his work at Utrecht, who are sort of a mid-level team, like Leicester you could say, who were pushing the top teams in the Netherlands and they almost qualified for the Champions League at one point.

“So his reputation mostly came from there. And every person I spoke to for the book said he has a good human touch. He may not be the warmest person. But he has a decent enough understanding of human emotion. And from a tactical standpoint, he is quite, quite revered.”

glorious

Like Man United now, the Ajax team Ten Hag inherited had plenty of potential having reached the Europa League final just six months previously. Nonetheless, a bad atmosphere permeated the club at the time of his appointment.

“When he joined, Ajax were out of European football altogether [early] for the first time since 1966. They hadn’t even played a group stage campaign in either the Champions League or the Europa League.

“And just a couple of months before that, there was the tragedy with Abdelhak Nouri, who suffered a heart attack on the pitch.

“So the general mood around the club was quite low. And when Ten Hag joined, Ajax were struggling in the league as well — they were second, but it was evident, they were worse off than [other] teams who were fighting for the league title.

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“In the start, he lost [the title] to PSV. But when he got his full transfer window in the summer of 2018, and his first full preseason with them, he was able to pick it up.”

A memorable 2018-19 season followed, where Ajax claimed a rare league and cup double, but even this achievement was overshadowed by an astonishing Champions League run. They initially had to navigate three qualifying rounds simply to get to the group stage and proceeded to set the competition alight, dumping out Juventus and Real Madrid in the knockout stages with an exciting brand of football, before an agonising last-gasp semi-final defeat to Tottenham, when they were seconds away from going through before a Lucas Moura goal silenced the majority of fans at the Johan Cruyff Arena.

Explaining the landmark campaign, Tejwani says: “They changed their wage policy in the previous summer. In terms of transfers, they were able to spend more. So people like Daley Blind and Dusan Tadic came into the club, and they were paid a significantly higher wage than Ajax players were paid before.

“The ceiling was to pay a million euros a season to a player, but that was broken, massively, with Tadic. So that was one of the main factors — the more you spend, the more likely you are to win.

“Secondly, there was the tactical acumen of Ten Hag, who had a different system for European football compared to Dutch football. When he played in the Netherlands, he played 4-3-3. But in Europe, he played with a 4-2-3-1, and that required Tadic to play as a number nine, with Hakim Ziyech and David Neres on the wings and Donny van de Beek playing in the number 10 position.

“And thirdly, there was a good squad there and a good team to build on. The core of the squad was André Onana, Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Ziyech, and Tadic eventually. So those four or five players were constant players in those teams, and they were there right from the start.

“So building on that core was quite important. But there was a general feeling around Amsterdam and Ajax as well that this team could finally do well and achieve something in the Champions League after so many years of disappointment.

“Nobody expected the semi-finals. For them, the round of 16 was good enough. But once they beat Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, and the way they did it as well, there was a feeling that they could go a very long way. I think the semi-finals was as good an achievement [coming from] Dutch domestic football as it can be in this modern day.”

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Some players such as Donny van de Beek have struggled to maintain the heights they reached at Ajax.


Source: Alamy Stock Photo

There is a feeling in some quarters that this unforgettable incarnation of Ajax was greater than the sum of its parts. Tadic and Blind, while being good players, had hardly set the Premier League alight amid previous stints at Southampton and Man United respectively.

In addition, younger players like Van de Beek, De Ligt and De Jong have since struggled to maintain the remarkably high standards they had set previously.

“There are two ways to look at it,” says Tejwani. “There’s often a feeling that these players can’t do what they did at Ajax outside of Ajax. But I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. Because they achieved so much, it’s easy to forget that they’re still so young. De Ligt was 19 years old when he made a €75 million transfer, that’s a pretty big deal for any 19 year old. Similarly, Frenkie de Jong was 22 when he moved. Donny van de Beek was 23.

“So it’s not easy for young players like them to adapt to foreign leagues so quickly. Especially with the pressure of the price tag and the pressure of the media that comes in. 

“And they are still talented players. With Van de Beek, it’s a case of him not getting enough opportunities. I think De Ligt and De Jong have improved over the last year. De Jong has had four different coaches at Barcelona. And the same for De Ligt as well.”

Perhaps the biggest loss of all though is Ten Hag, who is set to take over at Man United following the end of the current season.

Restoring the Red Devils to their past greatness would be arguably an even bigger achievement than anything he managed at Ajax, but whether the highly-rated coach can do it is another matter.

“There was already a good enough football structure at Ajax when he joined, even though they were struggling. About six months or so before, they played in the Europa League final against Man United. And they had one of the brightest young teams in Europe, and they had a bright enough team to grow with — people like Onana, De Ligt, De Jong, Ziyech, they were already there. And they just needed to find the right manager to take them forward. 

“And there are a good few players at United that can take the team forward. But there needs to be more work done there than at Ajax. United are a club who are struggling, there’s an even worse mood there because the last few years have been so negative for them.

“One of the main reasons he was hired is because he has a good reputation [with young players] and he constantly gave academy players a chance. If you watch Ajax academy games, Ten Hag is often at the stadium itself or at the training and keeping an eye on how things are going there. So he has a good record with it and I’m sure he can work well at United as well in that regard.”


Source: MH10 Show/YouTube

And as for Ajax? In many ways, they face a similar challenge to that which they experienced after the mid-1990s, with European success prompting a mass exodus of talent. Will they handle the circumstances better this time around?

“I don’t think it’ll be as bad as the 2000s. But I think it will be more difficult than it’s been for a long time, purely because they have not just lost Erik ten Hag, they have lost their sporting director in Marc Overmars.

“And there are going to be lots of players going out like Ryan Gravenberch, Noussair Mazraoui, André Onana, they’re going to leave for sure. So there are going to be a lot of new faces coming in, and that’s going to be quite challenging for them to handle.

“But at the same time, at least in the Netherlands, their nearest rivals are PSV, who are going through a bit of a transition themselves. They’re going to lose Roger Schmidt. Ruud van Nistelrooy is coming in to take over as head coach. So there are clubs around them that are going through changes as well.

“I am not optimistic about them doing well in the Champions League — that’s up to fate, we’ll see how it goes. But in terms of domestic football, I think they’ll do quite well for the next two years at least.”

Glorious Reinvention: The Rebirth of Ajax Amsterdam by Karan Tejwani is published by Pitch Publishing. More info here.





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