Ajax: Frankie and Johnny will try to make it work
For the first time in his entire career as a manager, Frank de Boer is not starting the Eredivisie season as the reigning champion coach. Dreams of a fifth consecutive league title were drowned last season as PSV stormed their way to become champions, while Ajax feebly limped behind, finishing 17 points adrift. Their season was largely characterised by an impotence in attack and infirmity in defence; Ajax, as is typical, dominated the possession statistics of games, but were too often lacking in the final pass or finish, while the defence never appeared settled.
This summer has seen a great efflux of talented players from the Eredivisie, but Ajax have gotten off relatively lightly. Captain Niklas Moisander left to join Sampdoria in a deal that was agreed in February, while Ricardo Kishna joined Lazio for a bargain after his spat with De Boer left irreparable damage to the pair’s working relationship. Furthermore, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson has moved to Nantes on the French west coast and Richairo Zivkovic has been loaned out to Willem II to help him develop into the kind of striker Ajax want him to be.
However, on paper, Ajax seem to have strengthened adequately. The signing of AZ captain and star performer Nemanja Gudelj (and his younger brother Dragi and father Nebosja as scout) was an impressive deal, given that Gudelj could have followed ex-AZ teammate Berghuis to another country just as easily. Keen on getting an experienced ex-Ajacied back, the club initially pursued Rafael van der Vaart but after he snubbed them in favour of Real Betis, they shifted their attention to John Heitinga. The centre-back was an extremely popular figure with the Ajax faithful, having spent 18 years there as a youth player, before winning two league titles and three Dutch Cups with the first team.
While Heitinga is not expected to be a first-choice defender, he fills the ‘experienced head’ void left in the dressing room by Moisander. De Boer has also finally seen the light with regard to Nicolai Boilesen and replaced him as captain with Davy Klaassen before replacing him in the first XI with the re-signing of Mitchell Dijks, who only left Ajax a year ago on a free transfer.
Arek Milik made his move permanent over the summer, penning a long-term deal, while Ajax also acquired the talented Amin Younes from Borussia Monchengladbach and Yaya Sanogo on loan from Arsenal to add to their pre-existing attacking options.
With eagles of Man Utd still apparently circling over Jasper Cillessen’s head, to swoop in should David De Gea leave, Ajax could find themselves thrown into a sticky situation if a transfer does indeed materialise late into the window, like with Daley Blind last season. Cillessen is comfortably the league’s best keeper and despite having Barcelona-grown Andre Onana and Diederik Boer in reserve, Ajax will be weakened if their reigning Player of the Year departs.
However, with PSV and Feyenoord having relatively successful transfer windows as well, Ajax need to iron out a few wrinkles if they are to bring the Eredivisie shield back to Amsterdam. The balance in midfield remains a key issue for De Boer to mull about. With last season’s make-shift defensive midfielder Thulani Serero possibly on his way out, there is no natural defensive midfielder in Ajax’s squad. This might not necessarily be a bad thing; De Boer played a pivot of Gudelj and Bazoer in the first leg against Rapid Vienna and both players are powerhouses in central midfield but the general feeling is that both need to be more solid for this to work, while Davy Klaassen yet again takes the taxing role of covering a great deal of ground between both boxes. Daley Sinkgraven was used out wide in Austria, but is naturally a midfielder too, though he failed to protect the back line adequately in the return leg. The continued uncertainty makes this an interesting space to watch in the coming season, as De Boer tries to find his ideal three.
There are certain concerns over the defence as well. Kenny Tete looks to establish himself the club’s first choice rightback, in place of Ricardo van Rhijn, but his lack of attacking intent weakens the team’s attack.
Dijks displaces Nicolai Boilesen on the left and Jairo Riedewald looks likely to be Joel Veltman’s partner. Tete is a clean tackler and strong for his age, and Dijks is a better defender than Boilesen and is built like a tank. He is not exactly outstanding in any particular aspect, but there is a good balance to his game. It is obvious that the defence still requires a reasonable amount of work, on both their coordination and individual defending. This could yet be magnified if they lose Cillessen too, who at 26, would serve as an experienced head behind a defence with an average age of 20.5 years.
Despite having the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Luis Suarez to field up front in the last 12 years or so, under Frank de Boer, Ajax have never quite had a top-class forward. Midfielders have largely produced the bulk of goals, be it from midfield or as false 9. This season, Ajax will be hoping for more from striker Milik as well as for winger Anwar El Ghazi to improve on his impressive tally last season. The left wing spot vacated by Ricardo Kishna is still up for grabs between midfielders Daley Sinkgraven, Lasse Schöne and new buys Younes and Sanogo as well as Viktor Fischer. There is a great deal of room for rotation with the options Ajax have this season but Frank de Boer requires his attackers to actually perform and produce, to relieve the goal-scoring burden off of captain and attacking midfielder Davy Klaassen’s shoulders.
The Ajax XI that starts this season could potentially already look immensely different to the XI they finished last season with, which means Frank de Boer needs to imbue coordination and understanding between his old faithfuls and new arrivals. However, PSV have sold two of their three most important players in Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum, and lost Karim Rekik in defence, and their new players will need time to acclimate too. If Frank de Boer can get Ajax off to a decent start and fully find their feet by the winter break, the Godenzonen might just be able to snatch their crown back.
Player to Watch: Riechedly Bazoer
While Davy Klaassen is expected to have another stellar season, leading Ajax from the forefront and by example, and Anwar El Ghazi is expected to improve on his goal tally, the player whose development will be most fascinating to observe, will definitely be Riechedly Bazoer. The ex-PSV midfielder has been a well-known name for a while now in The Netherlands and has already been likened to Patrick Vieira, Clarence Seedorf and Frank Rijkaard; it is not hard to see why. He is only 18 — turning 19 in October — but has an old head on a young, strong body.
He belongs a mould of central midfielder that we have not seen in quite a while, until perhaps the rise of Paul Pogba; elegant in his play, intelligent in his passing and clean with his tackling. Without comparing relative abilities obviously, while Pogba is more attacking, Bazoer functions a little deeper and at the moment, seems to be the choice in midfield alongside Nemanja Gudelj and Klaassen. Bazoer only came into the first team in the second half of last season but already seems to be one of Frank de Boer’s first names on the team sheet, which is a great representation of his immense rise.
While he can improve on his ability to hold the ball even more as well as building a sound understanding with Gudelj, Bazoer’s main challenge this season will come in the form of consistency, as he looks to maintain his form over an entire season. But if the last few years are anything to go by, Bazoer is well capable to improve on his performances this season. His best performance last season, arguably, came at the Philips Stadion where he was antagonised to a great extent by the PSV fans, but he got one over them as he helped Ajax to victory. This season, he will hope to go one better and help Ajax to reclaim the Eredivisie title from the Einhovenaaren.
BeNeFoot Prediction: 1st