En dat is 32: Ajax make it three in a row but must keep going forward
It was a joyous occasion. The Ajax players celebrated their third successive title victory in typical fashion by throwing their coach into the team bath. Frank de Boer didn’t mind though. He laughed and held the trophy up over his head and screamed with pure joy. It was his moment in the spotlight, but it was only a moment. He quickly receded back into the shade to let his players celebrate another successful season. “It’s really not my title,” De Boer told reporters. “I prefer to enjoy a championship in a corner and silently watch the players go crazy. They have done a fantastic job.” They really have. After last season’s Eredivisie win, De Boer saw several key players depart the team for big money, but none of those players were replaced like-for-like in terms of quality. Despite that, though, De Boer’s standards and expectations of his team were exactly the same. Winning the league was a must, as were some strong performances in Europe.
Overall, the team delivered. A stuttering first-half of the season was followed by a remarkable second which saw them march to the title ahead of a free scoring PSV, a highly potent Vitesse complete with goal machine Wilfried Bony, and an exciting young Feyenoord side looking to build on last season’s second place finish. In Europe, the team were drawn alongside the reigning champions of Germany, England and Spain, yet they managed to completely dismantle one of those teams and book a place in the Europa League.
They were quickly eliminated from that competition by Steaua Bucharest, but following the defeat Ajax stormed ahead in their domestic league and ended it all with Sunday’s 5-0 victory over Willem II to clinch another league title and subsequently ensure the visitors were relegated.
Elated to have won a third successive championship with Ajax, De Boer revealed that he had received a message from Louis van Gaal to say “welcome to the beautiful list”, congratulating him on becoming only third man after Rinus Michels and the current Netherlands coach to win three straight titles with the Amsterdam club. And what a beautiful list it is.
De Boer deserves to be named alongside such great former Ajax coaches as Johan Cruyff, Michels and Van Gaal. Each of the aforementioned footballing icons have achieved wonderful things as coaches and have had an everlasting impact on world football in general. While De Boer had a remarkably illustrious career as a player, his future as a coach looks set to be filled with just as many accolades, if not more.
Many see him as the next Barcelona coach, and rightly so. As a former player of the Catalan powerhouse and a disciple of the Total Football philosophy, which the club has been influenced by so heavily, he fits the criteria of a Barca boss perfectly.
He is constantly linked to other coaching jobs. Liverpool came knocking following the departure of Kenny Dalglish and he quickly turned them down. He has also been named as a top priority of Manchester City should the club decide to dispose of current boss Roberto Mancini.
For now, though, De Boer is the Ajax coach and he looks set to remain in that position for some time. Reports have emerged that the former Netherlands captain will renew his contract for another three years, which is great news for the club and for the Eredivisie in general.
The Amsterdam giants have made huge steps forward under De Boer and through the Velvet Revolution of Cruyff, and it seems the focus remains on building on the current success and moving further forward.
In fact, De Boer and his assistant Dennis Bergkamp as well as technical director Marc Overmars didn’t spend too much time celebrating yesterday’s success, each quick to point out that they need to keep progressing, insisting there is more to come from this team over the next few years.
“We want to move forward in Europe and play attractive football,” the coach told reporters after the game. “If we succeed in this, I’m convinced we can achieve something.”
Bergkamp reiterated his former Netherlands teammate’s words: “We must make the step to the knockout stages of the Champions League.”
While Overmars insisted a European final could be within reach in the near future, conceding that “it’s now more difficult than it was a decade ago, but it is possible.”
The optimism and excitement of those in charge has spread to some parts of the playing staff, too. Centre-back Niklas Moisander has insisted that advancing beyond the group stages of Europe’s most prestigious club competition is the goal for next season and feels they have a good chance of reaching it.
“We can be champions again next season and really perform well in the Champions League,” said the former AZ player, before revealing he intends to try to persuade Toby Alderweireld, Christian Eriksen and Siem de Jong all to stay for another year. “Siem, Toby and Chris have become champions three times here. I think they now have the ability to play in a top league, but I’m going to talk to them tonight to convince them to stay here.”
The trio of stars have been crucial to Ajax’s success over the last three years, but even if they do depart this summer, it doesn’t mean the team’s hopes of progressing in the Champions League will come to an end. The beauty of this system under De Boer is that it isn’t reliant on individuals. Last summer, De Boer lost an entire starting XI of players. Jan Vertonghen, Theo Janssen, Vurnon Anita and Gregory van der Wiel were all integral members of the championship winning side of 2011-12, but were all gone by the end of the transfer window last August. Regardless, the team continued to progress, despite spending just a fraction of the money raised through the sale of those key players.
De Boer’s belief in, and adherence to, the Ajax philosophy as well as his impressive tactical knowledge has brought them a lot of success over his two and a half years in charge since he took over from Martin Jol in December 2010.
Whereas other coaches would have looked to spend big money on replacements for the outgoing stars like Vertonghen, Van der Wiel, Anita and Janssen, De Boer looked to promote from within or else bring in a player on a free transfer and train them into a player fitting of the Ajax system. Moisander, Tobias Sana and Lucas Andersen were the only transfers Ajax paid for in the summer, while Christian Poulsen, Ryan Babel and Lasse Schone all joined for free and Joel Veltman and Viktor Fischer moved up from the youth system. Ricardo van Rhijn stepped into the side via the youth academy in the second-half of last season and showed he was the perfect man to replace Van der Wiel at right-back and duly kept his place in the team once the transfer to PSG went through.
It is this perseverance, belief, and philosophy that makes De Boer perfect for the club as they look to recover from years of reckless spending and financial mismanagement. His logic is simple: no individual is bigger than the system. Individual stars can come and go, but the entire Ajax system will remain the same and cover for the loss of a player, no matter how talented they are.
This summer, that belief will need to deliver once again if the team really are to progress further in Europe. Eriksen, De Jong and Alderweireld are very likely to depart this year and replacements have already been identified. De Boer has revealed that he would like to sign Adam Maher from AZ. The 19-year-old is seen as the perfect replacement for Eriksen and has said many times that he likes Ajax’s style of play and has on many occasions repeated the fact that he lives in Amsterdam. It is believed the player could cost €7-8million, which is a steal. If De Jong leaves, it is believed the capital club will chase after 20-year-old dynamic Vitesse midfielder Marco van Ginkel. These two additions would be rather expensive in Ajax terms, but would slot right into the team with no fuss. Capable of playing fast paced, attacking football, they are both very hard working young players who, after a few years, can be sold on for a profit. It is believed that with such additions, Ajax will be able to pick up from where they’ve left off this summer and build on this season’s performances in the Champions League. Should Alderweireld leave, it is expected that Veltman is the man to replace him after years of service in De Toekomst. The centre-back has started two league matches this season and made five substitute appearances, and has always looked capable in the heart of the backline.
An important detail for Ajax is the fitness of their striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. Injury kept the Iceland international out for a significant part of the campaign and he only made it back in time to play in the final 14 games of the season, in which he has scored five goals. The striker was absent for all of Ajax’s Champions League matches and without him they have no designated number nine, meaning they resorted to using either midfielders Eriksen or De Jong in the centre forward role. If they can get Sigthorsson over his injury problems, they will have a reliable and consistent striker who boosts the attacking potency of the squad.
Other than the likes of Alderweireld, De Jong and Eriksen leaving this summer, De Boer doesn’t need to worry about losing many first-team players in the coming transfer window. Daley Blind and Viktor Fischer are two valuable players who recently signed new contracts to ensure they will remain with the club for the next few years. The former is an intriguing story of a left-back who has gone from being hated by his team’s own fans to one celebrated by them as “a real Ajax man” and he was even awarded this club’s Player of the Year award this season and made his Netherlands debut, too. Fischer, voted Young Player of the Year, is a fresh talent who also signed a new contract this season. At 18-years-old he is wise beyond his years and a remarkably exciting youngster who will continue to develop under the guardianship of his coach and Bergkamp. The duo are symbols of the system: hard working young talents who never give up and, crucially, are suited to the system. The Ajax team is full of them. Davy Klaassen, Nicolai Boilesen, Veltman, Stefano Denswil, Lucas Andersen, Jody Lukoki, Fabian Sporkslede, Lesley de Sa, Mitchell Dijks and Tobias Sana all add depth to this team. All of which, apart from Andersen, Boilsesen and Sana, are home grown starlets ready to stake their claim for a place in the first-team.
With the youngsters breaking through, a reliable and productive youth system, a talented and exciting coach and a squad of impressive talents with great potential, it seems that Ajax look more likely to compete and progress in Europe than they have for a long time. If the system holds up and keeps feeding the first-team with such excellent players, there will be many more trophies for Frank de Boer and Ajax to add to the list.