Eredivisie Preview: AFC Ajax – 5 on the trot?
Just a tad more than 3 months ago, Frank de Boer did what no other Ajax trainer in history had done – not van Gaal, not Cruijff, not Michels.
He led the Amsterdam club to their 4th consecutive title under his charge, in only 3 and a half years.
The season just gone by was definitely the most impressive of de Boer’s 3 and a half seasons so far – losing the primary proponent of creativity, Christian Eriksen as the one big player Ajax are definitely destined to lose every summer and Toby Alderweireld to the vortex of the transfer market that circles over the Eredivisie every summer, like a vulture soaring menacingly over a flock of prey, waiting to swoop down on the choicest of meat.
It did not get easier for the Godenzonen, losing then-captain and talisman Siem de Jong for more than 80% of the season, striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, Viktor Fischer as well as the man without whom no injury list is ever complete, Nicolai Boilesen to injury.
However, the white-red-white machine persisted – perhaps not the juggernaut one would imagine, but a smooth speed-train, going about its job quietly, efficiently and eventually reached its destination safely, despite a few delays here and there. Despite that, this season could prove to be even more impressive for the ex-Dutch captain in a bid to further press his name into the history books and win 5 Eredivisie titles on the haul.
This summer has seen the inevitable one key player depart from Amsterdam, coming in the form of Siem de Jong – whose move away from Ajax was preempted by his manager as far back as January . However, Ajax should find his loss much easier to recover from compared to Eriksen’s, given de Jong was effectively out injured for almost the entirety of last season. This means Ajax are already used to playing – and indeed, winning – without their clutch-DNA cynosure, as well as the fact that Davy Klaassen is already well suited to his role in midfield and sufficiently integrated to take up more responsibility as a leader in the team this season.
Moreover, the club have – so far – been able to retain the services of newly-appointed captain Niklas Moisander, who was the other player de Boer expected to leave, back in January. Ajax were not prolific scorers in the Eredivisie but they did have the best defensive record in the league, proving the adage ‘Strikers win games; defenders win championships’ quite true. 28-yr-old Moisander was a key cog in that defence – but of course at Ajax, defenders are not merely defenders. The Finn who did arrive in The Netherlands initially as a youngster looking to play for Ajax, has formed a good understanding with Joel Veltman and both being capable ball-playing defenders, provide creativity from deep.
Most importantly perhaps, is that Ajax have been unusually effective in the transfer window – or so it seems -, achieving the targets they sought and doing it with extreme swiftness. Having already wrapped up yet another young revelation from Groningen Richairo Zivkovic before the end of last season, Ajax brought in 20-yr-old striker Arkadiusz Milik on loan from Bayer Leverkusen with an option to buy, to further strengthen their striking department – one that has provided most cause for concern. In addition, Nick Viergever was brought in from AZ early in the summer. Seen as a Moisander replacement initially, the centreback has now been made a No. 6 controller by Frank de Boer and should serve as a worthy deputy this season in a host of positions, though he is currently injured.
The Johan Cruijff schaal did not portray a very good picture for the defending Eredivisie champions, losing out to PEC Zwolle, yet again. The game was definitely affected by the early injury to debutant Nick Viergever, whereby de Boer – lacking another defensive midfielder on his bench – had to resort to using an attacking midfielder as a No. 6, and perhaps more worryingly, chose to go with 175cm-short Thulani Serero, who has the engine but neither the strength nor aerial ability to fulfill the requirements.
Perhaps this can be negated by the fact that Daley Blind will soon be back for the team, as well as first-choice goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen and centreback Joel Veltman, but Ajax were not immensely tested in this regard vs Zwolle. They just looked toothless in attack. Lucas Andersen impressed as one of the two attacking midfielders but Ricardo Kishna and the other debutant Arek Milik had disappointing outings, where they failed to impress. Lasse Schone was not as influential as he was in crucial games last season and Ajax fans will be praying that he does not turn out to be a one-season wonder.
The weaknesses are evident and after PEC’s recent record against the team from Amsterdam, more teams will be looking to target these key areas, such as high pressing the 2 centrebacks and the No. 6. Sooner or later, Frank de Boer has to start learning to be tactically flexible and making changes that will definitely put the opposition off their game as opposed to throwing on any player and hoping he will be another Jairo Riedewald. Ajax are still one of the few teams that prize playing football ‘their way’ over results, but there has to be a point where one realises that the philosophy stagnates when it does not see great success, which are ultimately dependent on results. De Boer has to – and definitely can – formulate Plans B and C and so on such that the Ajax philosophy is not compromised but they do not make it too easy for teams to figure them out.
This Ajax squad, is perhaps the first ‘Frank de Boer’ squad, lacking the likes of Eriksen, Vertonghen, and de Jong. Only Kenneth Vermeer and Daley Blind out of the current crop did not receive their Ajax debuts under de Boer – but even Blind only blossomed into a regular starter under de Boer, so this squad is pretty much entirely the ex-Barcelona player’s. It is also, however, arguably better than last season’s squad, though younger with an average age of only 22,1 years. Milik impressed in pre-season but it will be interesting to see if he can take equally well to the Eredivisie. In addition, Ricardo Kishna has increased pressure on him now to step up. He showed encouraging signs last season, but with Fischer’s injury, he is the first choice left winger now and the onus is on him to perform and walk the talk.
Though Ajax would still do well with perhaps one more defensive midfielder in their ranks, if they can retain Blind and hasten Viergever’s recovery, and perhaps offer a step-up for the promising Riechedly Bazoer, they could just make the grade.
There is always pressure to win again when you are the defending champions. Being 4-time defending champions just increases that pressure multi-fold and even with sufficient talent within their ranks, this season will be nothing short of a test for de Boer to prove that even if he doesn’t have the golden dick his inspiration, van Gaal is said to have, he does have a golden touch.
Player to Watch – Davy Klaassen
Just missing out on the Dutch squad for the World Cup capped off an otherwise brilliant season for the young attacking midfielder. More in the Siem de Jong-mould – even being able to play second striker/false 9 as he has done for the Netherlands U21 team – than say, a Wesley Sneijder, Klaassen forced his way through into the Ajax starting XI last season and has never looked like losing his place to challengers in Lerin Duarte or even Siem de Jong, when he was fit. His eye for goal has been phenomenal, scoring on his debut a season or two back and ending the season as Ajax’s joint-top-scorer last season, with a spectacular hattrick vs NAC Breda – a van Basten-esque volley and a Bergkamp-esque goal included.
However, having taken up the prized #10 shirt – previously worn by a host of top attacking midfielders – and all fan favorites – such as Litmanen, van der Vaart, Sneijder and de Jong, there is increased pressure on Klaassen to deliver more on the creative side, also being one of the senior players in the squad now. An attacking midfield of a Dutchman and a Dane recently delivered league titles to Amsterdam, and (if Andersen can cement his starting place), it could well be the case again this season.
Klaassen is a player that de Boer trusts and has a lot of faith in and if he ups the ante this season, it could just make the difference for Ajax in achieving their 5th title in a row.
BeNeFoot prediction: 1st place