The Bosz dossier: Amsterdam’s drama brings Dortmund delight

To say Peter Bosz is an interesting man would be an understatement. From the way he handled his own contract negotiations as a player to his religiously-compiled notes on the words and insight of Johan Cruijff and Rinus Michels and his obsessive need to re-watch games and reflect. And that’s not even getting to the über-attacking, high-octane variant of football that he preaches and practises, regardless of opponents and internal opposition.

A whirlwind week at Ajax has seen fans go from dreaming of how Bosz is going to build this team further with the young group that reached the Europa League final to rueing the toxic culture of infighting at Ajax that has seen the departure of, arguably, their most promising coach since Louis van Gaal.

In many ways, Ajax was the dream job for Peter Bosz. For the longest time, the Apeldoorner had espoused the values that underpinned the revolutionary Total Football side of the ’70’s — a pinnacle of glory that Ajax have since been trying to recreate. It is perhaps no surprise he caught the eye of Jordi Cruijff first at Maccabi Tel-Aviv in January 2016 and even spent time with his idol, Johan, right before his passing.

Barely a few months later, Ajax — reeling from losing the title on the final day and having endured a painfully dull campaign under Frank de Boer — came calling for Bosz. And yet, not everyone shared the enthusiasm some felt in Bosz’s appointment. The influential F-Side, Ajax’s ultras,  publicly stated that they were not in favour of it, given Bosz’s past was intertwined with Feyenoord. Early into his tenure, a home defeat against then-17th-placed Willem II provoked taunts of ‘Kakkerlak!’ to erupt from the more fanatic sections of the Ajax support; ‘Cockroach!’, their go-to insult for individuals associated with Feyenoord.

Bosz was drawing criticism, and De Telegraaf published reports of a ‘leak’ from the Ajax dressing room who spoke of mutiny and dissatisfaction at the new playing style Bosz had brought with him. But it got worse before it got better.

The defeat to Willem II was followed by a nightmare in Russia, against Rostov. Having drawn the home game 1-1, Ajax travelled the many thousand miles in search of a win to qualify for the Champions League group stages. What ensued was a night where Ajax looked in abject loss of their identity, unable to string clinical passes together in the opposition half or control the game.

‘CRISIS BIJ AJAX’ decreed the headlines on De Telegraaf the following morning, with a picture of captain Davy Klaassen burying his head in his shirt. Bosz was apparently on the receiving end of threats, and found himself being scrutinised under a magnifying glass by the media. In fairness, that was probably his ‘real’ welcome to Ajax.

And yet, if anything, Bosz had yet to even figure out ‘his’ team to play ‘his’ football at Ajax. The team that started on that fateful night in Rostov was very much in the image of De Boer’s team. It featured the much-maligned midfield duo of Riechedly Bazoer and Nemanja Gudelj, who offered very little movement between the lines and seemed to hide from possession, and Klaassen as the attacking midfielder ahead of them, who seemed to have to cover far too much ground and could not influence play.

Having come to face a very low point very quickly into his Ajax tenure, Bosz had little to lose and started experimenting with the starting XI, to see who fit his requirements as opposed to who was the more ‘established’ in the squad. After the game against Rostov, he brought back Kasper Dolberg and pushed Bertrand Traoré to the right. Kenny Tete was dropped and centreback Joel Veltman, who was more intelligent on the ball, was made to play rightback. Davinson Sanchez, the young defender who had just arrived fresh off the back of a Copa Libertadores win, was drafted in to play centreback with a newfound unlikely hero in Nick Viergever.

The arrival of Ziyech bolstered Bosz’s squad and put the boss under short-sighted criticism once again for choosing to play the talented Moroccan out on the wing, given he prefers the No.10 role. Only a handful of games later, it all clicked for Ajax and Bosz. Facing Willem II once again, but this time in the Cup, Bosz played Ziyech in midfield for the first time, and used evergreen Dane Lasse Schöne as his ‘libero’ in the No.6 role. Schöne turned out to be the final piece in the midfield jigsaw. Quite literally a jigsaw, since the deficiencies of one player would be made up for by another. Klaassen’s tireless running complemented Ziyech’s ability to pick out space, and Schöne provided them the ball in key areas, when he received it from the defence.

The unexpected cherry on top of Bosz’s curation of his Ajax side was the revelation that attacking midfielder Daley Sinkgraven turned out to be at left back. A strange, unconventional move, but very representative of the fact that for Bosz, the team’s needs surmount anything else, and that in his pressing system, there is a certain flexibility of roles as long as they maintain the team shape.

The 2016-17 season for Ajax ended with a second place league finish and no trophies, just like the summer before, but the zeitgeist was diametrically different. Ajax had looked exciting, entertaining and had made a resurgence in the continent, along with the emergence of very promising young players. For many Ajax fans, last season was the most they enjoyed in a long long time. There was a feeling of the club waking up from a long dormancy, and regaining its sense of identity, values and individuality. This metamorphosis of Ajax by Bosz has been a process in many steps, but the final fruit of their labour — such as the home game vs Lyon or Feyenoord — has provided great joy.

Ironing out the mistakes came as a product of reflection, and Bosz’s management is informed by his meticulous mind; he is almost addicted to football. Right from his days as a player at Vitesse, when he bought an Ajax season ticket just to be able to watch the football they played, til this day, his style of management has been founded on a core of obsessive observation of football.

Since his days as Heracles coach, Bosz has talked in interviews about his ‘ritual’: his first viewing of the game is during the 90 minutes itself, which he considers his first opportunity for reflection. Then, when he heads home, Bosz finds it difficult to sleep after a match and spends the night re-watching the game on TV. He gets his third viewing of the match the morning after, in his office.

As he detailed to Algemeen Dagblad in 2015, while he was Vitesse coach, “The next morning I drive to the club. As the players roll in and go out to warm up, I watch (the game) for the third time, now via my laptop on a big projector screen, with a pen and paper at hand. Then, I really get into it: Freeze, take notes, rewind, forward again, and so on.”

It doesn’t stop there of course, as he watches it again for a fourth time, this time joined by his assistants. They discuss and confer and then finally, provide the players with individualised feedback. “Exhausting? I love it!”, Bosz quipped.

The first word that springs to mind when thinking of his ideology is ‘idealistic’. He summarises his style as such: “Our game requires a lot of short, intense sprints. It is constantly chasing, what we do. We want to regain ball possession within five seconds of losing it. And this is how we train. Every day. Opponents train and play differently, and they are used to working in larger spaces, so we must force them to participate in our game of tight spaces and short sprints. We force them right until they crack.”

It is interesting that before Ajax executed this in many games in 2016-17, one of the best examples was actually Peter Bosz’s Vitesse thrashing Ajax 4-0 at the Amsterdam ArenA in 2014; forcing Ajax into surrendering possession and making mistakes, moving the ball around with high intensity and purpose.

By the end of the season, all the players in the squad had bought into Bosz’s style of training and play. He got rid of traditional warm-ups (which Cruijff was never a fan of either) and his sessions revolve wholly around small-sided games which augment the need for players to keep up their stamina, but also strike two birds with one stone, in marrying that fitness with a game scenario, so the players are forced to think as well.

The other aspect of Bosz’s style is that he expects all 11 of his players to put in their maximal effort, because he is well aware that if one cog fails, the high-pressing machine falls apart and there is space for the opposition to capitalise on. This has been imbued into the players so much so that the impact of injuries (in a relatively thin senior squad too) has been minimised.

Bosz’s ultimate source of inspiration is a video of clips from the 1974 World Cup, where the hippy-haired long-limbed Dutch side would pin the opponent back and squeeze the opposition through pressing like a tiger tightening its vice grip around the neck of a prey.

In December 2016, he played the video to his Ajax players. By then, six months into the Bosz project, the team were starting to really embrace the high-pressure high-tempo style.

“Look, I know that you can’t play football precisely like this anymore.”, he told Algemeen Dagblad, about the video. “Opponents are faster, the offside rule has been modified. But I still wanted to show  that video, to emphasise that pressing only works if you really do it all together, with each other. At one hundred percent.”

The flipside of this is that Bosz can come across as being too harsh or too cold to some of his players. He is outspoken about it himself, remarking that if a player does not fulfil his expectations and obligations in the team, then as a manager, Bosz has no use for him. Rochdi Achenteh, who played under him at Vitesse, spoke out publicly about how difficult it could be to be around him, because all Bosz thought about was football and Achenteh recognised that sometimes players just need pats on their backs instead of constant assessment of effort.

Naturally, the main criticism against him — which played out on the big stage in the Europa League final — was that of naïveté. In Jose Mourinho, Bosz faced perhaps, the anti-thesis of his preferred brand of football — the ultimate pragmatist, the free-spending cynic, the pantomime villain. The worst thing about the final was that it was plainly, painfully obvious how Manchester United were going to play, and it felt like a joke that everyone was in on, except Bosz.

There are a few arguments to this issue, one of which is that Peter Bosz’s tactical stubbornness made it predictable for United and he ‘lacked a Plan B’. Hence, it might be the case that it would not be awfully long before his Dortmund side get ‘found out’ and stifled. It is paramount to recognise that Bosz’s Plan A, when executed well is sensational and reminiscent of a discount version of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. However, the issue is that the line between success and failure in executing his Plan A is pretty thin; the same qualities that make his side stand out on a good day are pretty much exactly the qualities that could be exploited as weaknesses on a bad day. This requires a significant level of individual agency and decision-making ability from the players as well, which is not always easily accounted for.

But also, beyond Bosz’s ineptitude, the fact that Ajax’s squad simply did not have the means to break down a defensive unit as tight as United. And that is attributed to the financial situation, in which star-studded United exist in an entirely different galaxy to Ajax. With Dortmund, he is likely to have the backing of a club that is more capable of providing him a squad with both quality and depth. If he can get Dortmund playing the same kind of football as he managed to achieve with Ajax, they will soon be challenging Bayern for the Bundesliga title and may even come back stronger in Europe.

Bosz was always quietly confident of his own desire and ability to manage at the very top in football: “I have never made it a secret that I want to train a top club. I used to play in a top team at Feyenoord. I even reached the Dutch team. But I never saw myself as a true top player, I just was not good enough for that. But as a trainer, I hope to get that absolute top.”

In around 17 years of management, Peter Bosz is yet to lift a team trophy and that remains a blemish on his record.Beyond the rhetoric and the beautiful football, Bosz now needs to start adding silverware, especially if he hopes to stay at the top.

That a trophy eluded him this season was unfortunate, given the way he has absolutely transformed a dull team playing stale safe possession-oriented football into a vibrant one that operates at high-tempo and encourages individual action in the opposition half (although Ziyech could lay off the long-range shooting a tad).

Borussia Dortmund may not be the ‘absolute’ top just yet, but they are definitely a big club, with bigger resources and a side full of young talent that Peter Bosz will not be afraid to develop and impose his attacking style of football with. He gets the Bundesliga’s top scorer in Aubameyang, and arguably the best young player in the Bundesliga, in Ousmane Dembele. That’s before we get to Julian Weigl, who is sure to become one of the mainstays in Bosz’s midfield, if not the very nucleus of it. There’s still Felix Passlack and Emre Mor and Christian Pulisic and Dan-Axel Zagado.

Who knows, Peter Bosz may even finally pick up a trophy.

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