Being a football hipster is serious business with knowledge about the young starlet making waves for a mid table side in the Eredivisie a prerequisite rather than a feather in the cap. To further enhance your, perhaps, burgeoning reputation as a true hipster, Outside of the Boot is on hand to provide an in-depth guide to some of the less celebrated teams around Europe. In this edition of the series, Andrew Thompson has a look at Ajax Amsterdam.
THE PREVIOUS CAMPAIGN
There are few clubs in world football that carry the pedigree of Ajax Amsterdam. Rightfully nicknamed de Godenzonen, the capital club have taken home a staggering 33 league titles, as well as 18 Dutch Cup’s, 8 Johan Cruijff Shield’s, 4 European Cup/Champions League trophies, 1 Cup Winners’ Cup, 1 UEFA Cup and 2 UEFA Super Cups – simply put, there are very few, if any, who can boast this sort of continuous level of pedigree and dominance, with Barcelona (82) and Real Madrid (79) being the only clubs from Europe’s five strongest leagues that have a bigger total trophy haul…but recent times haven’t been so kind to the fan base.
After a record-breaking period of four Eredivisie titles in four seasons from 2010-2014 under former Ajax and Dutch icon Frank De Boer, the club has finished second in the last two seasons behind bitter rival PSV. Despite a brilliant domestic campaign that saw them beaten only twice while netting 81 times and surrendering only 21 goals at the back, the race for the title came down to the final day with both sides level on 81 points. While PSV did the business against tricky outfit PEC Zwolle in a 3-1 away win, Ajax drew with 17th place De Graafschap 1-1 away from home – a near catastrophic result that would end up with De Boer handing in his resignation.
As the new season quickly approaches, new headmaster Peter Bosz is tasked with reacquiring the top domestic spot from Phillip Cocu’s troops, while making improved inroads in Europe, something that Ajax have failed to do in comparison with previous decades.
After a playing career that spanned 18-years and included time at Vitesse Arnhem, Feyenoord Rotterdam, Hansa Rostock and NAC Breda, Dutchman Peter Bosz retired in 1999 after a second-stint at Japanese side JEF United Ichihara and turned to management the following year. Beginning at his hometown club of AGOVV Apeldoorn, Bosz would move on to an unsuccessful spell at De Graafschap before a very notable time on the touchline at Heracles Almelo in which he helped the club secure promotion to the Eredivisie as well as keeping them up the following term. Three years as Technical Director at Feyenoord followed, before a return to Almelo where he guided them to an eighth-place finish as well as twelfth-place the following two seasons. But it is his body of work at Vitesse that would eventually earn him a place at the Amsterdam Arena.
During his first season in charge, Vitas found themselves top of the table come November for the first time since 2006, and would eventually go on to finish a very credible sixth. The following season saw a fifth-place finish and eventual qualification for the third round of Europa League qualifying – that same season he was in the running for the Rinus Michels Award which eventually went to Phillip Cocu. Bosz stepped down from Vitesse during this past season at the winter break after guiding the club to fifth-place. A brief stroll down to Maccabi Tel Aviv would be on the cards until Ajax came calling in May.
Bosz’s legacy with Vitesse comes via the work done with Technical Director Mohammed Allach, where a long-term plan for the youth academy was at the forefront, along with improved scouting and a brand of attacking football that would routinely get the club finishing in the European places – this impressive body of work certainly caught the attention of the Dutch giants, where they hope his long term planning capabilities and tactical preference will put Ajax back in the only place where it’s supporters feel they belong.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, as a Dutchman, Bosz’s tactical operations come via a 4-3-3. However, despite Vitesse not being at the top level yet, his preference to play possession football rather than a quick-counter system should be lauded as one of the main reasons why Vitesse have been so successful in recent seasons – their 56.2% possession was the highest in the Eredivisie last season. Immediately, this is something that falls straight into line with the Ajax approach, a side who retained possession 54.3% of the time (third in the league), and despite being very adept on the counter, they thrive on building up play in midfield via the short pass while controlling proceedings in the opposition half.
Another major highlight of Bosz’s Vitesse side was its ability to penetrate the central areas of the final third through the middle, especially using its wingers to tuck in centrally and get looks on goal – something that helped spurn on the emergence of Albanian youngster Milot Rashica, whose eight goals from the right side of the front three can be considered a very good return. With English youngster Dominic Solanke or Georgian Valeri Qazaishvili running the central channel while maintaining strong on-the-ball characteristics and a direct approach, this is an attacking system that can directly be plugged into the Ajax formula.
Ajax are certainly blessed with goal scoring ability, with Polish international center forward Arkadiusz Milik, (who just completed a move to SS Napoli), and youngsters Anwar El Ghazi and Amin Younes combining for 37 league goals last season (21 were from Milik). Ajax under De Boer preferred to attack down the flanks and either provide service for Milik, or finding the late runs into the area from Dutch international Davy Klaassen, Serbian stalwart Nemanja Gudelj or Dutch youngster Riechedly Bazoer (the three had a combined 22 goals from midfield domestically). The change that could be made is more reliance on the center forward option to create chances for the likes of El Ghazi, Younes and Klaassen to make runs off his shoulder. Milik registered seven assists last season (second on the team behind Klaassen and Gudelj), meaning that tactically the side already play through the middle and off the shoulder of the center forward as a viable avenue of attack, which would allow Ajax to feature in the Bosz mold effectively from early on in his tenure.
One attacking aspect that must remain however, is how well Ajax can hit their opponent on the break. With pace to burn on the wings and the ability to pick a pass out exhibited by Klaassen and Gudelj (16 combined assists last season), as well as by ball-playing center back Joel Veltman and left-back Mitchell Dijks (11 combined assists last season), a preference for possession and dominance in the other half shouldn’t scupper their ability to hit you in the blink of an eye, especially against sides like Vitesse, PSV and Feyenoord, and especially away from home against strong opposition.
From a defensive standpoint there shouldn’t be much change, considering the club only conceded 21 times in 34 league matches last term, Bosz is likely to keep faith in the current set up in that aspect.
Predicted XI (4-3-3): Cillessen; Dijks, Veltman, Riedewald, Tete; Gudelj, Bazoer; Klaassen; Younes, El Ghazi, Milik
TRANSFER MARKET ACTIVITY
Ajax spent a total of 10.5m Euro this summer on two young signings; 19-year old center forward Mateo Cassierra and 20-year old center back Davinson Sanchez – both Colombian, and coming by way of Deportivo Cali and Atletico Nacional respectively. German veteran center back Heiko Westermann was also brought in, coming from La Liga side Real Betis in a free transfer. Danish center forward Kasper Dolberg was promoted from the U-19’s, and highly-touted Czech youngster and right winger Vaclav Cerny earned full promotion from the U-21’s to the first team. It’s business that shouldn’t surprise anyone, with Bosz preferring to build for the long term and put faith in young talent, something we saw from him succeed with at Vitesse.
The club did part with a few long term players, and that included a blockbuster move of Arkadiusz Milik, with the young center forward moving to the home of Margherita Pizza in a 31m Euro move. Once well thought of Danish pair Viktor Fischer and Lucas Andersen leaving the club for Premier League side Middlesbrough and Raiffeisen SL side Grasshoppers after both coming to the club at the age of 17. Additional departures were center back Mike van der Hoorn who moved to Swansea City, and Ricardo van Rhijn who will now find himself playing for Club Brugge in the Jupiler Pro League.
All told, Ajax made41.8m Euro from sales, netting a transfer profit of 31.3m Euro. Given the business done, you’d have to assume that Bosz, if he doesn’t move for a more proven center forward, will be relying on one of (or more than one) his young options to lead the line this coming season.
THREE KEY PLAYERS
Joel Veltman – Despite Ajax being an offensive juggernaut on the domestic front, their ability to defend cannot be understated in regards to its importance. At the heart of that defense is Dutch international Joel Veltman, who for among the best defenders in the Eredivisie last season. Now 24 and having been a part of the national team set up for three years, Veltman will look to continue to develop as one of the least talked about center back talents in Europe, and his passing ability, strong tackling and aerial dominance should be as key as ever.
Nemanja Gudelj – Four goals and eight assists from a deep-lying midfielder is just about as good as it gets from a statistical standpoint, and in Serbian international Nemanja Gudelj, Ajax have another key asset that quietly goes under the radar. With Riechedly Bazoer’s willingness to pick the ball up in midfield and push forward, Gudelj’s positional importance and ability to patrol the areas ahead of the back four are critical to Ajax’s success tactically. The icing on the cake comes from his eye for a pass and excellent shot from range – he’s certainly the side’s most important midfield pivot.
Davy Klaassen – This spot was originally reserved for Milik until he moved on to Southern Italy, so it now goes to Ajax’s primary puppet master. With the likelihood of Bosz turning to Dolberg, Cassierra or Richairo Zivkovic through the center forward channel, the role of Klaassen to provide high-quality service and clear cut chances to the young forwards will be crucial. The club’s number 10 and captain, not only will his abilities on the pitch be relied upon, but his experience and leadership despite still being just 23-years-old will come into play from a mental standpoint. The sooner he helps the youngsters settle and establishes everyone on the same attacking wavelength, the sooner Ajax can move on from the loss of Milik.
TALENT RADAR KEY YOUNG PLAYER
Riechedly Bazoer – Still just 19-years old, the sky is truly the limit for this talented central player. Five goals and four assists last term, wonderful technical ability, strong in the pass and an eye for goal from outside the box, his understanding with fellow Dutchman Davy Klaassen and Nemanja Gudelj grants Ajax a fantastic midfield trio. Truth be told, it would be genuinely shocking if he’s still at the club by the time he turns 21 or 22 years of age – this season will certainly be one of great interest when it comes to him, as a showing that improves on his impressive performances last season may see the club field a few calls for his services next summer. Bazoer also made Outside of the Boot‘s Talent Radar Eredivisie Team of the Season 2015-16.
Note: Do not be surprised of Vaclav Cerny has a breakout season, with Bosz unafraid to give young players a chance to impress.
CONCLUSION AND EXPECTATION
With the good times under Frank De Boer coming to an abrupt end at the hands of former Dutch teammate Phillip Cocu and his PSV side, the appointment of Peter Bosz should be seen as a managerial move that could very well improve a side that is difficult to improve on as is. Let us not forget that Ajax were one goal away from winning the league last season for the fifth time in the last six years, so the truth of the matter is that the expectations surrounding the club, and Bosz, is that they must go on and wrestle the Eredivisie crown back to Amsterdam.
With faith and trust in talented youth, long term visions for success and a nearly completed canvas to envision a potential masterpiece, the framework has already been laid for the new man to help Ajax kick on and return to their rightful place at the top of the Dutch footballing ladder. As long as he remains consistent within his system and meshes certain tactical tweaks with an already successful set-up in place, there is no reason that Ajax shouldn’t go on and win the league come May.
Written by Andrew Thompson
Read all our 2016-17 Hipster Guide articles here