[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ednesday’s Europa League final offers José Mourinho not only the opportunity to salvage Manchester United’s season, but a route back into the Champions League. After four seasons of failure, United cannot afford to miss out on the continent’s élite competition once again. It’s a task easier said than done of course. Mourinho’s side was some way short of making it through the Premier League. So all eyes on Stockholm this week. The opponents: Ajax, a vibrant and youthful side ready to make the step to the next level.
United’s recent form offers little confidence for the thousands of Reds heading to Sweden this week. Not least when pitted against an Ajax side that is best when firmly on the front foot. Indeed, Ajax’ approach contrasts starkly with Mourinho’s team, which – albeit affected by injury and a heavy schedule – has been working backwards since the draw with Bournemouth in April.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]United’s recent form offers little confidence for the thousands of Reds heading to Sweden. Not least when pitted against an Ajax side that is best when firmly on the front foot.[/blockquote]
The Reds’ tactically negative performances against Manchester City, Swansea City, Arsenal, and Tottenham Hotspur will be hard to shake, even for a one-off game. Shake it the Reds must though against a team that finished second in the Eredivisie this season, but with a line-up that often averages under 24-years of age. The momentum appears to be with Ajax; the quality should be with United.
Ajax – a brief history
Ajax – officially Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax – was founded in 1900 and is the Netherlands most successful club. Named after the mythological Greek hero, the Amsterdam-based club has won 33 Eredivisie titles, 18 KNVB Cups and four European cups – making it one of the most storied clubs in European football.
The early years weren’t so glorious – it wasn’t until 1911 that Ajax made it to the top flight of Dutch football, with the first silverware, the KNVB Beker national cup, secured in 1917. A first league title followed a year later. In the 1920s Ajax won the regional championship in 1921, 1927 and 1928, before becoming a national force in the 1930s. The club won five titles through the decade before war intervened. Post-war success followed in 1947 – a championship secured by English manager Jack Reynolds, who had also been in charge for the club’s first silverware back in 1917.
Through the 1950s and 1960s the team continued to win at a national level, including the first season of the newly reorganised national championship in 1956. Ajax made it’s European Cup début the following year, eventually losing in the quarter-finals.
The 1970s were the golden age of Dutch football: Ajax won the European cup three years in succession from 1971 to 1973, including a treble in 1972. The 1972 final was all the more special for Ajax, with the trophy being secured at the Feijenoord Stadion in Rotterdam – home of the club’s great rivals. This was the age of Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Arie Haan – world-class players all.
Cruyff would eventually leave for Barcelona and by the early 1980s Ajax was no longer the European force of old, although the club continued to win silverware at a domestic level. Yet, by the end of the decade a young team began to emerged and the Dutch club began to force its way back into European contention, with players such as Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard on the scene. The brilliant Van Basten was Ajax’ top scorer in the Eredivisie for four seasons from 1984 onwards.
In 1985 Cruyff returned to Ajax as manager, with the club finishing second behind PSV in the following two campaigns. In 1987 and 1988 Ajax reached the UEFA Cup Winners Cup final, beating Sporting and then losing to KV Mechelen. In the early 1990s, under Louis van Gaal, Ajax became a European force once more, winning the UEFA Cup in 1992.
That victory began a new golden era, with Van Gaal’s young Ajax team featuring players who would later become household names: Frank and Ronald de Boer, Edwin van der Sar, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Michael Reiziger, Winston Bogarde, Finidi George, Nwankwo Kanu and Jari Litmanen. The Iron Tulip’s team won the Dutch championship in 1994, 1995 and 1996. But it was in Europe that these players truly found glory – winning the Champions League in 1995, beating Milan 1-0 in the final through Patrick Kluivert’s goal, before losing to Juventus in the 1996 final.
The intervening years have been less than glorious. The money flooding throughout European football is yet to reach the Netherlands and Ajax will start Wednesday’s match at a significant financial disadvantage. While United now boasts annual revenues in excess of £500 million, Ajax’ income is about a fifth as large. It has set in motion a long-held pattern of player sales to the continent’s richest clubs, with Ajax falling behind the European élite.
In fact Ajax shouldn’t really be able to compete at Europe’s highest level. It seems fitting that the club has found a new, talented team, based on a pioneering tradition of trust in youth.
Manager Peter Bosz is building an attacking side replete with youngsters from the Ajax academy. It isn’t yet a title-winning side though, with Ajax finishing this season’s Eredivisie a single point behind eventual champions Feyenoord. Yet, it is a club building for a potentially bright future and in a competitive league four defeats was one too many for Bosz’ side – a devastating loss at PSV in late April proving to be the critical match. In the domestic KNVB cup, Ajax lost 2-1 at Cambuur last December.
The Europa League campaign has been far from easy, with Ajax’ UEFA coefficient ranking of 26 putting the club’s run in some perspective. The team came through a tight group that included Panathinaikos, Standard Liège and Celta de Vigo, before narrowly beating Legia Warszawa over two legs in the Round of 32. Bosz’ team had to come back from a first leg defeat at København in the Round of 16 and then in the quarter-final, against Schalke, Ajax lost the return leg after extra time but hung on for an aggregate win.
It is the semi-final against Olympique Lyonnais that will stand in the memory for some time. Ajax won the first leg 4-1 in Amsterdam, before losing 3-1 at Stadium OL. It could have gone either way – a fixture that demonstrated both Ajax attacking brilliance and the team’s defensive fragility. In a transitional season – Bosz’ first as Ajax manager – second in the league and a European final is beyond expectations.
Coach – Peter Bosz
Bosz enjoyed something of a journeyman playing career – starting as a midfielder at Vitesse in the early 1980s, enjoying a spell at RKC Waalwijk and then moving to France with Toulon. Returning to the Netherlands in 1991, Bosz enjoyed perhaps the most successful period of his career over six seasons with Feyenoord – an interesting side note given that he now manages Ajax. He finished his career with JEF United Ichihara, Hansa Rostock and then NAC Breda, retiring in 1999.
Bosz made his national team début in a Euro 92 qualification match against Greece in December 1991, and made the Dutch squad for the tournament itself. His eighth and final international came in 1995 against the Czech Republic.
Having ended his career at the turn of the century, Bosz jumped straight into coaching, becoming manager at amateur club AGOVV Apeldoorn in 2000 and winning the national amateur league title in 2002. It was the start of an equally nomadic coaching career.
He became head coach at Eredivisie side De Graafschap in 2002, although a disastrous campaign ended in relegation and Bosz’ dismissal. In 2004 he was appointed at Eerste Divisie side Heracles Almelo, winning the title and gaining promotion – finishing mid table in the following campaign. His return to Feyenoord came in 2006, where he was appointed technical director and served for three years until he left in protest at the board’s decision to sack manager Gertjan Verbeek.
Bosz returned to Heracles as manager in 2010, finishing the season in eighth, then 12th and 12th in three years at the helm, before taking up a role at Vitesse – his biggest managerial job to date. The team finished sixth in his first season, although having been top at the turn of the year, that represented a disappointing end to the campaign. The following year Vitesse qualified for the Europa League. He left the club during the 2015/16 winter break with the club in fifth.
Bosz took up a role at Maccabi Tel Aviv the following January – enjoying an unbeaten short spell in charge – before joining Ajax last summer.
In Amsterdam Bosz has built a side in the Ajax tradition, typically lining up in a Dutch 4-3-3, with a clear focus on width, pace and attacking intent. It is a team that is at its very best on the front foot, and can demonstrate the naïvety of youth when under pressure. Mourinho and United should take note.
Teenage striker Kasper Dolberg scored what turned out to be the critical goal in Lyon, finishing off a flowing move with a level of composure well beyond his years. Born in Denmark, Dolberg is now a full international and has scored 23 goals in his breakthrough professional season. The 19-year-old has a physical presence that enables the forward to be deployed as a traditional number nine, but – very much in the Dutch tradition – he is also comfortable dropping much deeper to link play. His agile feet and high level of technical ability has scouts from around Europe looking at the player as a potential acquisition, although Dolberg has, apparently, committed to another season at Ajax, arguing that it is “too soon to go to City or United.”
In midfield Davy Klassen is the attacking fulcrum and club captain, following Cruyff, Piet Keizer and Danny Blind in leading the club to a European final. He has scored 14 goals and made nine assists in the league this season, with another two strikes in the Europa League. Klassen graduated from the Ajax academy, but is widely tipped to leave the club for a bigger team in the coming summer.
Klassen made his first Ajax appearance in 2011, scoring within seconds of coming on as a substitute against NEC, following Cruyff, Van Basten and Kluivert in finding the net on début. The following season a serious injury kept the midfield out for the entire season, although he returned to the side for the 2013/14 campaign, scoring on his full début and then grabbing a hat-trick against NEC Breda. He made his international bow in the same season and was named Johan Cruyff young player of the year.
Klassen will not only be Ajax’ captain on Wednesday, but effectively the manager on the pitch. “He has an understanding of football,” Frank de Boer once said. “He reads how a situation will go faster than most. He is an extension of us, the coaches.”
Alongside Klassen in midfield will be Hakim Ziyech, the Dutch-Moroccain attacking player who can be deployed centrally or in a wide role. Ziyech came through the academy at Heerenveen, before joining Twente in 2014, and then Ajax last summer. He represented Netherlands at every age group, but chose to play for Morocco at international level. In additional to being a highly assured technician, Ziyech has developed a reputation as a free-kick specialist. Sergio Romero beware.