As exhilarating as Ajax were to watch in their astonishing run to the semi finals of the Champions League last season, there was an unavoidable sense that their success would be fleeting. While the Amsterdam club might be four-time European champions, they are no longer a member of the continental elite in the modern sense. Their best talent was always going to be picked off.
Indeed, the two brightest stars of Ajax’s run to the Champions League final four were sold in the summer, with Frenkie de Jong signing for Barcelona and Matthijs de Ligt heading to Juventus following a transfer market tug-of-war which saw the teenage defender become a target for pretty much every elite club out there.
For these two players, Ajax collected over £140 million, but that didn’t quite make up for what the Eredivisie outfit were perceived to have lost in star quality. Their status as Champions League contenders for one season made them targets for poachers. Ajax’s 2018/19 campaign will live long in the memory and going forward that’s all it was expected to be – a memory.
We should be careful in writing off Ajax, though. It’s true that de Jong and de Ligt’s departure has weakened them, but the Dutch side are still one of the most exciting in the European game right now. Chelsea will find that out themselves this week as they travel to Amsterdam to take on Erik ten Hag’s team in the Champions League (Ajax are 11/8 to win on Wednesday night).
In Hakim Ziyech, Ajax still boast a sparkling talent. The Moroccan has scored four times and contributed five assists in nine Eredivise appearances this season. He is their attacking spark in the final third with Dusan Tadic and David Neres still at the club. As a trio, they can cause damage to any opponent. Just look at how Ziyech and Tadic in particular ripped Real Madrid to shreds at the Santiago Bernabeu last season.
Donny van de Beek is still the midfield dynamo through which Ajax’s play flows through. Despite speculation linking him with a move away from the Johan Cruijff ArenA over the summer, the Dutch international stayed and is the one who dictates the pace and direction of his team’s game. Two 21-year-olds, Edson Alvarez and Lisandro Martinez, were also signed with some of the de Jong and de Ligt money to play alongside van de Beek in the middle.
Perhaps the most intriguing signing made by Ajax saw Quincy Promes join from Sevilla. The 27-year-old never quite flourished in Sevilla, but has become something of a difference-maker for his new team. Indeed, Promes has given Ajax more goal threat from midfield even if some of the control offered by de Jong has been lost.
At the back, Nicolas Tagliafico is still a dependable performer while Sergino Dest has recently emerged as one of the most promising young full backs in the game over the early part of the season. Andre Onana also remains a sparkling talent between the posts even if the 23-year-old could still do with working on his presence in coming for crosses. If Ajax are expected to fade away after last season’s success, they might surprise some (they are 40/1 to win the Champions League this season).
Of course, if there’s one club that should be expected to regenerate time after time it’s Ajax. Their identity as a club is based on the very notion of regeneration having produced several great teams over the decades. Their success comes in cycles, but Ajax can always be relied upon to come up with something new every few years. Admittedly, this season’s team might not be something new. Instead, it could be a continuation of what was offered up last season.