Even a mere cursory glance back through footballing history will highlight the importance that AFC Ajax have had upon the game. Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff helped to revolutionise the standard of playing with their iconic Total Football system, shaping not just Ajax and the Netherlands national side, but Barcelona, Guardiola and countless more as well. The most iconic aspect of the Dutch giants is their fabled youth academy system, one which has produced countless stars.
Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Frank Rijkaard, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Edwin van der Sar, Clarence Seedorf, Toby Alderweireld, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, Jan Vertonghen, Christian Eriksen. These are just a small selection of the notable names to have been produced by the Ajax youth system across the years and they represent some of the stars of European football, past and present.
Since the Champions League triumph of 1994/95, with the increasing influence of financial resources and the dominance of a select few leagues on the continental stage, Ajax have fallen away from the pinnacle of European football. There has been a continued production of young players, but they are regularly poached by the bigger clubs and it is rare that players remain in Amsterdam for more than a few seasons after been given an opportunity in the first team.
Ajax have failed to win the Eredivisie – the top Dutch league – since 2013/14, and this season is their first appearance in the Champions League group stage since 2014/15. For such a storied football club, this is an almost unprecedented lean spell. Yet, there is optimism on the banks of the Amsterdam canals for this season, and a belief that Ajax, whilst perhaps never returning to the top step of Europe, may at least be returning closer to their former strength.
The Champions League will always be the proving ground for European clubs. If you reside in a nation that is not England, Italy, Germany or Spain, your success is instantly diminished because you play in a weak league. Whilst this statement may be untrue, it is prominent throughout football. For the young Ajax team, what better way to earn their stripes than a trip to Munich to face German powerhouse Bayern. A 1-1 draw at the Allianz Arena is a good result for any team, but for a young team attempting to prove itself, it is a remarkable one. One which highlights the growing quality of the current generation of Ajax stars.
Of the 13 players who appeared on the pitch during the match, only four – Nicolás Tagliafico, Lasse Schöne, Daley Blind and Dušan Tadić – were older than 25. Many of the stars of the current generation of prospects for the club have already been touted for moves away and, in the case of one, reinventing the way in which football is played.
André Onana, the 22-year-old Cameroonian goalkeeper, has seen his name linked with Olympique Marseille as the long-term replacement for Steve Mandanda. Matthijs de Ligt, the 19-year-old Dutch central defender who already has 67 appearances for the Ajax first team, has attracted attention from European elite Barcelona and Juventus and most strongly from Tottenham who wish to reunite him with former teammate Davinson Sanchez.
Moroccan winger Hakim Ziyech performed well for Ajax and at the recent World Cup and gained the interest of Champions League finalists and semi-finalists Liverpool and Roma. Dutch midfielder Donny van de Beek has been strongly linked with a move to Chelsea, with Maurizio Sarri viewing the 21-year-old as the perfect permanent solution in his midfield three.
David Neres has earned some whispers of comparisons with once Ajax forward Luis Suárez and has seen Roma and Borussia Dortmund express their interest in bringing him from the Dutch capital. Although last season was not as productive for striker Kasper Dolberg – 9 in 30 in all competitions in 2017/18 compared to 23 in 47 in 2016/17 – he has still attracted interest from two of Europe’s most storied clubs in Barcelona and Manchester United.
These are just the leading young players who featured during the match against Bayern Munich. The one who is gathering the most hype was not even part of the matchday squad. Having recently made his debut for the Netherlands against Peru and France and drawn comparisons to Sergio Busquets and Franz Beckenbauer, Frenkie de Jong appears destined for the very top of the game.
With the ability and technique to play as a central midfielder, defensive midfielder or even as a progressive central defender, hence the Beckenbauer comparisons, de Jong has starred for the resurgent Ajax so far, making 6 starts so far this season. His performances have drawn the eyes of all of Europe’s football clubs, with Barcelona, Manchester City and Bayern Munich all strongly linked with a move for the 21-year-old.
Ajax are currently second place in the Eredivisie, trailing Mark van Bommel’s perfect PSV side by five points, but there is still a renewed optimism. There are positive signs of progress amongst the new generation of players, even after losing Justin Kluivert to Roma, and the draw in Bavaria highlights the return of Ajax to a competitive level.
Ajax are one of the most historic football clubs in Europe and have always been synonymous with success. Struggles like the recent years have been rare since the days of Rinus Michels, and the current squad, for however long they remain in Amsterdam, are certainly progressing the right way in order to continue their proud legacy.