Ajax have challenged underdog orthodoxies in this season’s Champions League

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
April 29, 2019
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Whatever befalls Ajax in their Champions League semi-final tomorrow night, nothing will tarnish the spectacle they have produced throughout the tournament. Four goals in the Bernabeu, another two in the Allianz Stadium; this isn’t just a team who have produced odds-confounding results, but one which has bucked the trend for the how the sport is often played at its highest level by teams of their standing

Back in England, in a more dour light, Sean Dyche and Burnley have been getting right under everybody’s skin. First, last Monday night, when they retreated behind the ball at Stamford Bridge, ran the clock down and infuriated a Chelsea side who consider it their right to win comfortably at home. Then, on Sunday, when they repeated the trick at home to Manchester City. They weren’t as successful second time around, losing narrowly to a Sergio Aguero goal, but the performance lowered just as many eyebrows.

Anti-football. That’s the blanket term – for goalkeepers taking minutes over restarts, for the pandemics of cramp, for the refusal to show so much as a flutter of attacking ambition.

For what it’s worth, a personal viewpoint: what do you expect? When a sport is no longer a fair fight, when the contest becomes ludicrously weighted, the underdog cannot just be expected just to line up in front of the machine guns. Goliath shouldn’t be bitching about the legality of David’s slingshot, Xerxes shouldn’t moan about how the Spartans raised their children.

It’s a common argument, though, and that’s because so many games seem to take the same shape. The patterns of those matches are so entrenched as to be scripted. The favourite will advance, controlling possession and territory and locking their opponent in the final third of the pitch, and then the underdog will try to snatch whatever it can on the break, hoping to make hay from some complacency or structural failing.

In England, the television schedule is built almost entirely around the top-six teams, meaning that a great many of the games shown by broadcasters follow this exact pattern. There are exceptions, of course, shocks and surprises along the way, but generally not. The consequence is tired dynamics and the perception that this experience, which you are watching live, is just the next episode in a series growing duller by the decade.

Ajax have spent their European season challenging that orthodoxy. That they find themselves in a Champions League semi-final at all is remarkable enough, let alone that they have defeated Real Madrid and Juventus to get there. That achievement alone has blown some fresh air through the tournament’s corridors, but it has been the nature of that progress which has been so compelling, instructed by a thoroughly unusual form of underdog football.

Ajax haven’t just survived and advanced. In neither Madrid nor Turin could they have been accused of hanging on when, actually and in each case, the stronger their position became within the tie the more aggressive and stylish they were. Under normal circumstances, the expectation would have been the opposite. That’s what we’re used to, isn’t it? When an upset’s being teased, the winning team retreats deep into its own half, packs its penalty-box and hopes to survive the inevitable heavy shelling. On Tuesday night they’ll face Tottenham and their route to the semi-finals has followed that more traditional route. Yes, they scored three times against Manchester City, but parts of that second-half at the Etihad belonged on Omaha beach.

Hold on, hold on, ride your luck, hold on.

But none of that from Ajax. 0-2 against Real after 17 minutes – 2-3 on aggregate – they kept playing. The same again at 1-3, when Marco Asensio pulled a goal back and every pair of eyes watching rolled in expectation of what was coming next. On they went, playing their passes and hunting for goals. Competing.

Turin was a level above that, though. Juventus have possibly grown stale through domestic dominance, but they remain a weighty proposition and, it shouldn’t be forgotten, the conquerors of Atletico Madrid in the quarter-finals. Diego Simeone’s gang of pirates aren’t quite what they were, either, but that was a comeback to be respected and, more importantly, one which everyone in Amsterdam would have watched and shuddered in response to.

And yet Ajax have arguably never been better this season than they were in the twenty minutes after Matthijs de Ligt had given them the lead in Allianz Stadium. At that point, Juventus needed two goals to advance and the overwhelming temptation must have been to dig-in, to cut off the supply to Ronaldo, and spend the rest of the night hacking at ankles, wasting time, and draining the rhythm from the game. Maybe that would even have been the more sensible way to play? Trading punches with Ronaldo and friends is a risky business, irrespective of form.

But trade they did, producing as rich a seam of attacking football as the competition had seen all year. No fear, no inhibition, just more of what had brought them to that point: smart little angles and crisp moves which, had it not been for Wojciech Szczesny and a touch of over-indulgence, might have produced a deeply humbling final-score.

It was stunning because of its context and where it occurred. Also because the quality of the play was often inarguably excellent. But – most of all – because it wasn’t supposed to happen; that’s not how being in that kind of situation is supposed to look. There should be more fear, more desperation, more… Burnley, Brighton, Newcastle. When the final whistle blows in that kind of game, the losing players are supposed to fall to their knees, regretting that chance, that offside call, or that penalty decision which didn’t go their away. These were two highly unusual situations, then, because there wasn’t a Juventus or Real Madrid player bemoaning his luck. Instead, the look – unmistakenly – was of two well-beaten sides who just wanted to get off the pitch.

Ajax are entwined with so much mythology that, as is really being proven now, they seem to exist independently of the game’s trends. That’s just an illusion, though, and one one reinforced by just how long it’s been since they were last at this stage in Europe. Their performances in Turin and Madrid can also be easily rationalised, and their attacking football explained as the only route available to a team who live and die by their control of the ball.

Maybe. But they’ve still been the continent’s tonic this season, offering relief from norms which seem to harden every year and which are only being encouraged by the sport’s myriad disparities.

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