How Ajax’s golden trio performed on an historic night in Greece

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
November 27, 2018
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The Olympic Stadium in Athens was barely a quarter full for AEK’s Champions League game with Ajax on Tuesday evening, but the Dutch side encountered more than a hint of hostility in Greece. Just before kick-off, this charming local took advantage of some laissez-faire stewarding to dump a live flair into the away end.

Something for UEFA to look at, clearly.

Anyway, Ajax are of particular interest continentally, as they’re seen to be leading a Dutch renaissance in Europe. Ahead of Tuesday night, they had dealt with the awkward looking Group E with relative ease, surviving trips to Benfica and Bayern Munich unbeaten and winning both of their games at the Johan Cruyff Arena (vs AEK & Benfica).

The Champions League is an importance context giver. The Eredivisie remains as rich with young talent as ever and yet, invariably, there’s little way of knowing just how good many of those players actually are. For Ajax, those questions principally concern Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Kasper Dolberg, a goldern trio all being linked with moves to major clubs and all expected to command hefty fees in the not too distance future.

Danish forward Dolberg is the most well-known. He was a key performer in the Europa League run of 2016-17, which took Ajax all the way to the final to face Manchester United. An artistic, soft-footed player, Dolberg is without a Champions League goal this season. He’s managed five from six starts domestically, but his failure to make a proper impact at the higher level is indicative of his downturn since mid-2017. It hasn’t been entirely his fault, with a foot injury keeping him out of action between December and April last season and an abdominal tear costing him the critical summer months between June and September, but there has nevertheless been little progress.

Against AEK, the scars of the past eighteen months remained evident – and, as a result, the question over whether he’ll translate to a higher level remains unanswerable. Ajax’s playing style should suit Dolberg perfectly, with lots of passes arriving at his feet and plenty of movement beyond him. Unfortunately, his touches were too often loose and, whether habitual or just indicative of low confidence, his reluctance to enter the penalty-box and put himself in scoring positions is a strange habit for a centre-forward.

Which begs the question: is he a natural striker? The modern trend is for single forwards and while Dolberg has the size to hold the ball up and the technique to marginalise defenders and bring others into the game, he doesn’t use either attribute as well as he might. Even against a side as limited as AEK, his impact was negligible and it was little surprise to see him withdrawn early for the veteran Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.

Frenkie de Jong is a different case. His name features so often in transfer reports and so regularly in connection with Manchester City and Barcelona that his straight-line trajectory has been accepted as fact. It’s easy to understand why: de Jong looks so comfortable with the ball at his feet and his passing off either side regularly makes useful incisions through the lines. His AEK performance also showed his value around the penalty-box too, with David Neres wasting the opportunity to open the scoring from a perfect de Jong pass dropped between the home defence and their goalkeeper.

At any one time, though, there are plenty of players in the world capable of that kind of contribution. Instead, what marks de Jong out is the way he receives possession, most often from one of his centre-backs or his goalkeeper. That’s another growing fancy among the big clubs: the deep playmaker. It’s why Manchester City and Chelsea both fought so hard for Jorginho and why Tottenham will have such a difficult time replacing Mousa Dembele. There is a near universal top-level demand for midfielders who are comfortable receiving the ball under pressure and who, from that point, have the composure, temperament and ability to advance the play in a meaningful way. That kind of player is key to beginning any move which doesn’t begin with a long, direct punt and essential to escaping the jaws of a high press.

Ajax don’t use de Jong exclusively in that role, they have plenty of others who are adept at dropping in to allow him to drift forward, but that will most likely be the role assigned to him as and when he moves on. And, as yet, there’s nothing to suggest that the hype isn’t entirely warranted. The flattering precís is that he’s an accomplished two-footed player with excellent vision, exemplary composure, and a clear future role at the top of the game.

De Ligt’s progress is similarly easy to forecast. He’s young, still just 19, but also clearly headed for the game’s stratosphere . His size is striking and it makes him aerially commanding in both boxes – his smart back-post run nearly Ajax an early goal in Greece – but there’s clearly also some finesse to him. The obvious comparison because of the lineage is Jan Vertonghen: both carry the ball forward with confidence, both try to cut their passes into midfield with the aim of starting moves. Tellingly, both captained Ajax at very young ages and wore the armband with radiant authority.

The visitors perservered in Greece. They were awarded a penalty 25 minutes from time, with referee Michael Oliver reducing AEK to ten men after a senseless handball. Dusan Tadic converted comfortably. Minutes later, Tadic scored a second after a quick break from David Neres and a fine square-ball from Hunterlaar. That’s how it finished; Ajax are through to the Champions League knockout stages for the first time in thirteen years.

Because of AEK’s deficiencies – they really are a club in turmoil the moment – and the small crowd, it would be easy to dismiss this win as routine. In some senses, perhaps it was easier than it might have been. However, those are the kind of circumstances which can reveal issues in young players. With flairs flying before kick-off, reports of a petrol bomb having been thrown and a whole set of built in excuses, Ajax were remarkably focussed. Dolberg clearly remains a work in progress and there are asterisks to that, but de Ligt and de Jong look every inch future stars, rock steady in their productivity and key to the team performance.

An impressive night for Ajax, then, and an impressive night for two of their crown jewels.

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