The hunt to compete with today’s domestic and European elite – and the strategy that got Ajax to the top again – will leave young, often Dutch, talents in limbo – too good for Jong Ajax but light-years away from the first team, as George Smith argues.

After what was by all accounts a remarkable season for Ajax an air of optimism still surrounds the club despite the impending transfer of their captain, Matthijs de Ligt, and the already confirmed departure of midfield maestro Frenkie de Jong. On the face of it this is perhaps odd because the two of them are supposedly representative of a certain type of Ajax: youthful, homegrown, fearless, exciting, and crucially, winners. In the face of their departure, why, then, are the Amsterdam faithful still positive about the future?

On the one hand, fans can look towards the players already brought in this summer as proof that the club’s emphasis on a a young squad geared towards attacking football will continue: Kjell Sherpen, Kik Pierie, Lisandro Martínez, and Răzvan Marin are all recognisable as such. While last years important additions Daley Blind and Dušan Tadić look set to stay in the Dutch capital for at least another year, as will South American duo Nicolás Tagliafico and David Neres. Ignoring that these players were all signed for relatively large fees and certainly not home grown, it is not hard to see why optimism persists about attacking football complete with a youthful squad – it would be a bold move to predict that Ajax are not set for another positive season; all the ingredients are in place to make it so.

However, the price of this success is measurable in more than money – while this is certainly of fundamental important. The increasing penchant of Ajax to sign established players for hefty sums of money has created a stronger team, no doubt. But while it has extended the gap between the club and the bulk of the Eredivisie, most importantly it has left the jump from their own academy to the first team the largest it has been in a long time. This has been overlooked to a large extent thanks to the aforementioned and undeniable talent of de Ligt, de Jong, and also Donny van de Beek. But with two of this trio set to depart, the problem will only become starker as the Ajax squad fail to replace them and other departures with academy graduates, instead turning to established players who arrive for big fees. And why wouldn’t they? It is inconceivable that Carel Eiting or Václav Černy could have seemlessly swapped in for Hakim Ziyech or Dušan Tadić last season, regardless of injuries.

Indeed, for a clear example of Ajax’s best talents being unable to step up fans need look no further than the fate of Ché Nunnely. After 41 appearances in the Keuken Kampion Divisie the 20 year old winger recently signed for Eredivisie club Willem II, having no obvious path to the Ajax first team despite his pivotal role in the Jong Ajax side that won the Netherlands second division in the 2017/18 season. Around the time that this transfer was confirmed reports emerged which have since been confirmed that Ajax are nearing a deal for Quincy Promes. The deal that has been confirmed sees the Sevilla winger join for a fee in the region of 10 times what Willem II paid for Nunnely. As this feat is set to be repeated, Ajax fans may look to Matthijs de Ligt as proof that the cream will rise to the top, but the fact that this once in a generation talent was able to make the leap easily is hardly going to provide solace for fans when a slew of young talents follow Nunnely’s example.

In fact, it is already happening. Of that title winning side combative midfielder Azor Matusiwa joined up with on-loan striker Kaj Sierhuis at Groningen earlier this summer, having also been deemed surplus to requirements in Amsterdam despite some dominant displays in the second half of last season while on-loan at De Graafschaap. Colombian striker Matteo Cassiera will be moved on as soon as possible after being sent out to pasture at Racing Club, Teun Bijleveld made the switch to Heracles last week, while question marks remain over Dennis Johnsen’s future. Add to this list Leon Bergsma, Danilho Doekhi, and Zian Flemming and the pattern becomes more recognisable.

Of all the players still with Ajax from that title-winning side it is only Noussair Mazroui that has managed regular playing time in the Eredivisie since, and this is as much a reflection of a long term injury and a disappointing signing as anything else. That only one player broke into the first team which went on to complete the league and cup double last season highlights just how much a gulf has been created between the two sides in the hunt for success. With pressure for continued trophies at the highest level, and the finances to achieve this, it is hard to see how this is going to be closed.

During the January transfer window earlier this year, Jong Ajax captain Dani de Wit – by then obviously too good for the second team and league, yet unable to provide more than brief appearances from the bench for the first team – stated that he would reject a loan deal and wait in Amsterdam for his chance. The 21 year-old noted that besides Daley Blind a decade ago it has been the case that young players rarely manage to come back from a successful loan spell and break into the first team. Historically speaking he is correct. Unfortunately for him, it looks like his path is going to be blocked anyway.

George Smith (33 Posts)