Ajax were dealt a swift and firm blow after their slim Champions League hope were quashed by Rapid Wien. Now, they most focus on their second chance in the Europa League in the Czech Republic. However, can they impress in the Europa League with a cloud looming over their heads?

  • By Chaka Simbeye
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baz ghazAjax’s elimination in the Champions League qualifying stages brought the bright young team to the cold and dense floors of rock bottom. They were caught basking in the centimentalism of returning to the Ernst Happel Stadium, the scene of where they grasped European hearts to win the UEFA Champions League in 1995, as they were ousted by Rapid Wien. Now, they need to piece together their European ambitions in the more competitive and arduous Europa League.

On Thursday, they travel to the Czech Republic to face FK Jablonec in the final qualifying round and while most would expect them to win, these days, one can’t be quite sure about Ajax. Frank De Boer is pushing through a change in generation after last season’s unspectacular season as there is a sense of optimism about his young chargers.

Last season, Ajax played the second youngest side in the Europa League at an average age of 22 years and 31 days against Dnipro and the fourth youngest against Legia Warsaw at 22 years and and 150 days according to Opta. In the Champions League qualifying stage, they took it a noch lower by playing a side with an average age of 21 years in the second leg of the match against Austria Wien. According, to the influential Johan Cruyff, this is the next step in their progress as a football club.

“At first the focus was on preparing youth players for the first team as quickly as possible. And because this has to be around the age of 18,19 in order to have them playing for Ajax at least four or five years, the main focus was on physical and mental training,” said Cruyff, the Ajax legend and unofficial patriarch through his weekly De Telegraaf column.

Ajax have undergone a drastic reorganisation of their defence and midfield as a flurry of baby faced players have displaced their more experienced colleagues. At right-back, 19 year-old Kenneth Tete has replaced 24 year-old Ricardo Van Rhin, at centre-back 18 year-old Jairo Riedewald has replaced Niklas Moisander while Mitchell Dijks has replaced Nicolai Boilesen at left-back after the latter turned down a contract offer as both are 22.

Ajax have flown out of the blocks in the Eredivise as two dominant 3-0 wins against AZ Alkmaar and Willem II put them top of the league but it is yet to be seen if this young side can compete in European competition. Wins against FK Jablonec could go a long way in allaying any doubts fans have about this young side. Frank De Boer has breathed an air of confidence when speaking of his side’s European ambitions.

“Our aim is to get to the semi-final of the Europa League,” he told reporters. “I have a good feeling about this squad,” said De Boer per the Ajax website. There is also an air of over-confidence about De Boer as before the Rapid Wien game, he quipped that Ajax were favourites.

After, relinquishing a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2, De Boer then chose to start the same side that played Rapid Wien in the first change with only one change. He brought 19 year-old Heerenveen youth product Daley Sinkgraven into midfield and started Viktor Fischer in the left winger role. In pre-season, De Boer only did this when he looked to press agressively high like in a 1-1 draw against Wolfsburg. Fischer, Milik, Klaasen and El Ghazi pressed the Wolfsburg defence as Sinkgraven and 18 year-old Riechedly Bazoer looked to quickly recycle the ball to these players.

It worked against a stifled Wolfsburg who only equalised after a misguided Queensy Menig backpass found Kevin De Bruyne who drove to the top of the Ajax box and rolled a shot past Jasper Cillisen. De Boer, tried this system against Rapid as the team and manager ended the game with metaphorical egg on their faces. Rapid’s midfield possessed more grit, togetherness and directness as they constantly troubled the teenage midfield duo.

Sinkgraven was at fault for one of the goals he effortlessly yielded possession lat the top of the Ajax box to which Rapid’s top scorer Robert Beric converted before the youngster was berated by Jasper Cillisen. It wasn’t practical to play two teenagers in midfield in a game where a draw would’ve sufficed and in a game where when Nemanja Gudelj, who came on in the second half, Ajax improved.

Last season, Ajax gave two fleeting glances of them playing a more conservative style of football that was primarily based on not conceding rather than possession. The most memorable one was a 3-1 away win against the run-away champions PSV, in a game where they played a well-balanced midfield of Klaassen, Serero and Bazoer. It was a game that was heavily dominated by PSV as they had an astounding 22 shots to Ajax’s 7 while stringing together 526 passes at succession rate of 80% compared to Ajax’s 369 at a succession rate of 72% according to WhoScored. However, Ajax played 71 long balls in a match where Kishna and El Ghazi scored through quick breaks while substitute Lasse Schone scored a free-kick.

The other match was against, Feyenoord at home which ended 0-0, granted through the Rotterdammers’ inability to score rather than Ajax’s good defending. It was a match where Jordy Clasie dominated the midfield while centre-back Sven van Beek had more shots than any Ajax player. Ajax only managed one shot on target as they spent most of the game in their own half. In midfield, they played Klaassen, Serero and Andersen.

It wasn’t the usual midfield-controlling, possession consuming, high-pressing. forward charging games that one would expect from Ajax, especially in the Eredivisie. However, they gained favourable results in each game. These days the teams achieving in European competition aren’t the team playing the best football, it’s the teams that are the most adaptable. Ajax need to be willing to not win all their games with their usual flair but with more security as De Boer needs to be more inclined to alter his side’s approach to games.

It is a shame that Ajax’s best player in the two aforementioned games is on the fringes and could soon be on his way out in order to vacate a midfield possession for younger players. Thulani Serero managed 7 tackles vs Feyenoord and 4 vs PSV as the pint-sized midfielder shielded the defence. Serero’s experience and his fine blend of mettle and poise could still be of use to this young Ajax side as they look to sustain competition on European and Eredivisie fronts.

The Europa League represents a second chance for Ajax to prove they are ready to compete on a continental scale again while backing the lofty ambitions of their manager. They need to be less naive and more strategic with their approach to European competition if they stand any change in going into the latter stages of the tournament and improving the Dutch co-efficient. In order to do that, they have FK Jablonec in their sights and a comfortable win and progression into the Europa League groupstage could go a long way into regaining the faith of their fanbase.

Chaka Simbeye (69 Posts)