Frank De Boer is synonymous with guiding Ajax to three consecutive Eredivisie titles, but this article will examine how Ajax have failed to make progress in the Champions League under De Boer’s guidance and the possible reasons behind this.

  • By Mark Bird
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de boer jdjsdjIn considering the reasons why Ajax have failed to make the last sixteen of the competition under De Boer,one has to consider the difficulty and complexity of the task at hand for each of the three campaigns. In the 2011-2012 campaign,Ajax were drawn against a rampant Real Madrid, who won all their six group games, with a record of nineteen for, two against. Indeed, the only reason Ajax failed to progress at the first attempt under De Boer was because of a bizarre occurrence during the game between Ajax’s closest contenders Lyon, and minnows Dinamo Zagreb,whereby the French side duly got the seven (!) goals they needed to progress,not surprisingly the match was under investigation by UEFA for match-fixing but was quickly dropped. So,in that sense Ajax were seriously unlucky to make progress, even in De Boer’s first European campaign at the helm. A total of six goals in six group games didn’t exactly help either.
Ajax then had the misfortune of being drawn in the ‘group of death’ the following season, the 2012-2013 campaign, paired yet again with Real Madrid, eventual finalists Borussia Dortmund, and Premier League champions Manchester City. Ajax picked up just four points, but the fact that they managed to scrape third place, above the mighty Manchester City, was testament to the progress they were making.

Another tough draw awaited this year, in a group full of former winners, with Barcelona, AC Milan, and Celtic the opposition. Ajax started poorly with a four-nil reverse at the Camp Nou, but in their second game only a contentious penalty converted by Mario Balotelli in the 94th minute stopped Ajax from taking all three points. A poor defeat in Glasgow, and then a narrow victory over the same opponents in Amsterdam, was followed by arguably the greatest result of De Boer’s continental reign thus far, a two-one victory over Barcelona at the Arena, a result which De Boer’s men fully merited. Ajax then went into their final game knowing that bettering their draw against AC Milan earlier on in the group would see them through but unfortunately they just couldn’t find the breakthrough needed and the game finished goal-less, meaning they just missed out on progression again, this time by a solitary point.

For this reason alone, it is not surprising that Ajax have failed to progress to the last sixteen under De Boer’s guidance, being grouped in the third pot of seeding’s hasn’t been kind to Ajax so far, and given their failure to once again progress in this year’s competition, a similar seeding looks likely next year, obviously provided they qualify for the competition, as expected.

Another reason that could potentially be levied towards Ajax’s failure to progress in Europe would be the relative inexperience of not only their playing squad, but De Boer himself. Ajax have a very young squad, most of whom had very little to no experience of playing in the Champions league, hence the lengthy adaptation process, with the first couple of campaigns under De Boer perhaps treated as valuable learning experiences for most of the players. However, this argument certainly has less weight to it with each passing European campaign as most of the current squad now have at least two years’ experience of playing at the top level and as such will be expected to make progress sooner rather than later. As for De Boer, it could also be argued that the first couple of European Champions League campaigns represented a learning curve for the manager, having to get used to the extra demands placed not only on his players, but himself and his staff too. It could now also be argued that De Boer is suitably experienced himself in leading Ajax in European football’s top competition, and should he stay at the club a while longer, then it is logical to suggest that he will expect his side to progress to the next level as soon as possible.

Another possible argument is that Ajax lack a proven goal-scorer at continental level. This is best exemplified by the fact that the highest number of goals scored in a group stage campaign under De Boer’s management is eight, occurring both in 2012-2013, and 2013-2014. Ajax’s main striker, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, is not a prolific scorer at this level and is often seen as too physically fragile to cope with the demands of balancing European and domestic commitments. This places extra emphasis on the goals coming from elsewhere, placing more responsibility on the likes of Viktor Fischer, Lasse Schone and Captain Siem De Jong. Whether Ajax will seek to sign a new striker in the future remains to be seen, with the emphasis clearly on youth development at the club it seems unlikely, but still plausible.

If this is the case, then the problem may persist in the future, with Ajax perhaps hoping that Sigthorsson can step up to the plate and show the form he shows domestically, when he is fit.

In conclusion a combination of extremely tough luck, relative lack of experience of both playing squad and management, and lack of a proven goal-scorer have all contributed to Ajax’s failure to make progress in the Champions League under De Boer. However, there is hope if Ajax gets a reasonable draw, with the squad having more experience and even the possibility, albeit slim of a new proven striker then there is no reason to suggest that Ajax won’t take that next step in continental football, and finally make the last sixteen of the competition in the near future.

Mark Bird (2 Posts)