Alex GuilfordComment

AJAX 2.0

Alex GuilfordComment
AJAX 2.0

67 minutes into a game in the Eerste Divisie on the 16th September 2016, a young man, barely 16 years old, came off the substitute’s bench at the De Geusselt Stadium, MVV Maastricht’s home ground, to play for Ajax II, the mighty Ajax’s second team. This young man was different, not least because of his reputed talents, which the second-tier of Dutch football was about to witness first-hand for the first time, but because everyone in the relatively empty stadium on this cool, crisp evening had heard his name before.

MVV would win the game, VVV Venlo would win the league but Ajax, Ajax II and this young man would go from strength to strength.

In football, inherited genetics seem to be a relatively under appreciated facet of a player’s potential. There are, of course, some players who go a long way in emulating their fathers’ career successes on the pitch: Frank Lampard, Leroy Sané and Eidur Gudjohnsen all come to mind, but often the players receive flack for gaining a place due to perceived nepotism. The game is also full of players who had perfectly decent careers but didn’t quite make the grade in the same way their fathers did: Jordi Cruyff (what chance did he stand?), Shaun Wright-Philips, Tom Ince and the Ayew brothers are all solid recent examples of such players. The Ayews are a relatively rare case of two brothers who have made it big at the same time to similar degrees: the De Boers, the Charltons and Tourés all have similarly impressive legacies but the Hazards, Lukakus, Ferdinands and Pogbas will testify that it is easier said than done.

Professor Reilly, previously of Liverpool John Moores, has observed how key genetics in football probably are: “The likelihood is if you’re not born with a reasonable level of endowment at the start, training would not take you across the threshold value for a top-level performance.” This, according to Reilly, varies from physiological attributes like height and build as well as the less obvious oxygen transportation which not only aids performance but recovery, too. Recovery is becoming a progressively more important aspect of professional football these days with managers like Brendan Rodgers openly talking about how different the next day sessions were between Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. Gentle, dynamic exercises the day after a match seemed to help Suarez’s muscles recover more effectively whereas Sturridge found much vaster improvements if the same day was used to simply rest. Sturridge himself has in fact put a certain degree of his own injury problems down to his genetics, moreover, the dynamism he inherited in his muscles makes them more susceptible to tears.

If genetics are as key as the likes of Reilly seem to think, and this is certainly testified throughout the sport science community with clubs likely to implement genetic screening in the not too distant future, then perhaps it is no surprise that the young man who entered the pitch on that night in September went on to play for Ajax’s first team, almost win them a league title and feature in a European final within just 8 months. Yes, 8.

The man we are talking about is Justin Kluivert.

His father, Patrick, was a club icon. He had progressed through the same academy, won the Champions League in 1995, scored the winning goal of that final and amassed an impressive 40 goals in 79 appearances for his country. No pressure then. Justin, however, doesn’t seem to show any signs of being under any real pressure. This appearance for the second team is made all the more remarkable when you consider it came barely 6 months after he had made his debut for under-19s when he was still 16. Justin Kluivert has done nothing but exceed expectations at every level.

He is a very different footballing talent to his father who was bullish and instinctive. Justin is far slighter in build and a player who does far more on the ball than his predecessor. Patrick relied on his positioning and movement to generate space within which to score whereas Justin looks to exploit small gaps in between opponents’ lines, pulling them away and creating spaces and chances for others.

In the mid-90s, Patrick Kluivert became one of the most sought after players in Europe as Ajax, even in those days a relatively modest-sized club compared to the likes of AC Milan, Juventus, Manchester United and Barcelona, competed with and often outclassed such opponents on the newly rebranded UEFA Champions League.

Ajax’s then-manager, Louis Van Gaal, was at his absolute peak. There were no signs of the stale, tentative and borderline passive-aggressive pragmatism that seemed to haunt his Manchester United team of more recent years; this team was one that was raw, direct and bullish. Edgar Davids at the heart of their midfield and Kluivert up front typified this as much as anyone. Nearly every single player in that squad would go on to become a household name both through their ventures at Ajax and what they would go on to accomplish at other clubs or on the international stage: Rijkaard, the aforementioned De Boer brothers, Seedorf, Kanu and Overmars among others.

Another such player, the mighty Edwin van der Sar, was just 25 years old when Ajax beat AC Milan 1-0 in the 1995 final. He would sign for Juventus in 1999 and comfortably fend off the other competition for a starting berth in goal until the Turin club spent a world record fee for a goalkeeper on a certain Gianluigi Buffon in 2001, a record that stood for 16 years. He moved to Fulham before, in 2005, getting another shot at a club that matched his prowess as he finally solved the goalkeeping quasi-crisis that had plagued Sir Alex Ferguson after Peter Schmeichel quit Manchester United in 1999. From then until 2011, Van der Sar steadied the Old Trafford ship before hanging up his gloves at 39 years young. He won his only other Champions League title with the Red Devils in 2008, in that final, and earned two runners up medals courtesy of an unstoppable Barcelona, writing their own history under the stewardship of Pep Guardiola.

Having amassed a whopping 130 national team caps, Van der Sar, like many of this generation of players, has returned to Ajax in an extra-footballing capacity and currently sits as the club’s General Director having begun a tenure as Marketing Director in 2012. He used his spare time post-playing career to study the logistics of football in a different way to a lot of his peers: at the Johan Cruyff Institute, he took a masters in sports and brand management. It would have been easy, says Van der Sar, to go into football as a goalkeeping coach but he sought to stretch his horizons rather than rest on his laurels.

“A lot of people asked me why I didn’t become a goalkeeping coach but where is the challenge in that?

“There isn’t one, I could do it way too easily. I wanted to stretch myself and learn something entirely new. I could have made lots of money being a club ambassador at United and getting jet-lagged while endorsing beer but I wanted to aim for something different.”

Indeed, having seen the successful financial and sponsorship models at the likes of United, Van der Sar is now shifting the way Ajax’s sponsorship deals work. A sponsor for their training kit, for example, was brought in to generate extra revenue. The players, after all, were seen at training on television and in the new world of social media but the club wasn’t capitalising on it. Unfortunately, Ajax can’t quite expect the reputed £750 million that the likes of Manchester United command over 10 year sponsorship deals but they can be smart. Van der Sar is also looking to extend the brand into China by showcasing their history to a new online market. Holland alone, at 17 million inhabitants, will not be a likely source of more money that it currently supplies.

One simple remaining fact, for the time being at least, is that Ajax rely on player sales to generate revenue. Davy Klaasen has left the club for Everton this summer transfer window for an impressive £25 million or so, about what Van der Sar expects them to generate through sponsorships per year. Through TV sales they can expect €9 million euros, 20% less than the lower echelons of the Premier League had coming their way before the newest TV rights deal had even kicked in.

This Ajax team of great success in 1995 more or less stayed together for at least one more season. In 1996 they reached the Champions League final again with a squad that was only 5 players different to the year before. Rijkaard had retired after his second spell at the club, Seedorf and Van Vossen sold, Overmars and Reiziger injured. The score after extra-time was 1-1 and Juventus won 4-2 on penalties to clinch only their second ever title of Europe’s highest standing; it was the first of three successive finals as they went all the way in 1997 and 1998 but were undone by Borussia Dortmund and a historic Real Madrid.

The trouble for Ajax was that five more players from these European finals would leave in the summer of ‘96 and a further five in ‘97. The team was now more or less unrecognisable from the great success of 1995 as players could also leave on Bosmans, a rule change Ajax could not react to quickly enough to profit from.

The team being gutted so profoundly over such a short timeframe cost them dearly, most notably on the the international stage but domestically they underperformed too by their high standards. League titles came in 1998, 2002 and 2004 but a barren run from 2005-2011 saw PSV win three on the spin before relative underlings Feyenoord, AZ and Steve McClaren’s FC Twente notched a title each to keep things interesting for record book holders.

In 2011, Ajax’s entire board of directors resigned en masse. Their statement was curious, chairman Uri Coronel was quoted in the Guardian saying "We are not bigger than Ajax. Johan Cruyff is not just anyone. He's a demi-god here or maybe a whole god."

Cruyff had joined the club again in 2008 as a technical advisor, in the middle of what must have felt like the dark ages for Ajax’s fans, so accustomed as they were to silverware being hauled. His success at Barcelona as a manager and director, and affiliation with Ajax as a player had tempted the board to get him involved in how the club was being run but Cruyff didn’t like what he saw and the board didn’t like what they heard. Cruyff wanted the coach, recent Crystal Palace boss Frank de Boer, to be given a greater role in the running of the club and he called for former players to be given greater responsibility too. Chief executive, Rik van den Boog, was reluctant to implement all of Cruyff’s recommendations but he failed to take into account his popularity and soon found himself on the wrong side of the opinions of fans and other members of the club staff.

Cruyff had a simple vision: take the club back to the glory years of the 60s and 70s, his heydey, by employing similar methods. The financial evolution of football had seen the day to day running of the club diluted as directors and board members joined one after the other as their commercial and financial interests increased. This, as Cruyff saw it, became cooks spoiling the brew.

He had an ambitious youth policy and wanted former players to have a say, even input, in how the players were coached. We now see the likes of Van der Sar in charge of logistics with Mark Overmars as a technical director and Denis Bergkamp working at the club as a coach. Ajax boasts a rich and impressive roster of former players on the books which has set a strong precedent for the Eredivisie as a decent starting block for careers in the wider footballing world. Nicolas Anelka no less, Overmars and Bergkamp’s teammate from their time at Arsenal, followed their lead into Dutch football when he arrived in February 2017 to coach at the unfashionable but modest outlet JC Roda Kerkrade. A friend of a Roda shareholder, Aleksei Korotaev, Anelka’s time at Roda has been inconsistent at best with the team scraping through survival from relegation via the playoffs, changing manager, selling players and reports emerging the Korotaev’s takeover of the club being in jeopardy due to his imprisonment in Dubai on grounds of financial misconduct. This aside, it is good to see household names without obvious ties to Dutch football willing to mix in and contribute to the progress of the league.

Indeed, Patrick Kluivert has coached in the youth systems and himself had a decent role to play in his son’s progress, giving him plenty of games for the U-19s as coach before he moved to PSG as a director of football. His time at Ajax also required juggling the job as the national team coach of Curaçao in the Caribbean, an Island he is descendant of. He exerted his status as a great of the game, largely thanks to his time at Ajax, to convince otherwise unwilling fellow Curaçaoans to pledge their allegiance to the small island and try and create history rather than hope for the odd call up to the more competitive and mercurial Dutch national team; Cuco Martina and Leandro Bacuna are such examples that British football fans might recognise who are hopeful that one day their nation will play in a World Cup.

With Patrick recently at PSG, there will likely be speculation that Justin will join the French outfit at some point in the future. That is unlikely to be any time soon though, given that Kluivert Junior has had barely half a season of first team football. Ajax do need to sell players to keep on top of their finances but not desperately. One Davy Klaasen-esque exit per season combined with a couple of more modest sales will certainly do for now, particularly if they can maintain a degree of prowess on European stages. TV rights per game are almost as lucrative in UEFA cup competitions as they are in the Premier League . United’s victory in May’s Europa League final was not much of a surprise as the contrasting resources available to each manager has already been noted (the writer certainly acknowledges he is not the first person to do so). For an ambitious club like Ajax it provided a magnificent stage to show how far they have come in recent years: it was United’s fifth European Final since Ajax lost on penalties in 1996.

Ajax cannot be accused of possessing ‘small man’s syndrome’, they fight for what they believe is fair and have had their share of tragedy in recent years. Cruyff’s death in 2016 hit the club hard; it lost an icon and a father figure. Whats more, the fruits of his dynasty weren’t yet as obvious to the wider world as they are now. As discussed, his policies were initially met with disdain, there was talk of revolt and mutiny but eventually they stuck. At the time of his death, they had hitherto not seemed to yield much success, the odd league title notwithstanding. But that would change.

When Christian Eriksen was sold to Tottenham Hotspur in 2013 at the tender age of 21, he was the only real attacking prospect in the side and the only player at the time likely of fetching anywhere near his alleged eventual £16 million price tag. Fast forward to 2017 and the team is now full of bright young attacking talent, not the least of which is Kluivert. While Klaasen is not likely to be the last of his generation to leave and certainly won’t be the most expensive, all is not lost. In the same way that people have theorised Harry Kane and Dele Alli’s logic in staying at Tottenham, it seems that many of the young players at Ajax simply want to build something worthwhile as a legacy at the club (Klaasen could have left much earlier than he did and didn’t wrangle for a move in the way that some players have been known to), rather than earn more money in pastures new. This is put down to their footballing education, which is itself a consequence of Cruyff’s vision. Total football was about more than football in many ways, after all, which will not be discussed today but it was more than fitting to finally see an Ajax team in a major European final again just over a year after the great man’s death. The only shame was that he was not there to witness it himself.

Ajax came close to winning the title last year, Dirk Kuyt’s swansong spoiling the party despite near intervention from a Hasselbaink (Jimmy-Floyd’s cousin) at Excelsior who bagged a goal and an assist on the penultimate day of the season to confirm his side’s safety from the drop and force Feyenoord to wait another week before the title was theirs. It says a lot that Hasselbaink has elected to play his football in Israel from here on in. At the age of 26 it doesn’t look like a move for footballing reasons and while some will oggle and bemoan his lack of vision, few will begrudge him a lucrative contract having earned his stripes wide and far.

There have been changes at Ajax: Riedewald, Tete and Klaasen have been sold; Westermann and Traoré have seen contracts expire or loans run out; vultures were circling around the likes of Davinson Sanchez from leagues far wide. The truth is that Ajax will not panic. They will be able to hold on to enough players to remain competitive and capital raised by player sales should see improved contracts for their most promising stars which, in turn, will drive up their value should they be sold in the future. There is also a decent enough roster of talented youth at their disposal for there not to be any concern regarding strength in depth. Whether players stay or go, the price will be right for the club. Now that the god or demi-god Cruyff is gone, no one is bigger than Ajax.

The Europa League and the Eredivisie were not to be last year but whole scale changes are not needed to stand a decent chance again. While United ended up in the Champions League, Ajax lost out to Nice in their playoff tie and were in with a more modest set of European elite until they were beaten by Nicklas Bendtner’s Rosenborg of Norway last week. Disappointment, certainly, for such an established outlet but with key exits and entrances this summer, it was always likely to be a season of readjustment. With Johan Cruyff firmly still in the back of everyone’s minds and the likes of the ambitious Kluivert in their squad, the future is bright, whether they are lifting any trophies in May 2017 or not.

By Alex Guilford. Alex is a Dutch, Italian and English football analyst at Opta and, around writing for various sports outlets, has recently set up the football blog Footing Thinkball.

Header image credit goes fully to John Brooks.