With Ajax Amsterdam on the cusp of Europa League success, I take a look at how Ajax have reached a European final by examining the decisions made by the board as well as by Peter Bosz, who has so thoroughly transformed the Amsterdam club and is largely responsible for bringing Ajax back to the forefront of European football.
It’s August 3rd, 2016. Ajax Amsterdam are preparing to face PAOK in the 2nd leg of their Champions League 3rd qualifying round tie and this is how they would be lining up: (5-3-2) – Jasper Cillessen; Kenny Tete, Joel Veltman, Heiko Westermann, Nick Viergever, Mitchell Dijks; Jairo Riedewald, Davy Klaassen, Nemanja Gudelj; Mateo Cassierra, Kasper Dolberg (Anwar El Ghazi).
Ajax squeaked out a narrow and thoroughly undeserved 2-1 victory to advance for a chance to play FC Rostov with a spot in this season’s Champions League on the line. However, the Dutch club would proceed to be embarrassed by Rostov in the play-off round 2nd leg, losing 4-1, and at this point, things were looking ominous for Ajax. Last season’s star striker, Arek Milik, had been sold, Jasper Cillessen was on his way to Barcelona, there was to be no Champions League football, and the transfer window was only open for one final week. The decision to not retain four-time Eredivisie title winner, Frank de Boer, and hire a relatively untested head coach in Peter Bosz appeared like a worse and worse decision with each passing day.
Fast forward nine months to May 3rd, 2017.
Ajax are preparing to face Olympique Lyon in the Europa League semi-final and this is how they would be lining up: (4-3-3) – Andre Onana; Kenny Tete, Davinson Sanchez, Matthijs de Ligt, Jairo Riedewald; Lasse Schone (Donny Van de Beek), Davy Klaassen, Hakim Ziyech; Amin Younes (Justin Kluivert), Kasper Dolberg (David Neres), Bertrand Traore.
This time Peter Bosz’ Ajax would thrash their opposition as they routed Lyon 4-1 with a vastly changed line up, a completely different style of play, and a host of new young faces compared to the team that took the field that day in Greece. Ajax would complete the job the following week to cement their place in the final of the Europa League against Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United and amazingly, many even favor this young Ajax side that only nine months ago had been destroyed by FC Rostov.
So, how did Ajax go from the boring, uninspired side that Rostov dismantled with consummate ease to the swashbuckling, charismatic, and vibrant team that they are right now? The answer, in large part, is down to one man: Peter Bosz.
The Hiring of Peter Bosz
On the last day of last year’s Eredivisie season, Ajax needed to win against lowly De Graafschap to secure their 5th title in six years, but they would fail to do so as the scored finished 1-1. This would conclude a very disappointing season, in which they also failed to win the Dutch Cup and were knocked out in the group stage of the Europa League in a very manageable group consisting of Molde, Fenerbahce, and Celtic.
Frank de Boer’s failure to win the title for a 2nd straight year was concerning, but many thought he deserved to remain in charge following his incredible first four years in which he won the league every year. He had brought stability during his five and a half years in charge of the Dutch club as well as success with his four league titles, so the club would have been in their right to keep de Boer, as he had either won or come very close to winning the league each year and that is essentially the minimum Ajax fans expect. However, he did not put one meaningful European campaign together and the football being played was good at times, but in general was quite bland and boring to watch. With this in mind, the board assessed the situation and decided that the potential reward of bringing in a new head coach was greater than the risk of undoing all of de Boer’s good work. So, the board and de Boer came to a fairly mutual decision that he would resign as both parties recognized that change was needed.
“I began to realize it was time for something else. This is better for me and I think also for Ajax.” – Frank de Boer (Guardian)
This was an important call to make by the board, as we’ve seen this type of situation all over Europe play out in different ways. Arsenal have decided to keep Arsene Wenger for years since they consistently make the top 4 in England, which is their minimum requirement, even though Arsenal have not had a meaningful European campaign since 2008. Arsenal are too afraid that letting Wenger go would see them stumble out of the top 4, while Wenger is too stubborn to recognize that Arsenal may improve without him, so he’s remained in charge as Arsenal fans grow more and more restless. But, Ajax and de Boer would not make this mistake, understanding that sometimes big clubs need to make big decisions if they want to truly improve, even if it may seem risky at the time.
And the man the board felt was needed to bring this new vision was a slightly unfavorable choice: Peter Bosz. Everyone respected Bosz’ style of play while he was manager at Heracles and Vitesse, but there were still considerable doubts surrounding his appointment. First, he was a former Feyenoord player, which is never popular amongst Ajax fans, second, he had never managed at a club of Ajax’s stature, and third, he was not “from the system” like de Boer and most other Ajax managers had been, so fans were hesitant to accept him and it was only when they began to see him implement his ideas that they grew to fully embrace the ex-Feyenoord man.
What Peter Bosz Changed Mentally
When Peter Bosz was hired, the first thing he had to do was change the mentality of the players. For the past decade, Ajax had played like a small club in Europe losing to teams like Legia Warsaw and Molde who, in truth, should be no match for a club like Ajax. While there were some successes like beating Barcelona and Manchester City in the Champions League group stage, there was a lack of ambition at the club to succeed in Europe.
“I am not afraid of anything” – Peter Bosz (Ajax.nl)
The expectation at Ajax, according to one former board member, had become “to win the Eredivisie and hope that we are still in Europe after the Winter break.” This wasn’t good enough for Bosz and on his first day he claimed, “I am very ambitious and so is Ajax,” as he indicated to the club and the players that he would be demanding more of them. He’s maintained this mindset throughout the season and continually reiterated that “Ajax always wants to win everything we go for, so we want to perform at our best on both fronts.” This new mentality was a key point that Bosz stressed upon his arrival and it’s clear that he’s been able to get this through to his players and it’s helped get the best out of the group.
What Peter Bosz Changed Tactically
Bosz arrived as a man renowned for his extremely exciting and attacking style of play and he was brought in to try and get Ajax back to playing in a typical “Ajax” way. Ever since Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels brought total football to the club, Ajax have been a team that wants to dominate the opposition, monopolize the ball, and effectively play with the mindset that while we may concede goals, we will score more than the other team. However, this style of play is something that had been lacking the past few years as de Boer’s reign dragged on. So, Bosz’ goal was to ensure that both he and the the fans would be happy and enjoy watching Ajax play. He says, “when I see my team only defending and destroying, I will not enjoy it. I think that when I’m on the bench, at least I will give myself a happy afternoon.”
The focus on ball possession and playing out of the back remained a priority for Bosz, but he also wanted to bring back some of the excitement that had been missing by encouraging his players to play more directly when there was a chance to do so. And in order to create these opportunities, Bosz implemented a ferocious and organized high press to try and win the ball back quickly and in dangerous areas. Successfully pressing the opposition needs good tactical discipline and understanding, but it is also a mindset. Bosz made it clear to his players that if you lose the ball, “don’t be disappointed in yourself, don’t be disappointed in your team-mate because you have to press. This is the moment. Not one player. The whole team.” The best time to win the ball back is immediately after you lose it, so this is what Bosz expected from his team.
“[After losing possession], Barcelona have a three-second rule [to win the ball back]. We’re not Barcelona, so I put two seconds on.” – Peter Bosz (Guardian)
If, however, you aren’t able to win the ball right away, Bosz still encourages his players to play an aggressive style to win the ball back in dangerous areas. He demands that his defenders step hard on any entry pass to the strikers feet to try and win it and encourages his midfielders and attackers to take chances and leave their position if they sense an opportunity to win the ball back.
I took a closer look at Bosz’ tactics in the games against Schalke and Lyon when they completely overwhelmed the two sides en route to comfortable victories…
Ajax vs. Schalke – Tactical Overview
This was Ajax back to their very best as their incredibly youthful side dismantled Schalke. pic.twitter.com/iLQzgx1duh
— EiF (@EiFsoccer) April 14, 2017
These tactical changes have been absolutely crucial to Ajax’s success this season and despite it taking a little while to get used to the new system, the team has now fully embraced Bosz’ tactical approach, and from those two games you can see just how well it is working.
“It was tough [at the beginning]. If the left winger goes to the area, you go with him. I was like: ‘Ninety minutes man, it’s impossible.’ But it is fun. Sometimes I’m on the pitch just enjoying it like a fan on the side. Then I get goosebumps.” – Joel Veltman (Guardian)
The Signings of Hakim Ziyech and Davinson Sanchez
Peter Bosz deserves immense credit for bringing and implementing his tactics, but it’s also crucial to recognize the importance of the players in all of this and two players who deserve immense credit for allowing Ajax to play in this bold manner are Hakim Ziyech and Davinson Sanchez.
Hakim Ziyech was signed at the very end of the transfer window following the Rostov debacle and he immediately added quality to the Ajax team although there were doubts about his work rate. He has since ended absolutely all of that doubt by becoming the key man in Ajax’s pressing game. Bosz has worked with him throughout the year to try and convince him that he can utilize his brilliant passing ability more effectively if Ajax can win the ball higher up the pitch. It took a while, and at one point he was even dropped because of his poor performances, but since February he has blossomed and fully embraced Bosz’ high press and he’s arguably been the most important player for Ajax during this Europa League run.
Here’s his phenomenal performance vs. Lyon.
Hakim Ziyech vs. Lyon
Fantastic service + an unrivaled workrate. 3 assists and many recoveries led Ajax to victory.pic.twitter.com/hC282LrZL9
— EiF (@EiFsoccer) May 5, 2017
Despite the best efforts of Barcelona, Ajax signed Davinson Sanchez following his successful campaign in the Copa Libertadores with Atletico Nacional and Ajax knew they were getting a powerful and athletic center back, who could become a key player for the side immediately. Joel Veltman, Nick Viergever, and Jairo Riedewald were the main center back options to start the season, but while all are gifted footballers there was a need for more solidity and toughness at the back and that’s what Davinson has brought from the off.
Sanchez was energetic, passionate, and incredibly strong in the tackle, which made the Ajax defense tougher to break down, but what impressed Bosz and Ajax fans even more was his ability on the ball. He fit in perfectly with the system Bosz was trying to play because he would aggressively pressure attackers and win the ball back quickly, and then had the ability to stride out from the back and initiate attacks. It has seemingly been a match made in heaven, and Ajax’s scouts and Director of Football, Marc Overmars, deserve enormous credit for signing the man who has helped personify Ajax’s toughness this season.
Adhering to the Ajax Amsterdam policy of Trusting the Youth
Finally, the last piece to the Ajax Amsterdam puzzle has been Peter Bosz’ commitment to playing the youth. Ajax have historically had one of the best, if not the best, youth academies in the world and every coach has the responsibility to integrate these players, and that’s what Bosz has done and then some. Ajax have always had a good number of youth players in the first team, but Bosz has not only promoted them to the first team, he has turned many of them into valuable squad members and trusted them to perform at the very highest level. He has elevated the likes of Kasper Dolberg (19), Justin Kluivert (18), and Matthijs de Ligt (17) from youth team players to key starters despite their tender ages. Entrusting young academy graduates with this type of responsibility at such a young age is what Ajax is known for and has done over the years with the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Rafael Van der Vaart and Christian Eriksen, but is another aspect of Ajax that had waned towards the end of de Boer’s tenure. He would trust fairly average players like Mike Van de Hoorn and Nemanja Gudelj instead of young academy stars like Jairo Riedewald or Donny Van de Beek, and that is not consistent with the Ajax DNA.
His willinginess to play young players is perhaps what Bosz deserves the most credit for. He hasn’t completely changed the aura around Ajax this season by bringing in new players or by implementing a new way of playing. He has simply brought Ajax back to its roots and he is getting rewarded.
“My Ajax boys, no matter how young they are, won’t be afraid.” – Peter Bosz (Twitter)
Dolberg, Kluivert, and de Ligt have quite rightly been the three main academy graduates in the headlines as they’ve become key pieces of the Ajax team, but Bosz also deserves credit for bringing through Donny Van de Beek, Abdelhak Nouri, and Frenkie de Jong, and also, in recent times, for trusting Kenny Tete and Jairo Riedewald to fill in at outside back. Van de Beek has taken his opportunity and been fantastic every time he’s stepped on the field and now there are serious cries for him to start ahead of the more experienced Lasse Schone in the final, and knowing Peter Bosz he won’t be afraid to do that. He trusts his youngsters, he knows what they can do, and he doesn’t think about experience when selecting the team.
A fine example of Bosz’ unwavering confidence in his youngsters is the tale of Matthijs de Ligt’s dreadful national team debut. De Ligt has had a meteoric rise, and it culminated with a start against Bulgaria for Holland in World Cup Qualifying and he made a couple poor errors that led to goals, which saw him get substituted at half time and Holland lose the game. Many thought this was a sign that de Ligt had been rushed and that he wasn’t completely ready for the highest level, and many were worried that the great number of people criticizing de Ligt’s performance would cripple de Ligt’s and Bosz’ confidence. However, Bosz remained calm and opted to continue with the man who had been so superb week in, week out.
“I told him that we are very satisfied with his development and he should continue to do what he is doing. He must not panic and suddenly do other things. I think he is a great and well-balanced player.” – Peter Bosz following de Ligt’s disastrous Dutch debut (at5)
This complete faith in his youngsters has rewarded Bosz and simultaneously has stunned the footballing world. In the final weekend of the Eredivisie season, Bosz trotted out the youngest line up in Eredivisie history as they comfortably defeated Willem II 3-1. Ajax routinely played teams this young throughout the season, and ultimately Ajax would fall one point short of Feyenoord in their quest to win the Eredivisie title, but to break the record on the final day put a smile on the faces of Ajax fans everywhere, and it was a symbolic end to a season that saw Bosz’ unrelenting confidence in his youngsters impress fans everywhere.
Ajax have named the youngest-ever starting XI in Eredivisie history.
Average age: 20 years, 139 days.
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 14, 2017
One More Hurdle
It’s quite sad knowing that Ajax’s crop of fantastic youngsters, recently dubbed “Bosz’ Babes” could end the season without a trophy, but I don’t think many Ajax fans will care too much. This was a season that reminded those who have supported the club for years why they chose to support Ajax Amsterdam. Football has become a “results business,” but this Ajax team has proved that’s not always the case and that no matter what happens at the end of the game, you’re simply proud to be a fan. Whether that’s because nearly the entire team is comprised of exciting youngsters or because the football being played has brought you to your feet more times than you can count over a 90 minute period, you’re proud that you were there to watch, regardless of the result.
Now, Ajax travel to Sweden to take on Manchester United and it would be incredibly special if Ajax could lift the Europa League trophy against a team that couldn’t be more different than Ajax at the present moment. Manchester United are a team full of highly priced stars and a superstar manager, who tries to get results in any way he can, while Ajax are a young, thrilling, attacking club that will look to make it an exciting game.
It’ll be a tight contest in Stockholm because that’s how Mourinho will want it to be played, but if these Ajax youngsters can maintain their composure as they’ve done all season long, then maybe they can shock the big spenders and take home a cup to cap off this incredible season.
And while they’ll be playing against a team that has spent more on transfers since 2014 than Ajax have since 1945, Peter Bosz and Ajax Amsterdam aren’t going to Sweden to simply enjoy the occasion… they believe they will win.
“To play a final is nice, but you play finals to win.” – Peter Bosz (FFT)