Pareidolia – the perceiving of familiarity where none exists – is a more common psychological phenomenon than you might think. Frequently reported examples include; finding images in cloud formations, visualising a man on the moon, and hearing recognisable voices in random noise. In Amsterdam last Wednesday, several thousand Ajax fans were dealt a severe case. It couldn’t possibly be – it wasn’t – but it might have been 1995 all over again.
In their Europa League semi-final first leg against Lyon, Ajax were artfully tenacious. Their football was fluid purity. In a genetic and tactical tribute to bygone eras, a deliciously flexible 4-3-3 deemed attack the most effective form of defence. The essence of Total Football blended seamlessly with modern athleticism and a high-intensity press. It was new-style Total Football, and Ajax have one foot in a major European final for the first time since 1996. All with an average age of 21 years and eight months.
While direct comparisons with Louis van Gaal’s 1995 Champions League winners (and runners-up in 1996) require gentle exaggeration, there can be no doubt that Ajax under Peter Bosz are up to something special.
‘Philosophy’ and ‘style of play’ are terms often maligned by the corporate circus of modern football. However in Amsterdam at the soon-to-be-confirmed Johan Cruyff Arena, their definitions carry a most genuine and almost tactile meaning. A modern take on Total Football has seen 2016/17 herald a renaissance for the Amsterdammers.
The renaissance has been a while coming. It’s been over a decade since Ajax made any European quarter-final, and precisely two decades since they reached a semi-final. In the meantime, domestic dominance has papered over cracks and flattered to deceive.
Romantics suggest this season’s golden and premature coming of age is a direct result of Cruyff’s Velvet Revolution, an often ugly boardroom battle to realign Ajax to its true philosophy. Pragmatists point to the recent work of Bosz and his staff, and Ajax finally making good in the transfer market. While Cruyff’s influence could and should never be underestimated, the truth, as it invariably does, lies somewhere in the middle.
In September 2010, a Champions League humbling at the Bernabéu burst a frustrated seal. Cruyff, via his De Telegraaf newspaper column, lamented that Ajax were no longer a superpower of European football. Ajax weren’t even Ajax anymore. Enough was enough. He argued that the club he loved had lost its way. Throwing cash at questionable foreign imports rather than investing in coaching their youth teams was no way forward. He saw a club – his club – mismanaged and directed by men in suits.
Essentially, he was right. He always was. Attempting to replicate Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or even Barcelona was futile. Cruyff proposed the meaningful and longer-term prosperity of Ajax would equate to stepping back in order to step forward. It was a reaffirmation of sorts. Investment in youth, replacing the suits with a contingent of ex-players and coaches, and collectively nurturing and trusting those youth players into the first team, were the cornerstones.
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Critics stated Cruyff was merely nostalgic, that he was yearning for simpler times which wouldn’t marry with modern times. Ajax was a club divided by polarising heroes and directions. Ajaciens were torn between the heady romanticism of Cruyff and the dogmatism of a more recent history, one epitomised by van Gaal in 1995. Also in confused existence were a generation who knew nothing more than modern mediocrity. The velvet revolution reopened an often rancorous feud between Cruyff and van Gaal.
In an effort to calm Cruyff and stabilise supporters emotions, the much-maligned Ajax directors made him a member of the board in 2011. A short while later, the same individuals appointed Louis van Gaal as general director without consulting their newest board member.
Though its ideals were lofty and intentions pure, the velvet revolution was a fractious affair. In pitting Cruyff and van Gaal in opposition, supporters were essentially asked to chose their mum or dad in a bitter contest of popularity. Inevitably, Cruyff and his vision won out.
A redirection and power shift ensued. Ex-players Edwin van der Saar, Wim Jonk, Frank de Boer and Marc Overmars were appointed to senior coaching and boardroom positions and became Cruyff’s technical heart. Tides of change engulfed, and Cruyff pulled strings from the safe distance of his home in Barcelona.
With on-field harmony somehow maintained by manager de Boer, Ajax claimed four successive Eredivisie titles between 2011 and 2014. In many ways, de Boer represented the dreams of Cruyff and the pragmatism of van Gaal in one mortal being. However his team faded, and that all-important European success remained firmly illusive. The playing style diluted into a sea of sideways passes and monotony. Profits from the transfers of Luis Suárez, Christian Eriksen, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Daley Blind et al yielded questionable reinvestment.
The technical heart was beating but the beast wasn’t well. PSV claimed the 2014/15 ttle by a 17 point margin. Ajax, devoid of style and entertainment, conceded the 2015/16 Eredivisie from the palms of their hands too, and de Boer departed shortly after. In his place at the top of the coaching tree – or rather in its midst gently coaxing every branch and leaf to bend, lean, and flow with aesthetic purpose – currently sits Peter Bosz.
Upon his July 2016 appointment, Bosz was labelled something of a Cruyff disciple. Despite never having played for Ajax or coached any of its various teams, Bosz has always tipped his hat firmly towards Total Football. As a young professional for Vitesse, he even purchased an Ajax season ticket just to watch Cruyff’s 1981 to 1983 swansong – a story almost sweet enough to forgive Bosz’s two stints at Feyenoord.
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De Graafschap and Heracles Almelo, smaller Eredivisie clubs where Bosz cut his managerial teeth, were famed for their energetic and attacking football. As with many Dutch clubs, they relied on youth rather than budget. Bosz instilled confidence in these youngsters and provided the environment for them to flourish. January 2016 saw a life-changing switch as Bosz was appointed manager of Maccabi Tel Aviv, where one Jordi Cruyff holds significant influence as sporting director.
Despite the family connections and the gezellig week of informal meetings at the Tel Aviv training ground in March 2015, there can be no certainty Cruyff had earmarked Bosz for Ajax in any way. As a loss to the world, Johan Cruyff passed away on 24 March 2016, three months prior to Bosz signing with Ajax.
If the beast wasn’t well during the final stages of de Boer’s tenure, initial stages of recovery took time. Summer 2016 was one of somewhat hesitant transition, with clusters of fans slow to trust. Top scorer Arkadiusz Milik departed to Napoli for a cool €32 million, first choice keeper Jasper Cillessen replaced Claudio Bravo at Barcelona, and Bosz didn’t appear to have a full grasp of his mojo.
Ajax won just one of their first three Eredivisie fixtures in August. The opening day victory at Sparta did little to mask deficiencies of subsequent home games; a 2-2 draw against Roda and an unimaginable defeat to Willem II. A 4-1 reverse at Rostov in the Champions League playoff darkened the mood further.
However, since then, just two further league defeats have been recorded. Sometimes slowly but consistently surely, Ajax and Bosz have never looked back. The manager’s mojo and the club’s playing philosophy appear to be soulmates, and they’re currently living happily ever after.
Despite taking over a fairly stable entity, the current team belongs to Bosz. Of the 11 that finished the last match of 2015/16, just three started against Lyon. Admittedly, suspensions would have bumped that number up slightly. Bold changes have rejuvenated the club. Just as Cruyff did at boardroom level, Bosz has done to the first team squad. Ajax are once again swashbuckling, full of youthful swagger, and wonderfully entertaining.
In goal, and every inch the effective sweeper-keeper Total Football demands, André Onana plays with bold exertion. Having started the current campaign as back-up to Cillessen, Onana is deliciously confident with the ball at his feet and increasingly commanding in the more traditional art and science of goalkeeping. At just 21, he is a graduate of Barcelona’s La Masia academy.
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Evidencing further throwbacks to tactical fluidity and Total Football, the current back four features a converted winger, a deep-lying playmaker dropping in, and in Davinson Sánchez, a central defender who isn’t afraid to personally convert defence into attack. A regular first choice under Bosz, Sánchez was signed for €5 million in August and could be the next big money departure.
Daley Sinkgraven, a 21-year-old converted winger, has slotted in as an attacking full-back. Sinkgraven counterbalances his opposite full-back, Joël Veltman, who is at 25 is a more experienced natural defender.
Another example of Bosz’s tactical flexibility, and one which arguably transformed the season, is his use of Lasse Schöne. Very much Ajax’s elder statesman, Schöne resembles and picks a pass like 2001’s David Beckham. As a deep-lying playmaker, Schöne breaks down and sets up in equal measure, covers for marauding defenders, and strikes a mean free-kick. His intelligent presence also grants Hakim Ziyech creative freedom.
Impossible to pin down as a winger, midfielder or striker, Ziyech is a creative force who can wear all three positional masks simultaneously. Adding to Ajax’s bustling modern take on Total Football, Ziyech is something of a fantasista. On the ball he can resemble the Matt Le Tissiers or Glenn Hoddles of this world. Quick-footed flair, stealthly imagination and a passing repertoire par-excellence come naturally. As does relentless work off the ball.
At the grand old age of 24, Ziyech, an €11 million signing from Twente in August, is one of Ajax’s more experienced players. With ample years for growth and improvement – decision-making in the final third is a frequent critique – it can be argued with some force that Ziyech has the capacity to become the complete attacking midfielder.
Complementing the artistry and creativity of Ziyech and Schöne is club captain Davy Klaassen. The echt Amsterdammer – read: pale complexion, fair hair and straightforward demeanour – has been with the club for 11 years and embodies a local connection.
Spearheading a usually three-pronged attack has been shared between Bertrand Traoré and Kasper Dolberg. Traoré, 21 years of age and on a season-long loan from Chelsea, took time to adapt. Initially deployed centrally, he only found space, goals and fluidity once 19-year-old Dolberg was selected to lead the line.
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Dolberg has claimed 20 goals in a noteworthy debut season, and the presence and form of Justin Kluivert (you may recall his father), Amin Younes and January signing David Neres, provides an enviable headache for Bosz.
In addition to reinvesting some of the Milik transfer funds to bring in Ziyech, Sánchez and Neres, Bosz and his staff deserve great credit for their trust and emphasis in youth. Kluivert and Matthijs de Ligt were initially tipped to excel the Ajax under-19 squad this year. Assured ability and the effervescence of their tender years have seen both become first-team squad mainstays. De Ligt, who has been part of the academy since he was nine, is already a commanding central defender. At a muscular six foot two inches, he looks and plays like a well-seasoned veteran.
In every position Ajax have options, and carbon copies are being fine-tuned with Jong Ajax. Should Europe’s bigger clubs come circling in the summer transfer window, there exists no need for a panic button. Donny van de Beek, Kenny Tete, Abdelhak Nouri, Frenkie de Jong, Václav Černý, Kaj Sierhuis and Ché Nunnely offer alternative options.
With the technical heart in place and dust settled on boardroom battles, peace has bestowed itself upon Amsterdam. Recent years have probably been spent exactly how Cruyff would have wished – quietly investing in the academy and coaching, and patiently nurturing. Bosz has accelerated this work with humility and a stoic self-belief, and to devastating effect.
At home in the Europa League knockout ties against Lyon, Schalke, and FC Copenhagen, Ajax have reached new pinnacles. Despite riding their luck during the away legs, each home tie has increased in authenticity and convinced a wider audience. European success, craved for by de Boer, has satisfyingly slotted into place for Bosz.
Domestically, as the technical heart has found its true rhythm, PSV have dominated the Eredivisie. This season, however, Rotterdam – barring another unthinkable calamity – is likely to celebrate.
For Amsterdammers, the ultimately victorious story of 2016/17 has been one of reclaiming identity – arguably a more grand scale triumph compared to a solitary championship. Ajax’s rejuvenated identity has put the club firmly back on the map of European football, and regardless how this season’s Europa League adventure concludes, there is much reason to smile
By Glenn Billingham @glennbills