There were plenty of eyebrows raised when Ajax signed Dušan Tadić in June 2018. He’d just finished an underwhelming season for a Southampton side who’d only managed to avoid relegation by three points. As a result, some found it difficult to see why they wanted him. The fact that he would turn 30 soon and Ajax’s model for years has been largely based around producing young and exciting talent made this a strange fit.
Nevertheless, Ajax knew he was the man for them and bought for upwards of £10m. Less than a season in and that move has proved a masterstroke for both player and club. Tadić looks a completely different prospect under the tutelage of Erik ten Hag than the one who was managed by Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes last season. He already has more goals to his name from 12 matches in this season’s Champions League and its qualifiers alone than he registered in 41 appearances in all competitions for the Saints last campaign, with numerous factors contributing to his reinvigoration.
In September 2018, Tadić told Goal: “The Netherlands is a way better place to live in than England. They only have London, but here it’s different. Everything is clean and there are nice roads, streets and bars here. It’s something special.” Individuals will usually provide better results when they are comfortable, no matter the field they work in.
However, aside from the lifestyle of Holland, being in the country has another benefit for Tadić: familiarity. Having come through the academy at Serbian side Vojvodina, Tadić’s first move outside of his home country was to Eredivisie outfit Groningen, before heading to fellow Dutch side Twente two seasons later. He thrived during his first stint in Holland, managing 46 goals and 68 assists in 161 matches.
It is his impressive performances in Holland that earned Tadić a Premier League move in 2014. He never managed to reach the same heights at St Mary’s, though. His second season in England was his best on a personal level, chipping in with eight goals and 13 assists in the league and winning plaudits along the way for his technique, creativity and link-up play.
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It’s true that the Eredivisie is on a lower level to the Premier League and so there is a high probability he’d contribute more there, but even his previous record in Holland pales in comparison to his total this season, and that argument can’t be used for his Champions League exploits.
During his time on England’s south coast, Tadić was often the man Southampton hoped would chances, with Adam Lallana having joined Liverpool a week before the Serb’s arrival and Sadio Mané leaving for Anfield a year later.
There were efforts made to give Tadić a partner in crime in 2016, Nathan Redmond joining from Norwich and Sofiane Boufal from Lille. However, Boufal failed to make any real impression at all. Redmond did have a positive impact at times but couldn’t really be relied upon as a creative outlet for the side.
There is no issue surrounding creative support for Tadić at Ajax, though, helped by players who can carve out opportunities for themselves and others. With the Serbia international predominantly operating from the left wing of Ajax’s favoured 4-3-3 formation, on the opposite flank he’ll usually have Hakim Ziyech or David Neres.
They two approach wing play differently; Ziyech often cuts in onto his favoured left foot while Neres stays wide to utilise his pace, but both the Moroccan and Brazilian provide quite the threat. Barcelona-bound midfielder Frenkie de Jong creates from deep, driving forward with his supreme dribbling skills and eye for a pass. Even the defenders help to build the play.
The fact that there is creativity all over the pitch means that Tadić is just one man who needs to be nullified by the opponent, rather than the focus point. It has allowed his predatory instincts to come through. The first of his two goals in Ajax’s 3-3 draw against Bayern Munich in the last round of Champions League group matches highlights this well.
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De Jong received the ball from Blind, who quickly offloaded it to Ziyech after the Moroccan had roamed infield. He then flicked it behind the defence for Donny van de Beek to run onto, who hit the ball across goal. Rather than getting involved in the original play, Tadić – who was playing as the number 9 – trusted his teammates to create the chance and hung back, drifting towards the back post where he was eventually on hand to tap the ball into the gaping net.
It is no coincidence that Tadić played his best football at Southampton under Ronald Koeman, the man who brought him to England. The Dutch manager, like his predecessor Mauricio Pochettino, looked to play an attractive, attacking brand of football. Those who followed him as manager during Tadić’s time at Southampton – Claude Puel, Pellegrino and Hughes – all had a more conservative approach that was built around the defence, making it more difficult to free the Serb’s attacking talents.
Ten Hag’s approach is certainly attacking. Before his time as manager of Utrecht, which earned him his move to Ajax in December 2017, he worked under Pep Guardiola as Bayern Munich II manager. There are similarities between the styles of the two; both focusing on keeping possession of the ball, pressing high to win it back and looking to attack at every opportunity.
This system can leave Ajax short at the back sometimes, but it benefits the likes of Tadić. There have been some incredible Ajax scorelines already this season, winning by five goals or more five times, with one of those coming against AZ Alkmaar. These are all wins that Tadić was integral to. He’s also made the difference in tighter affairs, with one such example coming in a Champions League group stage match against AEK Athens, scoring both Ajax’s goals in a 2-0 win.
The Serb has a sense of freedom that he wasn’t afforded at Southampton, where all-too-often he’d be found in his own half trying to dictate the play or provide defensive cover. At Ajax he also has to do the dirty work, but it’s not within a system that places ten men behind the ball.
In possession, Tadić often drops back to spray passes across the pitch, allowing the likes of Nicolás Tagliafico and Van de Beek to move towards the byline. Alternatively, he can use his skill to make his way down the wing and force his way into the box, or cross the ball to the striker or an arriving midfielder.
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Having Tagliafico come up from the left-back position also gives Tadic more of a license to get into the box himself when the ball is on the opposite wing. The plethora of attacking options presented by Ten Hag’s attacking system contribute to the unpredictability that has made Tadić such a threat at Ajax.
It is obvious but a player is likely to play their best football in a side which is winning games. Last season Tadić was part of a team whose only chance of getting success was in reaching the FA Cup semi-final. They lost in their first Carabao Cup game and finished one place above the relegation zone in the league.
In contrast, he’s now in an Ajax side fighting to win the Eredivisie, preparing for the KNVB Beker semi-final, and one which has qualified for the Champions League knockout rounds for the first time since the 2004/05 season. He’s started every game Ajax have played this campaign aside from his first.
At the time of writing that makes 36 games with just two losses. It’s no surprise he and his teammates are playing with confidence. On a personal note, there are only eight games in which Tadić has started so far without having been directly involved in a goal, a statistic that offers a snapshot of the outstanding contribution he’s made this season – something few can match across the continent this season.
Aside from this, and despite being known for silky skills and being nice on the eye, Tadić is a fierce competitor. Being on the cusp of winning trophies and going deep into European competition will inevitably push him to reach new levels.
It isn’t often that a 30-year-old is found playing the best football of their career, but the conditions for him at Ajax are allowing Dušan Tadić to do just that. The Serbian playmaker is now a reinvigorated figure who has been one of the most prolific in this season’s Eredivisie and Champions League.
By Danny Lewis @DannyLewis_95