When Frank de Boer took over the managerial reigns at Ajax, the club had not won the league for six years and the brand of football they played was despised by idealists such a Johan Cruyff. Board room power struggles and mismanagement had seen them slide from Europe’s elite to a feeder club for European giants. Even with court room battles constantly hovering over the club, De Boer has managed to lead them to two successive titles. But more importantly, he has restored Ajax’s identity; playing attractive and attacking football. The next step now is to regain lost glory at the European level.
Problems Aplenty – On And Off The Field
De Boer was brought in to replace Martin Jol after a slew of poor results. His problems were compounded as key players like Suarez, left the club. De Boer though immediately set about reshaping the team, playing a fluid 4-3-3 with only one holding midfielder. He effectively steered the club through troubled times and led them to their first league title in six years.
However, new season brought little change and de Boer faced a barrage of on-field and off-field problems. Cruyff’s feud with supervisory board members escalated and in February, he won a court battle overturning the appointments of Louis van Gaal and Martin Sturkenboom. All members of the supervisory board quit after losing the case, and Cruyff eventually resigned in April, with an agreement in place for choosing a new board. De Boer later stated that the boardroom confrontation was “not a pleasant period” and for him it was as though he had to “choose between a son and a daughter”; with both Cruyff and van Gaal being major influences on his career.
Injuries too hampered a young Ajax team in the early period. Key players such as Derk Boerrigter and Gregory van der Wiel missed long periods of the season. De Boer had to use as many as 27 players during the season. A horrendous start to the season due to poor form and injuries meant that Ajax found themselves placed 6th in the league after 20 games.
Ajax March On As Rivals Falter
Ajax showed terrific determination in troubled times and marched to a 13 match winning streak leaving title challengers in their wake. However, victory was only possible because their league rivals faltered. In early February, Ajax’s 4-2 loss at a Feyenoord was followed by a 2-0 loss to Utrecht in consecutive weeks, which left them 8 points behind leaders PSV.
However, PSV capitulated after conceding six goals in a home game against FC Twente and a subsequent change of manager. AZ and Twente both had momentum with them in February but the team lost steam and their title charge fizzled out towards the closing stages of the season. Feyenoord and Heerenveen were always in contention but their inconsistency cost them a shot at league glory. In February, the race for Eredivisie was a six team title race but an extraordinary 13 match winning streak saw Ajax clinch it at the end.
4-3-3 – The Ajax Way
Ajax, under de Boer in the past year and a half have set up in a fluid 4-3-3 formation. The forward Siem de Jong plays as a false 9, while Danish ‘Wonderkid’ Christian Eriksen is the most attacking of the midfield three, often overlapping de Jong. The two full backs are deployed very high, especially when Gregory van der Wiel is operating at right back. One of, Anita or Enoh, usually plays as the deepest of the three midfielders and often drop between the centre backs who spread out to cover wide positions. Captain and star centre back Jan Vertonghen has had a stellar season and is wanted by several big clubs.
A major problem for de Boer has been to maintain a high percentage of possession percentage. Being wasteful in possession would mean that the players have to work harder to regain it, and are often too drained out to use it effectively. This season Ajax have conceded 8 goals in the last 15 minutes of matches, more than in any other period. On the other hand when they are too cautious in possession, it allows the opposition the time to settle into a solid defensive formation; which was seen in the 4-2 loss against Feyenoord when they dominated possession but had most of it in their own half.
It all fell into place in the 2-0 victory over PSV in March. Ajax maintained a very high intensity of pressure throughout the 90 minutes and dominated possession too. “For 94 minutes we had them by the throat” said de Boer, who could hardly hide his pleasure after the game. Despite 6 regulars being unavailable, Ajax comfortably beat their title rivals.
Cruyff’s Technical Revolution
De Boer from the very beginning had made his intentions, of going back to Cruyff’s philosophy of football and training, very clear. He often spoke of the importance of Ajax returning to their roots and believed Martin Jol’s defensive and rigid formation was partly responsible for the stagnation of the players. He immediately switched to a much more fluid 4-3-3 from a 4-2-3-1, using two wide players and only one holding midfielder as compared to two under Jol. In his second season, de Boer showed more glimpses of Cruyff’s proposed ‘technical revolution‘; as he set the team up in a 3-3-1-3 formation, on a few occasions.
The club seems to be moving in the direction that Cruyff wants them to, and restructuring is on at every level of the club to implement his philosophy, one that today sees Barcelona at the pinnacle of the footballing pyramid. He has often criticised Luis van Gaal for degrading Ajax’s youth academy by shifting focus from an individualized training to more collective training; a short term approach in his view. Individualized training and character building have been reintroduced at the youth level and is already paying dividends. De Boer has been able to constantly switch formations this season as his players can intelligently adjust. He handed professional debuts to nine players from the youth academy.
Ajax’s Dream Team
Cruyff who assembled Barcelona’s ‘Dream Team’ in the early 90’s has now created a dream team of sorts as far as the coaching staff is concerned. Their manager Frank de Boer is Holland’s highest capped outfield player. The former Barcelona and Ajax player won the Champions League with Ajax under van Gaal in 1996. Dennis Bergkamp is the head of the youth academy and Wim Jonk the Director of Football Affairs. Both played for Ajax in the early 90’s and form the ‘technical heart’ of the coaching team. Other coaches include former players like Jaap Stam, Ronald de Boer, Bryan Roy and Marc Overmars.
Losing players to bigger European clubs has been a problem for Ajax for a long time now. In recent years Wesley Sneijder, Luis Suarez and Thomas Vermaelen have all left for bigger clubs. After losing Maarten Stekelenburg last summer, it looks like de Boer will lose his captain for the second season running as Vertonghen is almost certain to leave the club. Other star like Eriksen, van der wiel and Siem de Jong are also being looked at by other clubs. Having assembled a winning team, de Jong will now have to cope with loss of big players in the summer transfer window and find suitable replacements. Ajax however, do not have the financial resources to make marquee signings. They will yet again have
to depend on their youth academy; but it has hardly ever let them down.