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30th Apr 2019

Ajax’s boy-wonder zombies are conquering everything before they dissolve

Kyle Picknell

Wave after wave after wave, the boy-wonder Ajax zombies just keep on coming

Take a second to think of the players you associate with Ajax. They can be pretty much any age, from any generation, and the ones that spring to mind will still be all-timers.

Cruyff, Neeskens, Krol. Koeman, Rijkaard, van Basten. Davids, Seedorf, Litmanen. Sneijder, van der Vaart, Ibrahimovic. It isn’t too soon to start saying De Ligt, De Jong and van de Beek. Not after a Champions League semi-final first leg during which they played like the home team, tessellating around each other like it was just another training match amongst themselves.

Their ages again: 19, 21, 22.

Frenkie De Jong has already secured his big-money move to pastures new after Barcelona came calling to the tune of €75 million. He might not be the perfect example of the way the club’s philosophy, moulded by their very own Night King, Johan Cruyff, continues to reanimate seemingly regular Dutch teenagers into fearless, transcendent demigods of the turf, as he was originally bought from Willem II for the princely sum of €1 (and a 10% cut of his next sale). But he’s close.

He’s proof that they still have an eye for a player. Or better yet, an eye for the player someone might eventually become. In the buildup, as the pundits were waxing lyrical about yet another Ajax trio who have long seen moved on to ostensibly bigger things (in this instance the semi-final opponents they beat 1-0), Rio Ferdinand began talking about the time Christian Eriksen was coming through that famed academy and they decided to teach him how to run again. Because they had spotted something wrong with his mechanics.

It has a reputation, Cruyff’s wonderkid stable in Amsterdam, to be all technical and tactical fluff that, sometimes, never amounts to much on these shores. It teaches their youth players to play for Ajax, yes, but then how can they play anywhere else? For instance, Glenn Hoddle, arguably the most technically proficient English player of all time, took his few minutes of the spotlight to worry about whether Matthjis De Ligt plays out from the back too much. Too much. As though Neil Warnock or Sean Dyche had bold plans for the Dutch superstar come the summer.

He also clearly wasn’t aware that he could have made the same comment, verbatim, for each of Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sanchez, De Ligt’s former centre half partner, before they started turning out for Tottenham Hotspur.

It is clear they are doing something right over there, other than teaching Eriksen that his right goes and then his left and his right again, and that De Ligt needn’t worry about taking that extra touch on the edge of his own box because a couple of fans in the stand get antsy. It is no coincidence that season after season, generation after generation, some of the best players in European football tend to pass through the Amsterdam Arena first.

Maybe it’s the belief instilled them from the start. They had no issue with making De Ligt the youngest captain in their considerable history last season. They had no issue with selling De Jong when an offer came in that was too good to refuse. They will likely do the same when the money gets silly for De Ligt. And van de Beek. And Ziyech. And Neres. It’s the ‘next man up’ mindset that makes these players what they are. They’re completely disposable, but only in the sense that, like the mass army of White Walkers, Ajax know they have more of the same on the production line behind them. The club has ultimate faith in itself to produce these players and maybe that works back around. The players then have ultimate faith in themselves. After all, they’re getting a debut for Ajax at 17 years old. They must be really fucking good.

Perhaps it’s important to note at this stage that, for the other teams in the Eredivisie, Ajax are the villains, spending a transfer budget that’s equivalent to the rest of the league combined, PSV aside. They’re the baddies over there, even if, to us, they remain a thrilling realisation of just what a football club can be when they do all the things we don’t do: focus on technicality over physicality, youth over experience and the players they already have over the players they desire.

When, inevitably, this Champions League fairytale ends – perhaps in the final itself – the team will be almost entirely dismantled, Johan Cruyff’s latest zombie army turned to dust. Europe’s biggest clubs will come calling, Ajax will make a tidy profit and we will yet again mourn a great Dutch side, this time of 18/19.

The problem is, they will be back. Maybe next season or in two seasons’ time. Maybe in five years, or a decade. But they will be back. Their history has proved that. And we will be left in awe at their latest swashbuckling iteration of superstars in the making, saying the same things and watching them, wondering exactly how they do it, even though they’ve made it perfectly clear all along.