Ajax's comeback in the European elite club championship and its qualification to Champions League semifinals have been based on two key principles of the master Johan Cruyff: challenging the laws of the soccer market and prioritizing team play over individual abilities.
Out of the 16 teams who fought it out in the knockout stages, the Amsterdam side was one of the lowest-budget teams. The Dutch Eredivisie does not attract the same attention or the millions of euros in broadcasting rights cash as the English Premier League, Spain's La Liga or the Italian Serie A.
This disadvantage, a perpetual lament in Dutch media, was answered by Cruyff, with irreverence, when asked about the issue: “I have never seen a sack of money score a goal.”
Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo was about to refute Cruyff’s philosophy as he scored Juventus’ two goals against Ajax on aggregate, however, the Portuguese star’s power was not enough to surpass the impudence and the speed of the Dutch team.
On Tuesday, Ajax claimed a 2-1 away victory in the second leg of the Champions League quarters, edging a 3-2 win on aggregate, to qualify for the semis.
The 112 million euro-sum ($126 million) Juventus paid last summer to bring in the Portuguese star is approximately double what Ajax has spent for all 11 players who started the Tuesday’s match in Turin, Italy.
Five out of the aforementioned 11 players arrived directly from the youth academy: Matthijs de Ligt, 19, Frenkie de Jong, 21, Noussair Mazraoui, 21, Donny van de Beek, 21, and Joel Veltman, 27.
Goalkeeper Andre Onana joined Ajax from Barcelona for around 200,000 euros ($226,000) and stayed in the youth academy for a couple of years before moving to the first team.
Veteran Lasse Schone arrived on a free transfer in 2012, as he has ended his contract with the fellow Dutch team Nijmegen Eendracht Combinatie, best known as N.E.C., and nobody wanted to pay for his signing at the time.
However, Ajax does not only depend on its youth academy and the low-cost signings.
It is estimated that the four remaining players of the starting lineup against Juventus (Daley Blind, David Neres, Hakim Ziyech and Dusan Tadic) who cost about 55 million euros, have been signed, above all, to reinforce an offensive ability that had been highly dependent on another veteran, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who has since slipped from the starting line-up.
Ajax has embraced the so-called ‘total soccer’ concept that was imposed in the 70s by the Netherlands national team that had the legendary Cruyff on the field, and which in the 1990s returned to Ajax under its then coach Louis van Gaal.
Ajax's current coach, Erik Ten Hag, who changed the 4-3-3 formation to 4-2-3-1, has recovered this concept by valuing team play over individuals and forbidding his players to limit themselves to only one role.
They attack with fast passing and yet the midfielders never neglect defense, while full-backs Nicolas Tagliafico and Mazraoui often go forward to create goal chances from both sides.
De Jong dazzles in a midfield role with his vision, through-balls and long passes, as well as making the most of a chance when it comes to finding empty spaces. But, at the same time, he is crucial for tackling counterattacks.
Neres always gets himself unmarked and passes his way out of trouble. Otherwise, he oftens finds himself able to outrun his opponents thanks to his speed.
Ziyech is bold enough to shoot when nobody expects it, while Tadic represents effectiveness and the ability to find space between an impassable defensive line.
The last time the Dutch side reached the semifinals of the top European club competition was in 1997.
Ajax is to face the winner of Wednesday’s game pitting Manchester City against Tottenham.
De Ligt said on Tuesday he had no preference. After knocking out Real Madrid and Juventus, the youth of Ajax are able to follow in the footsteps of Cruyff and, as the genius did in 1995, return the Champions League trophy to Amsterdam. EFE