Ajax Amsterdam’s unexpected march to the Champions League semi-finals has done much to highlight the dynamic young talent at the club, but it was their decision to add more experience to the team that has proven key to their success.
Ajax, who visit Tottenham Hotspur in Tuesday’s semi-final first leg and are chasing a domestic league and cup double, have always been a club prepared to field young players, but they made a conscious decision last year to inject more experience into the team.
Successfully fusing the two is what has proven the catalyst for a sensational season for the Dutch club, according to coach Erik ten Hag, who has been a quiet force driving the team to victories over Juventus and Real Madrid this season.
“Marc Overmars and I made an analysis towards the end of last season. Our conclusion was that we lacked players in their mid-20s. We lacked experience,” he said.
Ajax brought back Daley Blind, 29, from Manchester United and signed Dusan Tadic, 30, from Southampton.
“We were also glad that Hakim Ziyech stayed on.”
The 26-year-old Morocco international had been set to leave at the end of the last campaign but did not find a new club.
Ten Hag initially feared the gelling process might take longer than hoped.
“Because of the players coming back late after the World Cup we didn’t really get the hours on the training ground we wanted and we had to try and figure things out as we went along,” he said.
That included three Champions League preliminary round ties before the group phase, including trips to Austria, Belgium and Ukraine.
“It worked to our benefit,” added Ten Hag. “The team grew quickly, having to play so many important and decisive games. We had a lot of so-called ‘cup finals’ early on in the season.”
The playing system was also adjusted to suit the individual qualities of the players, the coach explained.
“We saw Frenkie de Jong as the key midfielder and moved him to the middle. The way he has developed has been crazy,” said Ten Hag.
Ajax have already agreed to sell the 21-year-old to Barcelona. Ten Hag said he had hoped it would not happen, but he understands the decision.
“Ajax want to be a top European team but because the financial muscle of clubs in the smaller leagues is a growing weaker each year in comparison to the big countries, we have had to do things differently, abandoning some principles in order to be competitive.
“Key players will leave. These days it is impossible to keep together a team like ours for very long.”
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino admits the mood at the club is not the one he wants going into the first leg of the Champions League semi-final against Ajax.
Spurs suffered their first defeat at their new stadium on Saturday when West Ham won 1-0 in a game where the home side’s gruelling fixture schedule and lengthy injury list caught up with them.
Pochettino accepted they struggled to cope with “stress and fatigue” in the second half and they went down to Michail Antonio’s 67th-minute goal.
It was hardly the ideal build-up to what is the club’s biggest game in recent history not to mention it leaves the door open for their Premier League rivals in the race for the top four, which no one appears willing to win.
“I think the feeling for everyone changes quickly,” Pochettino said after his side’s lethargic display.
“After Brighton (Tuesday’s 1-0 win) everyone was with a very good feeling, a fantastic season and we were going to arrive in our best condition.
“However, after our defeat today it’s like we arrive in a complete opposite way.
“I think we knew very well to compete in the top four and the Champions League is very tough.
“After Brighton it was fantastic and today it is the opposite. I still feel proud of them because it was a massive effort against a team that was preparing for the game with fresh legs – a very good team.
“With all of our circumstances we competed very well to win the game but we need to accept some time it is tough, we didn’t score but we conceded and now we need to move on. We cannot create a problem when there is not one there.”