“I want to put down the microphone and applaud because it’s been a wonderful evening of Champions League football,” the match commentator gushed following Ajax’s 3-3 draw against Bayern Munich in the sixth and final match of the group stages. The match featured two red cards, two penalties in the last ten minutes, and two goals in stoppage time. It was described as a throwback European match between two rivals, and most of all, the energy and excitement displayed how much the top European competition had missed a dominant Ajax. They also had their viral moment with this 18 pass sequence of mutating triangles and playmaking from half-spaces leading to an easy tap-in. And there will be more room for memorable European nights: clinching a place in the Champions League knockout rounds for the first time since 2005, Ajax are matched up with Real Madrid in the round of 16.
The back-and-forth match with Bayern was even more impressive considering Ajax were missing 21-year-old center midfielder-turned marauding center back-turned back into tempo setting midfielder Frenkie De Jong. We could discuss his comparisons to both Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer, but it wouldn’t prepare a viewer for just how reckless and aggressive he is with the ball from deep positions. De Jong already had his viral last season for these high-risk dribbling maneuvers from the center back position into the opposition third. Traditionalists may gasp about the space he’s leaving behind, but managers influenced by positional play will also note how his ability to carry the ball creates attacking overloads wherever he moves.
While he’s averaging over 80 passes on 90% completion in domestic and European competitions from the deep lying center midfield position, it’s that ability to dribble into attacking areas that elevates his stature (he had a 90% dribble success rate domestically last season). He says his reliance on his intuition is influenced by Messi’s ability to dribble past defender like kids, and that he cannot fully articulate what he actually does on the field. De Jong says he thinks a lot about the game, but “with my intuition, it’s not just that I receive the ball and always think ‘I’m going to do this’ straight away, even though it happens that way sometimes.”
And while we see De Jong’s wayward runs as risky - holding our breath in equal measure as our delight - there is an underlying philosophy of how one builds, or is unable to build, a creative player in Europe. Nurtured in Willem II’s youth academy before moving to Ajax three seasons ago, De Jong’s perspective of what makes him unique compared to other academy players is its own essential reading for development. He admonishes youth academy managers for taking the freedom out of players in exchange for certainty and what he calls “that two touch stuff”. Instead, he would rather “go on an adventure." If he curbed his instincts, then he’d “be a player of whom there are a thousand of my age.”
The movement, quick passing, and possession is Ajax’s signature influence on the European game, yet De Jong elevates that foundational philosophy with his x-factor unpredictability. As Simon Kuper puts it, his directness in both dribbling and passing has changed the space of Dutch football from listless horizontal passes back to a vertical, direct approach. Former Dutch winger Eljero Elia compares the way he plays center midfield to a winger in saying that De Jong “does things that an outside left does...dribbling, cutting in front of his opponent at the right moment, keeping the ball at his feet long enough to create situations where you outnumber the opponent”. While the obvious tonic for sideways passing is verticality and directness, De Jong’s answer is in providing an attacking sequence with an unplanned dribble to surprise an opponent.
Perhaps counterintuitively, that room for creativity and a defining dribble that De Jong flourishes within is created through a strong positional structure and space set by 48-year-old manager Erik ten Hag. Of course, with this emphasis on attacking and improvisation, it would only be right that Ten Hag cut his teeth as manager of Bayern’s reserve sides under Pep Guardiola. Regardless, this is the Ajax we’ve read about in books and blogs, and taken in through four-minute grainy YouTube clips. It’s not just the style but the totality of the vision - the attacking, the thinking, the philosophy, and the youth all meeting on the European stage. De Jong was groomed elsewhere, but 19-year-old center back and fellow Barcelona and Manchester City target Matthijs de Ligt has been at Ajax since he was nine years old.
That continuity is part of the aura behind the club. Defining players from the 90s and 2000s have returned to mark their influence on the next generation, with Marc Overmars as sporting director and Edwin van der Saar as CEO (compare this to Patrick Vieira’s criticism that Arsene Wenger never reached back for him, Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell, or Mikael Arteta to help bring along a future Arsenal generation). All clubs offer some form of an intangible energy - a brand - defined by previous generations of players, teams, and moments. That unquantifiable feeling plays itself out onto the field in 18 pass sequences, in the reckless high-scoring matches in Europe, and in center backs making 50 yard runs with the ball. For that style of play that toes the line between art, entertainment, and risk, who else but Ajax?
Barcelona are the obvious side, such was the impact of Cruyff building a symbolic bridge of style and belief between the two clubs. Even Overmars admitted that the Spanish club are the favorites to land both De Jong and De Ligt for as much as a combined $170 million. But there are the links between Ten Hag and Manchester City, and links between the board and Juventus.
Ajax’s accomplishments in making the knockout rounds, with this style, is under the guise that this season is it before they sell off their two top players. No club in Europe creates more memorable one season wonders that burn in our imagination than Ajax. It’s partly due to their philosophy in shifting the balance between entertainment and the pragmatism of a result. These passing sequences and viral moments of flair take on a new poignancy that due to the nature of European football economics, teams outside of the top tier capture lightning in a bottle and are torn apart in the transfer market just as quickly.
Van der Sar stated that the club are doing well financially and will not sell either player during the winter. In the past, Ajax would pay no more than $20,000 per week for a player - less than what a player would make in the English Championship. Van der Sar and Overmars instead broke the club’s wage structure and are paying upwards of $5 million in wages to keep players like De Jong and De Ligt, as well as making room to sign veterans like Daley Blind and Dusan Tadic. But De Ligt is already bored. After a recent domestic win, he said “we didn’t play one hundred percent but we still won 7-1.”
Van der sar stated that he wants to recreate that aura of Ajax from the 70s and 90s, of bringing their own youth players through to the senior side, saying “that is what people like about Ajax." Throughout the playing styles since Ajax last made the knockout rounds of Europe - through tiki-taka and gegenpressing - we were missing one of the vital, innovative voices of the game. After experiencing 3-3 matches that make us applaud afterwards, we may have never realized how much we missed Ajax playing the rebel in the Super League world of the Real Madrids, Manchester Citys, Bayerns. That intuition that De Jong talks about, that unexplainable feeling, isn’t only reserved for players on the field, but for supporters across the world as well.