It’s happened before and, as such, you could argue that Ajax’s 4-1 demolition of Real Madrid wasn’t an entirely-unpredictable shock. Historically Ajax have been one of the adjusting forces of European football. They prick the pomposity of the bloated, bigger clubs and show them a better way to play.
The last time was in 1995. They has just won the Champions League under Louis van Gaal, an extraordinary feat. But, arguably, their definitive performance came a few months later in the group stages of the 1995-96 competition: Ajax went to the Bernabeu and won 2-0.
That doesn’t really tell the whole story, however. That night Ajax were bewitching and bewildering. If you wanted to see what a Van Gaal team could do at its best, when he was at his peak, watch that game. Patrick Kluivert and Jari Litmanen scored but, frankly, Ajax might have won 5-0 on the night.
Ajax’s demolition job against Real Madrid on Tuesday proved it’s not all about the money
The kings of Europe were dumped out of the competition after a 4-1 drubbing at the Bernabeu
An expensively-assembled Real Madrid team, which included Fernando Redondo, Luis Enrique and Michael Laudrup, barely got a touch. They were humiliated by a bunch of kids, most of whom had been raised in the Ajax academy and not cost the club a penny in transfer fees.
Jorge Valdano, the Real Madrid coach at the time and always one for an elegant phrase said: ‘Ajax aren’t just the team of the 90’s; they’re approaching football utopia.’
Ronald de Boer, who played for Ajax that night, made the connection on Tuesday night on TV. ‘What we did in 1995 [in the Bernabeu] was fantastic, but this tops the lot,’ he said.
That is praise indeed given that Ajax and Van Gaal changed the game in 1995: they not only revived ‘Total Football’, they also demonstrated again that a youth policy could – literally – pay dividends if done right.
It was reminiscent of the 1995-96 squad who also went to the Bernabeu and beat Real Madrid: Back row (left-right): Winston Bogarde, Nwankwo Kanu, Ronald de Boer, Michael Reiziger, Martijn Reuser and Edwin van der Sar. Front row: Jari Litmanen, Frank de Boer, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars and Finidi George
De Boer, pictured in 1995, feels the current crop’s win exceeds any other result at the club
Of course the ’95 generation were only the second-best Ajax team of all-time. All modern western European football pretty much starts with Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff’s European Cup winners from 1971-1973.
That team also have history in the Bernabeu, beating Real Madrid 1-0 there in 1973 in the European Cup semi-final before going on to win the trophy that year, which would be one of Cruyff’s last games for the club before he joined Barcelona.
By then, Michels had left and they were coached by Stefan Kovacs. But there is something especially satisfying for those of a certain age in watching this Dutch team up-end European royalty. As Liverpool fan liaison chief Tony Barrett put it on Tuesday night: ‘European football is always better when Ajax are strong.’
There are some caveats to add to this latest magnificent performance. They have been under pressure domestically of late. They sit five points behind PSV Eindhoven in the Eredivisie. They haven’t won a trophy since they won the league in 2014, which in a country as small as Holland isn’t acceptable.
The bitter feuding that took place to install a new Cruyff-led revolution at the club, led by the stars of ‘95 – Marc Overmars is director of football and Edwin van der Sar is chief executive – is mutating into a smartly-run club, which reached the Europa League final in 2017, but with not enough to show in terms of silverware.
Marc Overmars, director of football and Edwin van der Sar, chief executive, celebrate
What is really impressive is how they have conducted themselves in the transfer market. In recent years Overmars has signed Frenkie de Jong from Willem II for £900,000, selling him to Barcelona this summer for £66m; he signed Polish striker Arek Milik from Bayer Leverkusen in 2015 for £2.52m and sold him to Napoli 2016 for £28.8m; and he signed Davinson Sanchez from Atletico Nacional in 2016 for £4m and sold him to Spurs for £25m in 2017.
In addition he has negotiated the sale of academy graduates Justin Kluivert to Roma for £16m and Davy Klaassen to Everton for £23m and is expected to oversee the transfer of another graduate, Matthijs de Ligt, this summer. That is some record and accounts for Arsenal’s attempt to recruit Overmars.
As was always the Ajax way, they have had a plan to keep growing despite the sales. Watching Dusan Tadic, who cost £10million from Southampton, dance his way around Real Madrid at the age of 30 indicates that Overmars has the blend of selling high and buying low just right. Tadic became the ninth player in history to receive 10/10 from L’Equipe, the French newspaper with notoriously stingy markers.
Overmars signed Frenkie de Jong from Willem II for £900,000 and sold him to Barca for £66m
He also made a £21m profit by selling Davinson Sanchez to Tottenham back in 2017
In addition, he negotiated the sale of academy graduate Justin Kluivert to Roma for £16m
But tactically, they aren’t about to launch a complete reboot of the European game as the 1970s and ‘95 team did. Cruyff might have winced a little at the 43 per cent possession stat from Tuesday night. The rest of us would shrug our shoulders and presumably accept that needs must. But Cruyff really was a purist in these matters.
What was most noticeable about their goals on Tuesday night, other than the brilliance of Tadic and Lasse Schone and the finishing of Hakim Ziyech and David Neres, was the determination of this Ajax team to win the ball back high up the pitch.
That fits with earlier Ajax models but there was an added muscularity about them, with Ziyech pressing to win the ball and set up the move that led to his first goal and, of course, Noussair Mazraoui’s fantastic challenge on Sergio Reguilon to set up the third goal.
Perhaps the biggest and most regrettable qualifying point is that Ajax won’t go on and win the Champions League, as their forefathers did. They are more in the mould of the Monaco 2016-17, who beat Tottenham (twice), Man City and Borussia Dortmund on their run to the semi-final, before Europe’s superpowers swooped to buy all their best players. De Jong is off to Barcelona this summer and De Ligt will be the most sought-after defender in Europe.
Matthijs de Ligt, one of Europe’s most sought-after defenders, also looks certain to leave
But there is still a challenge here for Europe’s medium-sized clubs. Ajax’s annual revenue in 2017-18 was €91.9m while Celtic’s was €114.7m. Obviously Celtic fans would point to their domestic success, which is where this Ajax model has failed.
But it is surely a challenge for Celtic to see a club of similar stature and history to be punching above their weight in the Champions League.
It’s not impossible, though you do have to be very shrewd in the transfer market. For now, we can just enjoy: Ajax are, by some measures, back and Real Madrid’s extraordinary Champions League run is over. Money isn’t everything and, even in this modern era, sometimes the smarter teams can ambush those megaliths of European football.
But it proves money and multi-million-pound stars are not a necessity to beat Europe’s giants