When Dusan Tadic last played on English soil, he witnessed history being made. Manchester City beat his Southampton team 1-0 with a late winner from Gabriel Jesus and set a Premier League record of 100 points that may never be equalled.
Now Tadic is coming back to create his own story-lines with one of European football’s greatest names, Ajax, who have already knocked out Real Madrid and Juventus in the Champions League and face Tottenham in a mouth-watering semi-final first leg at White Hart Lane on Tuesday night.
The Dutch club boast a couple of emerging stars in Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, who are following in the footsteps of legends such as Johan Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Kluivert – but Tadic has arguably been the greatest revelation.
Former Southampton star Dusan Tadic will soon be back in England to tackle Spurs with Ajax
Ajax and Tadic are preparing to take on Tottenham in the semi-finals of the Champions League
A year after scrapping to keep Saints out of the Championship, he has gone viral with a majestic strike and Cruyff-turn assist in the Bernabeu, one of 50 goals he has scored or created this season.
‘The first two seasons at Southampton were a great experience. We finished seventh and sixth under Ronald Koeman, the best results in the club’s history,’ says the 30-year-old Serbian of his four-year stay in England.
‘We should have gone on to do even better but once you get weaker in the Premier League you have problems. So many players were sold, Van Dijk, Pelle, Mane, Wanyama, Fonte, and the replacements were not so good.’
Tadic clearly still has feelings for his former club as he tucks into a breakfast omelette in one of Amsterdam’s fancier hotels, but the truth is having had problems under Claude Puel and Mauricio Pellegrino he had already decided to leave long before Mark Hughes came in to save Saints from the drop last season.
Tadic impressed as Ajax knocked out Real Madrid then Juventus en route to the semi-finals
What he couldn’t have foreseen is the massive turnaround in his career by moving to Holland. He loves Amsterdam and has bought a house after renting for four years in Southampton. Famous neighbours like Frank Rijkaard can be spotted cycling around and Tadic has been given the sleek club Mercedes driven by Bergkamp when he coached there.
With the Dutch League granting Ajax a full week to prepare for the first leg against Spurs, Tadic has time to contemplate the best move of his life.
‘I always loved the history and tradition of Ajax and it’s been even more amazing than I thought,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I just sit and watch the junior teams train, soaking it all in. This is the place where total football started with Cruyff and you still see it.
‘I’ve never seen young players like De Ligt and De Jong in my life, not just quality but mentality too.
‘We went to Real Madrid and Juventus and they weren’t nervous at all, just total belief. You can’t buy an attitude like that – but it’s not strange for me to see these young players without fear, not even for a Champions League semi-final. It is the Ajax DNA. They don’t care about pressure, they always play their football, to try and dominate the ball.
‘If you try something, it’s no problem even if you make mistakes. The only time the coach will come to you [unhappy] is if you don’t try things. It’s why I felt comfortable trying that turn against Real Madrid, it was a moment of inspiration and it came off.’
Ajax players celebrated together after overcoming Juventus in Turin at the quarter-final stage
De Jong is Ajax’s midfield playmaker who has already been nabbed by Barcelona. De Ligt is an outstanding central defender who partners Virgil van Dijk for Holland. Barcelona and a host of clubs want him.
‘Both of them would suit any club in the world but my feeling is they won’t come to the Premier League yet,’ adds Tadic.
They aren’t the only stars who helped Ajax smash holders Real Madrid 4-1 at the Bernabeu and then knocked out Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus in Turin. Moroccan Hakim Ziyech is wanted by Liverpool and 21-year-old Kasper Dolberg faced Manchester United in the 2017 Europa League final as a teen. Nicolas Tagliafico was Argentina’s best player at the last World Cup while ex-Manchester United defender Daley Blind provides the knowhow alongside Tadic and veteran forward Klaas-Jan Huntellar.
Pushed to explain Ajax’s philosophy, Tadic uses his shot that made it 3-0 against Real Madrid as an example.
‘It was an Ajax goal because Donny van de Beek played a very good ball to my right foot with exactly the correct amount of power. The players always discuss the small details, where to pass, how strong to pass. They are important to help the team.’
Tadic spoke to Sportsmail’s Joe Bernstein ahead of Ajax’s Champions League clash with Spurs
Tadic was a creator at Southampton rather than a finisher but is flourishing as Ajax’s false nine, similar to Roberto Firmino at Liverpool. He scored 23 goals in four years with Saints but has 34 already for Ajax.
He played at Southampton with a couple of the Tottenham players, Victor Wanyama and Toby Alderweireld, and admires Mauricio Pochettino, who left St Mary’s shortly before he arrived.
‘I like how he improves players, just like Pep Guardiola. I’ve played against Harry Kane and Dele Alli — they were much better after they’d worked with Pochettino.’
Before the Premier League, Tadic had developed his career in Holland with Groningen and FC Twente, where he played under Steve McClaren. The decision to join Ajax didn’t take long once director of football Marc Overmars made his pitch.
‘Other clubs wanted me but I made my mind up after one conversation with Marc. He explained Ajax was a big project.
‘The club have so many legends. Marc and Edwin van der Sar [the chief executive] are often around but they behave like normal guys rather than big-time players.’
Tadic played against Tottenham seven times during his four seasons with Southampton
The pair, both well known to Premier League fans, were part of Ajax’s famous ’95 team that conquered European football with an incredible group of youngsters: Jari Litmanen, Kluivert, Kanu, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and the de Boer brothers.
‘A lot of comparisons are being made between us and that generation, but they won trophies and we haven’t yet,’ says Tadic. ‘It is a big success to be in the semi-finals but we always want more. That’s another part of Ajax. They are not just happy with winning —you need to win well, you have to win in style. It is a great motivation for the players.’
Interestingly, even that great Ajax side had older heads like Rijkaard and captain Danny Blind to provide balance. It is fitting that Danny’s son Daley performs the same role today.
‘It’s not good having 11 young players or 11 old players. You need a mix,’ says Tadic. ‘Both can learn from each other.’
There is a fear that ultimately Ajax will lose their best talents as Tadic saw happen at Southampton, and Monaco suffered after Kylian Mbappe and Bernardo Silva helped them reach the Champions League semi-final.
Whatever the future brings, Tadic is happy to enjoy the current amazing ride, and pleased his exploits impressed a famous countryman in tennis champion Novak Djokovic.
‘Novak sent me a message of congratulations after we beat Juventus which was very nice,’ says Tadic. ‘As Serbian sportsmen and women, it is important to support each other because sometimes people don’t have a very good opinion of our country.
‘But when you meet people from Serbia you change your opinion. It’s very important for us to represent our country well and be an example. It would be nice if we can get to the Champions League final and Novak could come.’
THREE MORE WHO HAVE COME OFF THE AJAX CONVEYOR BELT
Ajax, famous for producing world-class players of the calibre of Johan Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp and the De Boer brothers, boast a new generation of young stars wowing fans in Amsterdam.
Here are three of the best: a trio of youngsters who have helped their side beat Real Madrid and Juventus…
Frenkie de Jong
What he does: Boasts an authority which belies his tender age.
What they say: ‘The calmness, we can’t say experience because of his age, but he looks very experienced.’ — Jesper Olsen, former Ajax winger
Matthijs de Ligt
Position: Centre back
What he does: Classy player who was first called up for the national side at 17 after two Ajax starts.
What they say: ‘He’s a strong personality and very stable. That’s what impresses me.’ — Ruud Krol, former Ajax captain
What he does: Ice-cool finisher who has drawn comparisons with Marco van Basten. Can play the No9 role but also happy to drop deep.
What they say: ‘Everyone who has worked with him recognises his potential and qualities.’ — Peter Bosz, former Ajax coach