It was two years ago that a young, swashbuckling Ajax team captured hearts in the Champions League, knocking out Real Madrid and Juventus, before losing to Tottenham Hotspur on away goals in the final seconds of a semi-final they had led 3-0 on aggregate.
Within a few weeks of that cruel exit, the team was being dismantled as Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona), Matthijs de Ligt (Juventus), Hakim Ziyech (Chelsea), Joel Veltman (Brighton) and Donny van de Beek (Manchester United) were sold to richer European clubs in more high profile leagues.
In Amsterdam, there was sadness. A horrible case of what might have been. There was also pride, not just at how well the class of 2019 had done, but the style they did it in.
The rest of European football were full of superlatives, commending manager Erik ten Hag for the skill with which he had moulded so many young players into one of the continent’s finest.
With their best players gone, other than experienced captain Dusan Tadic and vice captain Daley Blind, the Dutch giants were not going to be a threat to the European aristocrats and fossil fuel burning nouveau riche again any time soon.
Ajax, though, have risen once more and Ten Hag has moved into the elite tier of manager. He has another thrilling side, with the club’s trademark blend of the best academy graduates, astute South American exports and some wise old heads.
They also spent some of their transfer profits on a centre forward. Sebastian Haller flopped following a big money move to West Ham, but the Frenchman has been restored and improved by Ten Hag in Amsterdam.
Ajax head into the final round of Champions League group games as the only side with a 100 per cent win record. They have been sensational and Haller is the competition's leading goalscorer with nine in five games.
“We had lost too many players last season to compete at that level in Europe,” explained Tadic, via a zoom call. “But this year it has been a little bit easier because we have almost exactly the same group of players. We understand each other and it has been easy [to qualify for the knockout stage].
“The best Ajax sides always have the right combination of youth and experience. We have older players who want to be a good example and very talented youngsters who want to listen and to learn. It did take some time to recover after what happened against Tottenham. We should have been in the final and we knew the best of the young players were going to move on.
“Ajax sell when they are ready and there is nothing we can do about it. It’s normal that everyone looks at and wants to buy Ajax players. Even when we knew they would be leaving, we could see the next generation coming through. It is what is so nice about playing for Ajax. Yes, of course, there was some frustration. Imagine how successful that team could have been if it stayed together for another couple of years.
“For Ajax, it is not enough to be dominant only in Holland. That is the first objective, but we want to be dominant in Europe every season too. After 2019 was such an amazing year, it showed what could be done. In 2020, we were a little bit unlucky with some results but this group learned quickly. This season we do not fear anyone left in the competition.
“They will not want to play Ajax, they know our style. Some of these clubs will be looking to buy our players, but we want to beat them while they are here with us.”
As captain, Tadic is diplomatic when asked about who is the best of the new crop, but singles out midfielder Ryan Gravenberch (already a senior Holland international), Mexico international Edson Alvarez, Brazilian winger Antony and Argentina international Lisandro Martinez.
“I actually think this team might be better than the 2019 one,” revealed Tadic. “It has taken some really big steps forward in the last few months. The youth team was very strong last year and these boys, who were all born in the 2000s, are stepping up and it has given the squad a lot of depth.
“It is difficult to compare teams, it was a great team in 2019 too. What is different is the character of the players. In 2019, we were maybe a little naive, now we have tough players, strong mentally. We have a lot of South Americans and they are fighters. This team is more streetwise.
“This club has a plan. The aim is to always be one of the best 16 teams in Europe, hopefully more than that. When Ajax sell a player, they already know who is going to replace them, whether it is from the academy or a young player at another club who they believe has potential. The challenge is making it gel and that is what the manager has done so well. He has built two excellent Ajax sides in a short space of time.”
'Erik is one of the best coaches in the world, without a doubt'
It has, quite rightly, made Ten Hag one of the world’s most coveted coaches. When he said over the weekend that he will be “ready to coach abroad” at the end of this season, it reverberated across the continent.
The 51-year-old has been courted by Bayern Munich previously. Tottenham Hotspur tried to get him. Newcastle United were keen immediately after their recent takeover. Ten Hag turned them down. Why leave Ajax - and especially the new team he has built - for clubs that are nowhere near winning trophies or playing in the Champions League?
He is on the shortlist to replace Pep Guardiola at Man City, should the Spaniard steps down. Some believe Manchester United only appointed Ralf Rangnick as an interim manager because they want to see if Ten Hag will come in May. If Maurcio Pochettino leaves Paris Saint Germain to go to Old Trafford, the French club will consider the 51-year-old to replace him.
The Dutch have always been keen to travel, a trait their footballers have followed (Ajax have more former academy players playing in the five biggest European leagues than anyone else) and also their best coaches. Ten Hag has taken his time, but he is going to leave at some point.
“He is amazing,” said Tadic. “He is one of the best coaches in the world, without a doubt. He is totally obsessed with football, I am sure it is all he thinks about.
“You need a manager like that if you want to be one of the best clubs. That is what he has made Ajax. The thing about him that is so impressive is he always seems to have the solution to a problem when you face an opponent.
“He identifies their strengths and how to stop them, whatever the opposition do, he has a response. He will find a weakness and then he is able to tell the players what we must do to hurt them. It’s so nice. He gives us such an advantage, we always feel like we are one step ahead of the other team.
“I think, tactically, he is the master. But he is also very good in the way he talks to the players. When you have that combination, it is why he is so good.
“Everyone at Ajax was pleased he stayed ( signed a contract extension until 2023 earlier this year). I hope he stays at Ajax for many more years. He is very smart, though. He knows the top clubs in Europe are looking at him. He has taken his time despite offers because they were not the right club to leave Ajax for. He does not have to rush, he can wait.
“He will choose his next club wisely. We shall see where he ends up but it will not be any surprise if he goes to one of the biggest. I hope he stays here, but of course others will want him because of what has done for Ajax.”
Tadic was irritated when the English media questioned his reasons for wanting to leave Southampton and the Premier League to return to Holland where the Serbia captain first made his name.
He wanted to win trophies and wanted to play for a team that dominated games; teams who created lots of chances for strikers to score.
It is also not surprised Haller has done so well in an Ajax shirt, despite failing to justify his huge price tag at West Ham. Ajax signed him in January for less than half the £45m the Hammers spent on him when he was Eintracht Frankfurt. Haller scored ten goals in 48 games in London and has already scored 20 in only 32 appearances for Ajax.
“He has been great since he got here, he’s a very good player and a very good guy too,” added Tadic. “It’s nice to see him playing so well with us after what happened at West Ham.
“He is the top goalscorer in the Champions League and we think he can do even better. I’m happy he has shown what a good player he is.
“It was hard for him at West Ham, they were a team that had to do more defending than attacking, playing on the counter attack. It was a fight all the time and the strikers in a team like that do not get many chances.
“It’s not very exciting for a striker. At Ajax we want him to be in the box, in front of goal and we are going to create a lot of chances for him. Ajax are more dominant than West Ham, he has more of the ball, more opportunities to show his qualities. He will always get five or six chances in an Ajax game, that makes any striker happy.
“He went through a tough period in London. Players need that sometimes in a career to find out who they are, what character that he had. He worked hard, wanted to get better and what happened at West Ham did not break him. He finds himself in the right place in Amsterdam.”
As Ajax once again threaten to do something special in the Champions League., the question is where will Ten Hag decide is the right place for him when he leaves Amsterdam.