Marc Overmars, Kluivert junior and 'Captain Fantastic' Davy Klaassen - how Ajax are becoming a European force again

Charlie Eccleshare
Ajax players, led by captain Davy Klaassen, celebrate their 2-0 win over Schalke on Thursday night - Bongarts

Ajax are back. 

That was the message reverberating around the Amsterdam Arena on Thursday night, as Ajax continued their renaissance this season with a comprehensive 2-0 win over Schalke in the Europa League quarter-final first leg. 

With an average age of just 22, Ajax produced a masterclass of attacking football that stirred memories of the all-conquering teams of years gone by. Dutch football expert Simon Kuper proclaimed it Ajax's best performance since 2003, when they last reached a European quarter-final and had Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wesley Sneijder and  Rafael van der Vaart in the team. 

Ajax are one of Europe's most successful and evocative clubs. Not only have won they won four European Cups, they possess a clear identity about how football should be played, passed down from Johan Cruyff to every future generation, enshrined in the 4-3-3 formation that has become part of the club's almost evangelical ideology. 

They now stand on the brink of the Europa League semi-final, and have a real chance of winning their first European trophy since 1995, when Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids and co. hoovered up the Champions League and Super Cup. 

Champions League winners and losers from the quarter-final first legs

For most of the 20 plus years since, Ajax have become a glorified feeder club, forced to sell off their best players year after year to Europe's richest teams. But now they have rebuilt again, and look like they could be on the verge of achieving something special. 

Here, we look at the key factors behind the rebirth. 

Marc Overmars and the backroom staff

The current Ajax backroom staff is almost a 'who's who' of 1990s legends. Among them, Marc Overmars is the sporting director, Dennis Bergkamp is assistant manager and Edwin van der Sar is the CEO.

Of the three it is probably Overmars who has had the biggest role in the club's transition over the last couple of years. The former Arsenal winger runs the club's famed scouting network and is in charge of a transfer policy that has become increasingly effective. 

Overmars' purchases have by no means all been successes since he took up the role in 2012, but bringing in the Cameroon under-20 goalkeeper Andre Onana from Barcelona for a nominal fee and the winger Amin Younes from Borussia Monchengladbach in 2015 have been two very shrewd purchases. Onana, now 20, has since become a full international and established himself as the club's first-choice goalkeeper. 

Younes, brought in for just £2m, is a wide player in the Overmars mould and won the penalty for Ajax's first goal last night with a slaloming run into the box. 

The former Ajax winger Marc Overmars (R) is now the club's sporting director

The Polish playmaker Arkadiusz Milik meanwhile was signed for £2m in 2015, and then sold to Napoli last summer for £27m, netting Ajax a profit of £25m. 

Overmars and the club have since used the money from the Milik deal to move from a largely parsimonious transfer policy to a more expansive one. Hakim Ziyech, a 24-year-old winger, was brought in for £9.35m from FC Twente last summer, and has scored nine goals in a very promising first season with the club.

Then in January Ajax broke the £10m barrier for the first time under Overmars to sign the hugely talented 19-year-old Brazilian forward David Neres from Sao Paulo. Neres has already scored twice in his six matches, including the winner against Feyenoord, who are a point ahead of Ajax at the top of the Eredivisie. 

Ajax's improvement over the last few years has seen Overmars linked with becoming Arsenal's first ever director of football this summer. 

Captain Fantastic

Pivotal to Ajax's success this season has been the skipper and No 10 Davy Klaassen, an attacking midfielder who plays with the Roy of the Rovers zeal of a Steven Gerrard or Bryan Robson. 

Born in Hilversum, 19 miles south-east of Amsterdam, Klaassen has been at Ajax since he was nine years old and has become the club's talisman since being appointed club captain when just 22 in 2015. 

Now 24, Klaassen has become a full Dutch international and scored 16 times this season. He got both goals in last night's win against Schalke, including a trademark thumped penalty. Klaassen's calling card is timing his runs late into the box unchecked, a la David Platt or Frank Lampard, and his performances this season have seen him linked with a move to Everton. 

His relentless desire to drive the team forward was best demonstrated in a match against ADO Den Haag last OctoberWith the score at 0-0, Klaassen charged to the sideline to take a throw in, continued his run into the box and latched onto a lofted through ball to bury a finish into the bottom corner and give his side the lead. 

Fair-haired, confident and technically gifted, Klaassen is to use the local idiom "typical dutch". Ajax will have a big job on their hands keeping hold of their captain marvel this summer. 

Kluivert junior and exciting young talent

Ajax's success has always been underpinned by its unrivalled youth academy, which over the years has produced the likes of Cruyff, Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp, Frank and Ronald de Boer and Clarence Seedorf. 

The current Ajax team is no different, boasting a core of young Dutch players including Patrick Kluivert's son Justin on the right wing. Kluivert Jr is growing in confidence with every game, and scored his first goal for the club last month, before setting up Klaasen's second against Schalke yesterday. The assist showcased Kluivert's quick-feet and eye for a pass, picking out his captain beautifully with a low pull-back to the edge of the box. 

Elsewhere in the team, 17-year-old centre-back Matthijs de Ligt is starting to get game time, and became Holland's youngest international since 1931 when he featured against Bulgaria last month. De Ligt suffered a nightmare debut for the Oranje, but he is an impressively athletic ball-playing defender, and will have plenty of time to put things right. He already looks to have recovered well from the setback, and helped Ajax keep a clean sheet on Thursday night after coming on at half-time. 

Justin Kluivert (L) in action against Schalke

Donny van de Beek meanwhile has some of the Bergkamp swagger about him, and having been the No 10 for the fabled Jong Ajax youth team, is being primed to take over from Klaasen should he leave the club. The 19-year-old Van de Beek started the Schalke match, and has made 21 performances in all this season. 

Playmaker Abdelhak Nouri (20), striker Pelle Clement (20) and midfielder Frenkie de Jong (19) are three other academy graduates to have been given debuts this season, and will hope to become more prominent in the next few years. 

Ajax have also augmented their local talent with youngsters from further afield.  The 20-year-old Colombian centre-back Davinson Sanchez has been a revelation since joining from for £4.25m last summer from Atletico Nacional. An imposing presence with an eye for the spectacular, Sanchez has five goals this season, including two goal of the season contenders. His performances have underlined why Barcelona were interested in signing him before Ajax swooped. 

Daley Sinkgraven, 21, meanwhile was brought in from Heerenveen in 2015, and has been converted from an attacking midfielder into a highly accomplished left-back.  

The hottest teenage striker in Europe

Like any good side, Ajax have a lethal striker up front to finish off the approach play of their gifted creative midfielders. The 19-year-old Dane Kasper Dolberg has scored 17 times this season, and established himself as arguably the most sought-after teenage striker in Europe. 

Dolberg can finish with either foot, is strong on the ball, and links the play with his quick feet and eye for a pass. Expect Ajax's resolve to be tested in the coming years, with Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton apparently all interested in signing the Danish phenomenon. 

Kasper Dolberg looks like a star in the making

 

A manager who can get the best from his players

Peter Bosz took over from Frank de Boer as Ajax manager last season, and has had an immediate impact. Since joining from Maccabi Tel Aviv, the former Holland midfielder has given five academy players their debuts and assimilated new signings like Ziyech and Neres into the side seamlessly. 

After the win against Schalke, he praised his team and pointed to the support his side are enjoying from the fans, a relationship he has fostered since taking charge and one that has often been uneasy in the past. 

"Was this the best Ajax [played] under my leadership? Also against Feyenoord and Copenhagen we have played well here in the Amsterdam Arena," he said. 

Ajax manager Peter Bosz during a training session on Wednesday

"We gave them so little time on the ball. Tonight I might have most enjoyed the cooperation between the fans and the team. The whole stadium stood behind our team."

At the rate Ajax are going, Bosz could emulate the great managers of the past like Cruyff, Louis van Gaal and RinusMichels who have led this prestigious and classy club to a European title. 

If he can pull that off, then Ajax will most certainly be back. 

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