When the UEFA Champions League season kicked off last September, not many expected Erik ten Hag’s Ajax to take Europe by storm and stay in contention for a European treble by the end of April. But then, the same can be said about Louis van Gaal’s historic 1994/95 Ajax side, the last Dutch team to win the Champions League.
Van Gaal’s Ajax were also deemed underdogs, especially due to lack of quality signings and experience in the squad. The team that started on the night against heavyweights AC Milan had an average age of just 23.
The likes of Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Patrick Kluivert were yet to announce themselves to the world. It’s not too dissimilar to how players like Matthijs de Ligt, Donny van de Beek and Frenkie de Jong from the present Ajax squad were nobodies before the start of this season.
Another striking similarity between the two teams is how the academy produced gems and the club put their faith in it. Both Van Gaal and Ten Hag preferred to trust players from the academy.
Both the managers derive their core philosophy from Rinus Michels’ ‘Total Football’. The school of thought which was a brainchild of the Dutchman was incorporated by some of the best tacticians in the word – Johan Cruyff, Van Gaal, Pep Guardiola and now Ten Hag.
“Why can’t you beat a richer team? I’ve never seen a bag of money score goals,” is probably one of Cruyff’s finest quotes. Ajax have always remained true to their philosophy and have hence nurtured or bought low-profile players who can play simple and selfless football.
The neutrals love the current Ajax side, mainly due to their aesthetic brand of football. The movement is fluidic, passing seamless and the transitions are smooth.
Yet another quote by Cruyff would be apt to describe both the teams, “Playing football is simple, but playing simple football is very difficult.”
We are looking at two similar Ajax sides, separated by 24 years, coached by managers from the same school of thought. One of them shocked the world by conquering Europe. Can Ten Hag’s Ajax replicate the same?