Ajax close to title joy after going back to their roots
Manager De Boer's reliance on youth sets up potential first league win since 2004
Saturday 14 May 2011
After a season that has taken in institutional crisis, European humiliation and the departure of a popular head coach, it seems extraordinary that Ajax enter their final game with a chance to become Dutch champions for the first time since 2004.
Yet that is exactly the situation ahead of tomorrow's winner-takes-all meeting with FC Twente at the Amsterdam Arena.
The 29-times champions have not led the table since being deposed from the summit in the first week of October, but that they have the opportunity to wrest the lead back at the most vital of moments owes everything to a return to the club's core values – on the playing side, at least.
Having been built on the principles of their fabled youth set-up De Toekomst ("The Future"), Ajax have spent profligately in recent years in various attempts to recover former glories. When Frank de Boer took over as caretaker-coach after Martin Jol quit in December – mere months after the club pulled out all the stops to convince the former Tottenham manager to reject a return to the Premier League – it was at the helm of a club in disarray. Ajax were in third place in the Eredivisie having been so comprehensively thumped by Real Madrid in Amsterdam that Jose Mourinho's men could afford to get men sent off on purpose.
"I hoped for this," de Boer tells The Independent, "because we weren't that far from first or second position, but you don't know what the reaction will be to the change in the tactics and how you train. What's important is that every player who plays for Ajax knows we always have to fight for the title."
Much of the fighting this season has been over the coach's head, with the whole board resigning on 31 March in protest at adviser Johan Cruyff's plan to implement radical change in the running of the club. Chief executive Rik van den Boog followed a few weeks after, leaving De Boer to "protect" the players from the fall-out, as he puts it.
For decades, the feeling has been that the Ajax top job is a poisoned chalice. Only Louis Van Gaal, who was in charge for six years of success in the 1990s, has kept the Ajax job for more than three seasons since Rinus Michels left for Barcelona after winning the 1971 European Cup. Michels' successor Stefan Kovacs saw Ajax remain European champions for both his years in charge, but even he was dogged by the accusation that he was merely caretaking the team that Michels built.
The winner of 14 major trophies in a decade at the club as a player, De Boer quickly made sure his players understood his own interpretation of what the club is about. The day after taking charge, he dropped top scorer Mounir El Hamdaoui to the bench for the Champions League visit to Milan, installing young Siem de Jong in attack flanked by Miralem Sulejmani and the now-Liverpool forward Luis Suarez in a classic Ajax front three. They won 2-0 in San Siro to clinch Europa League football.
It was an entirely natural move, says De Boer. "That's the philosophy of our club. That's why everybody knows Ajax. We don't have to change that." What was equally clear is that the new coach, who had worked with the under-13s and under-19s since joining the coaching staff in 2008, would aim to re-energise the side around another of its key tenets – young, homegrown players.
"It's about the youth," De Boer says. "The blood in our hearts pumps so strongly because of the youth academy. If you don't use those players, it's almost impossible for us to survive as a club. You have to give the youth players perspective, so that they think 'if somebody goes or is sold to another club by the board, I will get a chance in the first team.' That's the most important thing that we changed a little bit."
That change has been profound. The team that took on Twente in last Sunday's Dutch Cup final had an average age of 22, included three teenagers. That first leg of the double-header with the champions ended in failure, as Marc Janko's 116th-minute goal won a dizzying encounter for Twente.
De Boer is philosophical ahead of tomorrow's pivotal game – rivals PSV Eindhoven are close enough to steal a Champions League place if they win at Groningen, even if they cannot win the title. "It's good for us that we played the cup final first," he argues. "This is the most important game of the season, especially because if you win, you qualify for the Champions League directly. Having played the final, our very young team know what tension is now."
"They are now experienced in playing in a great stadium with the pressure on," he continues. "For example if you saw [left-back Nicolai] Boilesen in the first ten minutes, there were nerves, and he made some silly mistakes that he wouldn't normally make. Hopefully he has learned from that now."
Michel Preud'Homme, De Boer's opposite number tomorrow, has similarly hammered the prophets of doom since being given the task of following Steve McClaren, the most successful coach in Twente's history. The Belgian has also stuck to a gospel of evolution, not revolution. "He hasn't changed that much with their team," De Boer says, "though they try to create even more chances now." Ajax's fans hope De Boer will be allowed to do the same for the three remaining years on his now-permanent contract, come what may tomorrow.
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