May 24th, 2017.
Friends Arena, Solna.
Manchester United beat Ajax 2-0 in the 2017 Europa League final.
Paul Pogba and Henrik Mkhitaryan scored the goals as Jose Mourinho’s side produced a tactical masterclass against their youthful – arguably naive – opponents.
Ajax had won admirers all over Europe on their journey to their first European final since 1996, but the occasion arguably came too soon in their development for Peter Bosz’ young guns.
It was a harsh lesson against the practical Red Devils, who used their physicality and bypassed midfield to prevent Ajax from imposing their attractive passing game.
Hopes were high in Stockholm that night; Mourinho had ended his debut season in the dugout at United with two trophies, but the Europa League final was papering over the cracks.
United had finished sixth in the Premier League, but the Portuguese manager’s teams were notoriously strong in his second seasons.
What could go wrong?
Fast forward just under two years, and things look entirely different.
While United were suffering their heaviest ever aggregate defeat at Camp Nou on Tuesday night, Ajax were adding another chapter to their remarkable European story with a win over Juventus.
The Dutch club came from behind to beat the Serie A champions 2-1 in Turin (3-2 on aggregate), becoming the first club from outside the traditional top five European leagues to reach the Champions League semi-final since PSV in 2005.
Ajax knocked out Cristiano Ronaldo and co with a team which contained five players aged 22 or younger in the starting lineup, with eight of those eleven players coming through the club’s famed academy.
The Eredivisie outfit outplayed Juve over two legs, with some of the home supporters even staying behind to applaud the visitors after the full time whistle.
— Virgin Media Sport (@VMSportIE) April 16, 2019
Erik ten Hag’s team, who made history to dump out holders Real Madrid in the last 16, now have a semi-final against Spurs to look forward to.
They also lead the Dutch league – which they haven’t won since 2014 – on goal difference ahead of rivals PSV after 30 games.
United, on the other hand, face a tough fight to make the top four in the Premier League, and will end the season without any silverware.
So how has it come to this?
Ajax may have lost the final, but it was United who were in the midst of losing their football identity.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, Manchester United have suffered the worst case of identity crisis since Jason Bourne.
David Moyes was chosen as Fergie’s successor, but his reign was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. Hindsight is a wonderful gift, but his decision to bring in his own background team backfired hugely, and the loss of David Gill was also an enormous blow.
Louis van Gaal – the last man to lead Ajax to European glory – was brought in to turn things around, but also proved unpopular with fans.
The Dutch native’s reign yielded an FA Cup but little else.
United dominated possession in most matches under his stewardship, but largely played a turgid, dull brand of football.
He promised attacking football, but his approach was far more pragmatic than most expected.
An idealistic philosophy requires patience, but pragmatism demands results.
United finished fourth in his maiden season at the helm, ending the season without a trophy.
In his second season, despite heavy investment, the football remained difficult to watch, and United were eliminated from the Champions League at the group stages. United finished fifth, missing out on Champions League football, but won the FA Cup in what proved to be van Gaal’s final game in the dugout.
Neither Moyes nor van Gaal could reach the incredibly high standards set by Ferguson, and neither man adhered to United’s attacking principles.
United then decided to turn to Jose Mourinho. Short-term planning at its finest.
Mourinho is the epitome of pragmatism. His teams win by any means necessary, but they generally win a lot. Whatever your thoughts on the controversial Portuguese manager, his CV shows that he’s a serial winner.
In a bid to arrest their slide, United made a decision to sacrifice style for success.
The club’s identity was slipping further and further away; the halcyon era under Fergie steadily fading from the rear view mirror.
Armed with an enormous budget, Mourinho set about trying to restore United to the top table, taking charge at Old Trafford during the same summer that his old rival Pep Guardiola was appointed at the Etihad.
Free-flowing, attacking football remained a scarce commodity on the red side of Manchester, while neighbours City set about adapting Pep’s philosophy.
United finished sixth in Mourinho’s first season as Antonio Conte guided Chelsea to the title, but won the League Cup, and qualified for the following season’s Champions League by beating Ajax in Stockholm to claim the Europa League.
Mourinho’s side spent big that summer (more on that below), and found far more consistency in the league, making an excellent start to the season.
They were effective rather than entertaining- with Maouanne Fellaini perhaps being the perfect example of this – but this strong start petered out, and United lost insurmountable ground on their rivals Man City.
United eventually finished in second place, 19 points behind City, who scored 106 goals, registered 100 points, and lost just two games all season.
Pep’s attacking team were breath-taking to watch, but United’s style was not one for purists, and and Mourinho was regularly criticized for “parking the bus” in big games.
The Red Devils were knocked out of the last 16 of the Champions League by Sevilla, producing two uninspired, unambitious performances against the La Liga side.
Mourinho took exception to comments about United’s “heritage”.
“In seven years, with four different managers, once not qualify for Europe, twice out in the group phase and the best was the quarter-final,” he ranted.
“This is football heritage.”
After a summer of complaining, things fell apart for Mourinho at Old Trafford this season.
He lost the dressing room, and United languished in mid table until he was eventually sacked in December.
A miasma of gloom – which had been steadily spreading since Ferguson’s departure – hung over the club, but interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær soon set his sights on restoring the club’s identity and heritage.
The appointment was viewed by many as a nostalgic one, but Solksjaer produced instant results.
A fan favourite as a player, the Norwegian immediately brought attacking football back to the club, and a much needed feel good factor.
While Ferguson’s other successors were eager to step out of his shadow, Solksjaer was happy to embrace the shade.
He said all the right things, looked to the past for inspiration, and even showed the current crop of United players footage of previous teams.
United won 14 of his 17 games in charge, drawing twice, and losing just once.
Bringing Mike Phelan back to the club proved to be a masterstroke, and spirits on the pitch and in the stands were lifted immediately.
The Honeymoon period is over, and United have had some doses of harsh reality of late.
Their Premier League form has dipped, they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Wolves, and were completely outclassed by Barcelona.
Ole knows there is plenty of work to do to fully restore United to where they belong, but he has made good strides in terms of seizing their identity back.
He has placed his faith in young players, and knows from experience what it was that made United so great under Fergie.
Interestingly, he pointed to Ajax when discussing how United need to improve following the chastening defeat in Camp Nou.
“We know there’s work to be done, I’ve said all along this isn’t gonna change overnight and the next few years are gonna be massive for us to get to the level of Barcelona and other teams are at the moment,” he conceded.
“Ajax have done fantastic to get to the semi-finals. We actually beat them in the Europa League – we knocked them out – in 2015 with Molde, so that shows you how far they’ve come. And we have to praise them and the club, they’ve always been a great club with great traditions, so happy for them.
“We have to look at ourselves, we know we have a job to do and we are getting on with it.”
Having won over his doubters and deservedly earned a permanent contract, Solskjaer knows there is much work to do.
It is time for United to focus on a long term strategy and philosophy rather than pursuing constant quick fixes.
Ole is right to look to Ajax for inspiration, and the Dutch giants suffered their own identity crisis at the turn of the century.
The Velvet Revolution
“This isn’t Ajax anymore.”
Ajax legend Johan Cruyff wrote those words in his De Telegraaf column in September 2010 after his beloved club’s facile defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in Europe.
Standards were falling, and the club’s identity was changing.
Cruyff was disgusted by the club’s shifting transfer policy, and felt Ajax were abandoning their famed playing philosophy.
He orchestrated the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in a bid to restore the club’s fortunes and ideals.
The answer, Cruyff claimed, was to return to Ajax’s roots – focusing on producing and nurturing premium young talent.
He took his place on Ajax’s board of directors, and his disciples Mark Overmars, Dennis Berkgamp, Ruben Jongkind and Wim Jonk took up roles at the club.
In a bid to curtail Cruyff’s power and influence, Ajax appointed Louis van Gaal – who clashed with Cruff – as general director in November 2011. This situtation eventually went to the courts, with van Gaal’s appointment eventually being ruled as illegal in 2012.
‘The Cruyff Plan’ was based around restoring Ajax’s fluid, attacking philosophy, and overcoming their lack of financial muscle by developing the best young footballers in Europe.
While war was raging off the pitch, things were harmonious on it.
Ajax won four consecutive titles from 2011 to 2015 under Frank de Boer, though his style of play was often criticized for being too slow and ponderous.
Things stagnated somewhat under de Boer in his fifth and sixth seasons at the helm, with Ajax finishing behind champions PSV Eindhoven in both campaigns.
He resigned in 2016, and was replaced by Peter Bosz.
Cruyff, Jonk and Jongkind had left the club in 2015, but the rules and philosophies they put in place have contributed greatly to Ajax’s recent resurgence.
Bosz embraced Ajax’s football principles, and despite missing out on the Eeredivise again, there was a special feeling around the club after reaching the Europa League final.
Two years later, they are two games away from a Champions League final.
— Riccardo Marchioli (@RMarchioli) April 16, 2019
If Ajax had lost their way before the ‘Velvet Revolution’, the re-examination of their approach and philosophy ensured they recaptured their identity in the following years.
Edwin van der Sar became the club’s CEO in 2016, and along with Overmars, has done an excellent job in ensuring Ajax’s core principles are adhered to.
It has been well documented that last year that the duo called seven of Ajax’s best young players – the likes of Matthjis De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong among them – into a room and compared each one of them to an Ajax legend, urging them to stay at the club and emulate the heroes of the past.
Ajax looked to the past to inspire the future, something which Solskjaer appears to be attempting at United.
It is no coincidence that Ajax now boast one of the best young squads in world football.
It is the result of an innovative vision and excellent forward planning, and a similar plan needs to be put in place at Old Trafford to get United back to where they belong.
Contrasting transfer policies
To say Ajax and United were mismatched financially when they met in Stockholm is a gross understatement.
For context, United had spent £455million over a three year period before the final, while Ajax had spent £379m in the 70 years before the showdown in Stockholm.
At the time, the Amsterdam club’s 10 biggest signings amounted to a total of £87.7m – taking inflation into consideration) – which was less than the scorer of United’s first goal on the night, Paul Pogba.
Since that final in Solna, United’s net spend (£175m) is roughly £258m higher than Ajax’s (-£83m).
Ajax lost Bosz to Borussia Dortmund after the 2017 final, and also parted with several key players as foreign clubs came calling.
Davinson Sanchez was sold to Tottenham, captain Davy Klaassen was snapped up by Everton, Jairo Riedewald signed for Crystal Palace, and Bertrand Traore returned to Chelsea after his loan spell.
They brought in experienced Holland striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar on a free tranfer, and signed Siem De Jong from Newcastle.
Losing key players to bigger clubs has always been an inevitability for Ajax, but their clever forward planning and excellent transfer dealings in recent years – overseen by Overmars – has allowed them to compete nonetheless.
Donny van de Beek stepped up to fill the void left by Klaassen, Frenkie De Jong continued to establish himself as one of the world’s leading prospects, and teenage defender De Ligt assumed the captain’s armband.
Nine of the squad from the 2017 European final against United started in Tuesday’s thrilling triumph in Turin.
In contrast, United spent big.
Rather than look for innovative ways to solve their problems, they elected to throw money at them instead.
United spent around £155m on Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Victor Lindelof that summer.
Wayne Rooney was the club’s only significant departure; returning to boyhood club Everton on a free transfer.
While Ajax made the shrewd acquisition of Argentinian left back Nicolás Tagliafico for around £3 million in January ’18, United forked up an enormous wage and bonus package to lure Alexis Sanchez from the Emirates to Old Trafford.
In his late twenties and arguably in decline, this was the epitome of United’s short term mindset.
Ahead of this season, Ajax opted to bring in some experienced players to complement their young array of academy talent, signing former academy graduate Daley Blind and Dusan Tadic.
These signings have proven crucial, with Blind providing plenty of experience and guidance in defence, and Tadic emerging as one f this season’s standout performers in the Champions League.
Denmark international Lasse Schone is another experienced head in midfield, and has been magnificent in Ajax’s recent Champions League scalps.
— The Season Ticket (@_SeasonTicket) March 6, 2019
Mourinho grumbled incessantly about United’s lack of transfer activity last summer, but the Red Devils still acquired Fred and Diogo Dalot.
The Manchester club made no signings in January following Mourinho’s departure, but despite all this heavy expenditure in recent years, a major squad overhaul is needed at the English side.
Four of the United back five which started Tuesday’s defeat in Barcelona – with the exception of Victor Lindelof – started together eight years ago in a group stage defeat to Basel.
Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young are past their best, Fred has struggled to settle, and Sanchez has been an utter disaster from the outset. Ander Herrera and Juan Mata could both be set to depart, and there doesn’t appear to be a future at the club for either Marcos Rojo or Matteo Darian.
It will require more significant spending to revitalize the squad, whereas Ajax are primed for a strong future despite their financial constraints.
Frenkie De Jong – who was signed by Ajax years ago for a single euro – will depart for Barcelona in the summer for a whopping €75 million.
De Ligt is fancied by every major club in Europe, and could well follow his fellow Dutch international out the door in the post-season.
Ajax’s conveyor belt will continue to churn out talent, like it always does.
As mentioned in the intro, eight of the starting eleven against Juve came through De Toekomst, and the entire starting lineup cost just under £55 million.
The core of their team consists of Academy graduates, and all the sgins suggest that there are plenty more talents on the way.
Jong Ajax won Eerste Divisie – the Dutch second division – last season, and the club’s under-19 side won their pool in the UEFA Youth League.
The first team have no trophies to show for their wonderful football, but their progress is clear since 2017.
They have every chance of winning their first Eredivisie title in five years, and are more than capable of reaching the Champions League final.
Ajax have restored their identity, and are back where they belong.
Their European progress shows what can be achieved with innovative long-term planning and a clear sense of self.
Overall, United have made excellent progress under Solskjaer thus far.
Bumps are to be expected, but at least they now have a manager who understands the importance of idenity and football heritage.
There is a lot they – or most clubs for that matter – could learn from the Ajax project.