By Michiel Jongsma
Dutch football writer
No matter the outcome of the Europa League final on Wednesday against Manchester United, 24 May will always have a special sentiment for Ajax and its fans.
On 24 May, 1995, Ajax managed to achieve the unthinkable; winning the Champions League with a team that was only 25 years old on average, beating Italian giants AC Milan 1-0 in the final.
Exactly 22 years later, Ajax have the opportunity once again to do something the club and its fans could not have possibly imagined. It is fitting, then, that the teams of then and now share so many connections beyond the iconic red and white jersey, as the Netherlands’ most successful club will try to end its longest title drought in continental competition.
Edwin van der Sar, who was the goalkeeper in that famous Ajax side and won a Champions League with Manchester United to boot, is now the general director of the club from the capital. Former Arsenal player Marc Overmars, currently the director of football at Ajax, was another starter that night in Vienna, taking up duties on the left wing.
Kluivert – whose son now plays for Ajax – scored against Milan 22 years ago
And with 18-year old Justin Kluivert in the side 22 years after his father Patrick became the youngest player to score a winner in a Champions League final, there might even be some historic on-pitch involvement, although the Dutch will be fearful of Manchester United’s Daley Blind denying the club that his father Danny captained to the Amsterdammers’ last European triumph.
The shadow of a team managed by another mutual acquaintance of both Manchester United and Ajax lingers over the final in Sweden – in 1995, Louis van Gaal was in charge of the Dutch club. Yet the current manager who has revitalized Ajax after a few stale years considers himself a disciple of the late Johan Cruyff.
Peter Bosz made a career for himself as a combative midfielder at Vitesse and Feyenoord, but at an early age, he was captured by the magic of Johan Cruyff.
When playing with Vitesse in the early 1980s, Bosz would regularly go to watch Ajax “because Cruyff was a football legend, returning to the Netherlands, and you wanted to see that with your own eyes. See as much of him as you could.”
Talking to FC Afkicken, he added: “I realised I wouldn’t become the best player in the world, but I wanted to try and become one of the best managers in the future. So I tracked everything Cruyff-related, going through magazines, papers, collecting all the articles I could find.”
The Ajax side which started the 1995 Champions League final. Household names everywhere – and Patrick Kluivert and Kanu came off the bench
Bosz, 53, won the title as a player and eight caps for the Netherlands but faced a lot of criticism for his period as technical director of Feyenoord, during a dark period for the Rotterdam club.
Bosz has gone from an on-field pragmatist to an off-field protagonist when it comes to the football he admires. Returning to Heracles Almelo in 2010, Bosz dared to play a 3-4-3 formation at a team destined for a bottom-half finish. He even managed to reach the Europa League play-offs and a KNVB Cup final with the Heraclieden.
He then transformed Vitesse into one of the most entertaining sides of the league and even – albeit briefly – threatened the establishment after picking up the joint-most points in the first half of the 2013-14 season, giving Ajax a run for their money.
Bosz then headed to Maccabi Tel Aviv, working together with Jordi Cruyff and spending a week with Johan, learning and polishing his skills and philosophy.
“Peter and Johan spent many hours, talking about football, about organization, everything and I think there was a clear mutual respect,” Jordi told Dutch broadcaster NOS.
Ajax coach Peter Bosz leads a training session
Bosz had no background at Ajax but has recreated the “style of old” at the club
Even before Bosz was appointed at Maccabi, Johan had told Jordi that Bosz would be a great choice, but thought he would be out of reach for a club like Maccabi. “He could hardly believe it when we managed to appoint him,” added Jordi.
When Frank de Boer announced his departure from Ajax last summer, Bosz in many ways seemed a perfect replacement despite his Feyenoord past and lack of involvement at Ajax in the past.
Bosz inherited a team more in the image of Van Gaal’s Manchester United than a Cruyffian Ajax – and replaced a club legend in De Boer who had won four titles in five-and-a-half years.
After a wobbly first two months, during which many outlets of the media called for Bosz’s head, he has been able to design a team more capable of executing a style of football that Ajax’s godfather Cruyff would appreciate.
The Bosz Babes
Ajax finished the Dutch season in second place, but playing attacking football en route to 81 points – a tally that would have been good enough for an Eredivisie title win in seven of the last 10 seasons. The Europa League run has for a large part washed away previous criticism as well.
Who are Ajax’s young academy stars making history?
Over the last decade the Eredivisie’s average age has decreased by two years, but instead of seeing that as a disadvantage, the Ajax manager has turned it into a strength. He has shaped the squad comprising largely of early twenty-somethings and teenagers in his image, resulting to an affectionate labelling of the team as ‘the Bosz Babes’.
Bosz recently named the youngest team in Eredivisie history, with an average age of 20 years and 139 days. Only one player was older than 21 – and yet the club easily defeated Willem II 3-1.
Legendary Ajax defender Ruud Krol, who won three European Cups alongside Cruyff in the 1970s, was full of praise talking to De Telegraaf last week.
“‘I recognize the Ajax style of old in this team,” he said. “The pressing, the tenacity, the enthusiasm. These are the characteristics that once made the club great and is what I really enjoy.”
There have been many changes – of the team that started the last game of the 2015/16 season only four are still regularly called upon.
As well as Cruyff, Bosz has often cited Pep Guardiola’s 2011 Barcelona team as his main inspiration. Kasper Dolberg, Hakim Ziyech, Davinson Sanchez and Andra Onana have all been pivotal in their debut season for the club to implement that style of play.
The Ajax team that played Willem II earlier in May
The starting XI which Ajax fielded against Willem II earlier this month – with an average age of just over 20
Dolberg has been the main talking point. The 19-year-old striker is amongst hottest young strikers in European football, the first Ajax teenager with 16 league goals in a season since Patrick Kluivert in 1995 and already the joint-top goalscoring teenager in Europa League history with six goals.
Former Barcelona goalkeeper André Onana has traded in shaky performances with the second team for a very assured presence in the first team, allowing his defenders to play a high line, being alert and comfortable with both feet.
Hakim Ziyech has slowly transformed from a fancy number 10 into an industrious yet creative pressing machine. Colombian Sanchez – described as “a beast, an absolute pleasure to play alongside” by team-mate Kenny Tete – has developed into an all-round modern centre-back.
A 15m euro investment in the pair will almost certainly be doubled, at the very least, should either leave.
It’s not all youth products though. Marc Overmars spent over 35m euros in the transfer market last summer. A fraction compared to opponents Manchester United, but more than Ajax had in the previous three seasons combined and something that clearly marks a change of approach.
As well as Sanchez and Ziyech, money has been splashed on South American talents David Neres and Mateo Cassierra, while Chelsea received a loan fee of 2m euros for Bertrand Traore.
Eyeing another upset
On average, United are four years older and wiser, and that’s before we even consider United’s greater European experience.
But Ajax have revelled in their underdog status already this season. Schalke were swept away with ease (2-0), as were Lyon (4-1) in the home legs for the Dutch club.
For Manchester United, the game will be a chance to redeem an otherwise unremarkable season.
For Ajax, it would be a new jewel in their crown, 22 years and a generation on from their last.