It’s easy to see why Ajax would start Klaas-Jan Huntelaar up-front. The man is a club legend who has 128 goals for the Amsterdam side, and what’s more he has 335 career club goals overall for clubs as varied as Real Madrid, Milan and Schalke. He’s a prolific marksman who, even at 35 years-old, is still a capable goalscorer – he has 11 goals in 10 games so far this season!
But in the Champions League proper, against a higher standard of opponent than Ajax are usually used to, his presence is a hindrance to the way the Dutch side want to play. It’s not that he’s poor, he’s not, it’s that for Ajax to compete at this level of football they have to play with an almost ridiculously level of bravery.
Look at their starting XI from today; five of the players were 22 years old or younger. More to the point with defensive prodigy Matthijs De Ligt out injured, Ajax didn’t actually have a single recognised centre-back on the field. They partnered 28 year old utility man Daley Blind with 21 year old defensive midfielder Frenkie De Jong.
That simply shouldn’t be workable as a defensive strategy. Any experienced team should be able to gut them on the break or in the air. But the game intelligence possessed by Blind and De Jong allowed them to be a functional defensive duo, but only because Ajax played so incredibly positively.
Ajax practically lived in the Athens half all game. When they lost the ball they pressed so efficiently and precisely that the ball was regained before it could make its way to their vulnerable defensive duo. And the funny thing is that when Athens did manage to get at that defence, mostly through long-balls, it wasn’t even that vulnerable.
Frenkie de Jong is a frankly ridiculous player. A willowy defensive midfielder whose standout technical ability is dribbling with the ball should not be able to play centre-back so comfortably in the Champions League; not even against the meagre might of AEK Athens. That he can is as clear an illustration of just why Barcelona are desperate to sign him in the summer, before this competition alerts the world to the true limit of his talents (it’s the sky, the sky is the limit).
De Jong played the game with an incredible assurance, only really getting caught out twice. Once was a sloppy touch that, with a little more time in the gym, he could have recovered from easily. The second was probably the only instance where Ajax’s bold tactic looked like backfiring on them. Athens managed to escape De Jong’s press and were streaking through at Daley Blind, but who chased down the ball carrier and yanked him to the ground with all the dismissive attitude of a seasoned veteran?
And Frenkie wasn’t the only sign of Ajax’s boldness in terms of team selection. Noussair Mazraoui and Carel Eiting are both 20 and played with a confidence and assurance too. Going about their business with an almost amusing lack of fuss or fanfare. David Neres is 21 years old and a promising winger who created Ajax’s opening goal with a peach of a delivery that Nicolas Tagliafico slotted home.
Then there was Donny van de Beek. Ohhhh Donny boy! This was where the proof that Ajax need to move forward without Huntelaar went from theory to practical. See, when Huntelaar was on the pitch, his movement was so slow that when Ajax’s wingers and creative attackers began moving the ball fluidly, he couldn’t both drop to get involved and then also get forward to join the attack. Dusan Tadic repeatedly sent in tasty crosses during the first half but The Hunter was nowhere near them.
In the second half an injury forced Huntelaar off, and it was a blessing in disguise. Donny van de Beek came on for him, Dusan Tadic moved to false nine and then things got absolutely awesome. We got full Ajax, because now the fluid football had a fast front-man, and Tadic playing withdrawn from the front-line meant that when Ajax played their quick passing just ahead of the Athens defence it was easy to create spaces behind said defence.
Ajax created so many opportunities through these types of plays, and Van de Beek’s electric movement was a huge part of that. Playing as the most advanced of the midfield trio, he was constantly running behind. He slammed home a goal soon after coming on, but was ruled out for offside. Then with 15 minutes left, his gloriously timed run to the back-post put him in position to slam home Tadic’s cross (the kind that Huntelaar could get nowhere near) and make it 2-0.
Tagliafico added a third late on through a flukey cross, but the main thing to take from this game was that Ajax are brave and bold and beautiful to watch. And if they want to have success on their return to the Champions League then they will have to be even braver and bolder, playing with an almost absurd level of fluidity to get the most out of their young stars.
Amsterdam football club Ajax got off to a good start in this year’s Champions League competition with a 3-0 home win against AEK Athene.
Nicolas Tagliafico was man of the match, scoring the first and third goals, with substitute Donny van de Beek putting away number two.
Ajax has drawn Bayern Munich, Benfica and AEK Athene in group E. The club’s next meeting is on October 2 when the Amsterdammers meet Bayern Munich away.
On Tuesday, PSV Eindhoven had a difficult start to their Champions League campaign, losing 4-0 to FC Barcelona.