Champions League: Do Celtic have cause to fear Ajax?

Ajax's revered talent factory has produced the likes of Patrick Kluivert. Picture: Getty
Ajax's revered talent factory has produced the likes of Patrick Kluivert. Picture: Getty
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LAST week, Ajax played a Dutch Cup tie against an amateur team called ASWH from a small town called Hendrik-Ido-Ambacht on the island of IJsselmonde in the western Netherlands, population 28,222, which is only 10,361 more folk than turned out at the Amsterdam Arena to watch Ajax’s 4-1 victory.

What was interesting about the game was that Frank de Boer opted to go with his first-choice team. He didn’t rest any of his key players ahead of last night’s league match against Vitesse Arnhem, who were just a point behind Ajax in the Eredivisie, nor did he stand down any of his top men in preparation for Celtic in the Champions League on Wednesday evening. That was telling, for Ajax needed a win and De Boer wasn’t in the mood to take chances.

A few days earlier they had been booed off the pitch after drawing 0-0 with Waalwijk, who had been bottom of the division up until that point. The game before that had been the dispiriting defeat to Celtic in Glasgow. Before that match with the minnows of ASWH, Ajax had won only one of their previous five games – a veritable crisis for the club. ASWH were duly beaten, but not all that convincingly and now Ajax have the return clash with Neil Lennon’s team, a night that could define their European season.

It’s hard to find mention of Ajax without also finding eulogies to their youth structure, paeans to the system that produced Cruyff and Van Basten and Bergkamp and Rijkaard and Kluivert and Davids and Seedorf and Sneijder and any number of others who went on to become world stars. Everybody knows the story of how Ajax’s system inspired Barcelona’s system through the genius of Johan Cruyff. The Dutch club have funded the running of their operation because of their jaw-dropping ability to find coltish talent to nurture and then sell on for outrageous sums of money.

They have some of their past greats at the club continuing the process. Or, at least, trying to. Dennis Bergkamp is at the heart of it, but there comes a time when you sell too often and the well becomes dry. Celtic’s victory over Ajax was impressive and dramatic and significant all at the same time but there was another match played on the same day and you might apply the same superlatives to what happened in that game.

The UEFA Youth League is in its infancy, this being its first season. On Champions League days, the under-19s from the big clubs play each other and so it was that Celtic’s youth played Ajax’s youth and not only beat them, but walloped them. Celtic won 4-1. Two things come to mind. Firstly, how good are these young Celtic kids that they can go and annihilate the products of what Lennon calls the greatest youth infrastructure in football? Secondly, how good is that supposed greatest youth infrastructure? In the youth table, Barcelona are top and Ajax are bottom. They have played three games and have lost all three, conceding 11 goals. Barcelona matched Celtic’s 4-1 earlier in the competition. AC Milan beat them 3-1. The conveyor belt of talent is still moving in Amsterdam, but how quickly? The national team’s under-17s failed to qualify for this year’s European championships despite having won it at the previous two attempts. The under-19s failed to make it out of their group in their European Championship. There were only three Ajax boys in the squad where once they dominated.

In 2012 and 2011, the Dutch under-19s didn’t even qualify. In 2010 they finished bottom of their section. Of the sparse Ajax contingent, only Ricardo van Rhijn, the centre-half, has emerged. The Netherlands’ under-21s lost in the semi-finals of the 2013 Euros but Ajax only had three players in the squad – Van Rhijn, Daley Blind and Danny Hoesen. It’s almost a reflex reaction to say that Ajax’s youth must be special simply because they are Ajax, but you have to wonder if their ability to produce magic has gone. Against Celtic, they had two teenagers and only one player, Christian Poulsen, was over 24, but they didn’t look like a side that had burgeoning superstars – or lucrative sell-ons – in their ranks.

Of course, with Bergkamp at the club then there is always hope that decent players can be turned into gems, that there is a way of covering for the grievous loss of the likes of Christian Eriksen, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Gregory van der Wiel. That’s just in the last two seasons. If we were to go back any further than that we’d need a whole lot more paper to record the big names that have been transferred for huge money.

Bergkamp’s recent book, Stillness and Speed, is fascinating on all of this. He documents the battle to preserve the youth system at Ajax, the internal warfare that gripped the place with him and Cruyff and others struggling to influence what they felt was a structure in the throes of crisis. The book refers to Ajax having become a “bucolic backwater” still living off the Champions League success of 1995. Cruyff used to say that the last great striker that Ajax produced was Patrick Kluivert and that was a relative age in the past. Cruyff had an ally in Bergkamp. Both felt that something had gone badly wrong in Ajax’s storied academy.

Back in 2008, Cruyff called for the sacking of the entire youth coaching staff at the club. When they refused to bend to his will, he left the stage, saying: “I’ve got no more business at Ajax.” His ego was vast, but his message was worth listening to.

Those with their heads in the sand pointed out that seven of the 14 Dutchmen who played in the 2010 World Cup final against Spain had begun their careers at Ajax, but others could see that the energy and inspiration that led to Ajax’s greatness in the first place was being eroded. “Things were really going downhill,” said Bergkamp. “But no-one seemed to notice or perhaps they didn’t want to see. Everyone seemed to be saying: ‘Hey, we’re Ajax, we’re the best, look at 1995 when we won the Champions League’. I thought: ‘What’s all that about?’” 1995 was a long, long time ago.

Bergkamp felt that Ajax’s academy – De Toekomst or The Future – had been turned into a “weird version of Stepford”. In his book, he says: “It was as if all the kids had been made in the same factory. It felt strange. They were good, tidy, technical players, but they weren’t special or flexible or creative. They did what was asked of them. They knew their positions, played their roles but, even in the first team, they had so little creativity. When they had to improvise they’d look hopelessly to the touchline as if to say ‘Now what do we do?’. All the teams played four-three-three, the way you’re supposed to at Ajax, but it was completely uninspired, totally lethargic. . . it was all by the book but the heart was missing. I didn’t see one of the typical old Ajax lads with that cheeky attitude: ‘Let me have the ball, I’ll do something with it’.”

The idea was to turn the academy back into a place of ideas under the eyes of Bergkamp and de Boer and Wim Jonk and Edwin van der Sar and Marc Overmars. The revolutionary programme, as Cruyff termed it, was forced through against a backdrop of bitterness and in-fighting with the Ajax hierarchy, most notably Louis van Gaal, Cruyff’s sworn enemy. Eventually, it went to court. Cruyff’s revolutionaries won the day and Van Gaal and the board were overthrown.

If this is a revolution, it’s a long-term fight. Bergkamp says that Ajax have not had one exceptional player since the days of Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart. “Not one player who’d spend three or four years in the Ajax first team, then go to the first team of Madrid or Milan or Man Utd. It’s still good, but the standard has gone down a bit. They go to lesser teams now, and sometimes they don’t even get a first-team position in those teams. It’s not what it was. So we have to do something else because we want to be different, we want to be unique.”

With Bergkamp on the scene, you have to fancy Ajax to come again. In the meantime, Celtic have no cause to fear them.