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The Kids Who Could Ruin José Mourinho’s Season

Ajax produces talent, and Manchester United buys it. Can the Dutch club win one off the mega-club before its youngsters inevitably disperse?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In 2017, what comes to mind when you think of Ajax? It might be its history: Before Johan Cruyff left for Barcelona, the club dominated European competition in the 1970s and birthed the “total football” concepts that influenced much of the modern game. Or it might be its youth academy: In 2010, The New York Times Magazine profiled the club in a piece titled, “How a Soccer Star Is Made.”

The thing you likely don’t associate with the club anymore is on-field success. After winning the Champions League in 1995 with a team that featured future stars like Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Frank de Boer, and Marc Overmars, the club hasn’t won a European trophy since.

Months after the victory, the European Court of Justice ruled that clubs didn’t have to pay transfer fees after a player’s contract ended — essentially establishing free agency — and it effectively priced Ajax out of competition since they couldn’t afford to pay their players the kinds of contracts they’d receive at bigger clubs. In the following two years, the club saw two of their best players, Davids and Kluivert, move to AC Milan.

Ajax was forced to pivot and increased its focus on youth development and then selling that talent to fund its operations. In 2010, Olav Versloot, the team’s former chief exercise physiologist, told the Times Magazine that the club’s sale of Wesley Sneijder to Real Madrid in 2007 for 27 million euros was enough to fund the club for several years.

In addition to developing Dutch prospects like Sneijder, the club has raised foreign stars like Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen or, in the case of Luis Suárez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, bought promising young foreign talents, developed them in the first team, and sold them on to bigger clubs.

“You know, I was lucky that I was able to play at a club like Ajax,” Suárez told Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf. “The Netherlands is the country where I learned the most. It is a kind of football school. There, I became physically and technically better and became more ambitious.”

While the club’s focus on youth development has been good business, “selling off your best players right as they’re about to get great” isn’t compatible with competing for European trophies. Well, it hasn’t been. It might not be the Champions League, but against Manchester United in the Europa League final, Ajax has a chance to prove that you can, in fact, win in Europe while also developing youth.

Four of Ajax’s players (Abdelhak Nouri, Kasper Dolberg, Justin Kluivert, and Matthijs de Ligt) were on the short list for Tuttosport’s Golden Boy award, given annually to the most impressive under-21 talent playing in Europe. (Borussia Dortmund was the only club with more.) The first team’s average age is 22.7, and two weeks ago they played a starting lineup with the average age of 20 years, 139 days, which was the youngest starting 11 in Eredivisie history. Oh, and they won, 3–1.

It’s a cliché because it’s true: Defense wins championships, and with Davinson Sánchez, Ajax have arguably the best under-21 center back in the world. Last summer, after leaving his boyhood club Atlético Nacional in Colombia, he (wisely) rejected Barcelona B and chose to join Ajax on a five-year deal. In only his first season, despite no mention on the Golden Boy list, he’s grown into Ajax’s best player. Folks, just look at how he runs down this attacker and stops a would-be goal.

Strong and pacey, Sánchez is technically gifted and made only one defensive error this season. He leads the Europa League in defensive actions with 114 (30 interceptions, 79 clearances, five blocked shots). He’s also careful with the ball; no player in the Eredivisie has completed more passes than he has, and he connects them at an impressive 89 percent clip. While he’s sound in defense, Sánchez is also known to score the occasional banger.

In all competitions, he’s scored six goals and added two assists.

When Sánchez moved to Ajax last summer on a €5 million fee, the club probably thought they’d get at least a few years out of him, but after his performances this season, it seems likely that he’ll be bought by a bigger club this offseason. He’s been strongly linked with Barcelona (again) and Chelsea.

In addition to Sánchez, Ajax has plenty of talent further up the field, and it’s been unleashed by new manager Peter Bosz. Under the previous coach, club legend Frank de Boer, Ajax played at a slow and methodical pace. They won the Eredivisie four seasons in a row, but finished in second in de Boer’s last two seasons. After de Boer left for Inter Milan last summer, the club brought in Bosz, who introduced a much faster, higher-tempo style of play, including pass-and-move elements of Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka style and positional interchange of Cruyff’s total football.

Going forward, Ajax are like Monaco, if Monaco was even younger. In the Europa League, they’re tied for second in goals scored with 24. And they were second place in goals scored in the Eredivisie with 79. In Bosz’s first season, Ajax lost the league by one point to a Feyenoord side that hadn’t won the title since 1999. (Congrats, Dirk Kuyt!) Despite the lack of domestic silverware, Ajax are in their first European final since losing the Champions League on penalties to Juventus in 1996.

At the head of their attack is leading scorer Kasper Dolberg, a 19-year-old Danish striker who’s notched 23 goals, including six in the Europa League, and grabbed eight assists in all competitions this year.

Dolberg has the ability to go on runs and create goal-scoring opportunities on his own, he shoots from good locations, and he’s impressive off the ball, too. His movement is fluid and he has a veteran-like ability to time his runs into the box.

The kids aren’t the only reason for the club’s success this season, though. There’s old man Bertrand Traoré, and even though he’s getting up there in age at 21, he’s been a key part of Ajax’s attack. A member of Chelsea’s ever-expanding loanee network, he’s tallied 13 goals and six assists in all competitions. Traoré’s first-leg brace against Lyon in the semifinals gave Ajax just enough breathing room to hold on for a 5–4 aggregate win.

The list of future stars for other teams goes on and on. There’s Justin Kluivert, son of Patrick, who just turned 18 two weeks ago and has shown flashes of brilliance is his 20 appearances in the first team. There’s Matthijs de Ligt, a 17-year-old fullback who’s going to be starting in a European final before he’s eligible to buy cigarettes in the U.S. Donny van de Beek and Abdelhak Nouri, both 20-year-old midfielders, have been increasingly featured in the squad over the last couple of months. And then there’s André Onana, a 21-year-old goalkeeper, who is developing into a great shot-stopper with 21 clean sheets in Eredivisie play.

While Ajax develop youth talent, their opponent in the Europa League final buys it. Last summer. United spent 185 million euros in the transfer window while Ajax spent 35 million — barely more than what United spent on Eric Bailly alone. Although he’ll miss the final against his former side, Ibrahimovic’s salary is more than Ajax’s entire staff, players and coaches of all levels included.

Then there are the tactical differences that separate the two clubs. Ajax like to play fast and have had more attempts on goal (225), attempts on target (95), and more chances created (170) than any other team in the Europa League. Meanwhile, Manchester United coach José Mourinho is known for his overly defensive leanings, as his side conceded only eight goals in 14 Europa League matches.

Over the past month or so, Mourinho made it clear that United want to get into next season’s Champions League by winning the Europa League. Rather than also trying to compete for fourth place in the Premier League, he trotted out substandard lineups domestically and focused the team’s energies on the Europa League. They finished sixth in the domestic league, and so the final has become the most important game in United’s season. While the Europa League, by definition, is a substandard version of the Champions League, this should be reason enough to tune into the final: Mourinho’s season could be ruined in 90 minutes by a group of teenagers and 20-somethings who might not ever play together again.