The Ajax Challenge – season 1, part 1

And so it begins. The Ajax challenge, season one, is underway. After some fierce Twitter lobbying, I make a few changes. Firstly, I begin training the squad in a second formation. Several people wrote to me about this, but then Niko Overheul, who has forgotten more about football than I will probably ever know, messaged me to suggest that Ajax often used what was Cryuff’s favourite formation, a 3-3-3-1, employing a defensive midfielder, two central midfielders, two wingers, an attacking midfielder, and a forward. I set the instructions to the same as my approximate 4-3-3 in an attempt to be as Total as possible and hopefully, I’ve also now shut up Jaap Stam, who was complaining about a perceived lack of versatility. I also bring Abdelhak Nouri into the first team squad after a fair few of you suggested he should be part of what I’m trying to do. If either of the above backfire, I’m not taking the blame.
Loans will be a big part of what I do, developing fringe players by giving them the chance of first team football elsewhere, and so I loan out Damian van Bruggen and André Onana to Trencin in the Slovak First Division. The season begins after the usual pre-season friendly nonsense with the two-legged Champions League Third Place Playoff against Panathinaikos, featuring former Ajax stalwart Diederik Boer in goal (after I sold him for being old). The away leg is a dour 0-0 draw, but at home we rip into them, with Arkadiusz Milik scoring a brace from the bench after Zivkovic ran himself into the ground up front, and Vaclav Cerny also netting to secure a 3-1 win. I give Nouri his debut as well, and he gave a decent account of himself with a 7.20, as did 17 year old Carel Eiting in the Neeskens role (as Bazoer is injured for several weeks). We draw Club Brugge in the next Champions League Playoff round, which is a result as they are one of the weaker sides (although I would have liked to come up against van Gaal’s Manchester United and give the dour old bugger a lesson in proper football – that will have to wait, I fear). We start our Eredivisie campaign with one of those implausible Football Manager results. We lose 2-0 away at AZ Alkmaar, despite having 60% of the possession and 21 shots (seven on target) to 10. Elton Acolatse is loaned out to RKC and the gloriously named Django Warmerdam is loaned to the equally well-named Telstar. Ezra Walian potters off for a season at Almere City, as does Dragisa Gudelj. We cruise past Club Brugge 5-1 on aggregate, with wins against Willem II (3-0) and NEC (0-2) in between.
Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 14.52.07The team so far has had an average age of 20, with the best rating in the Eredivisie for first touch. We are physically weak (17th in the league), but that is always the flipside to playing talented youngsters: they are less physical and we do sometimes lose out in 50/50 tackles. It’s a strong argument for playing with ball retention, though; we are good at control and passing, so if we don’t offer ourselves up to be muscled off the ball and keep moving it around, we do alright.
We are drawn with Atléti, Celtic, and Zenit in the Champions League. Adham El Idrissi goes to Roda JC on loan, and Gino Dekker and Nathan Leyder head off to Almere, one of our affiliate clubs. A lot of my good prospects are now out getting first team football, which is crucial for their development and central to what I’m trying to do. Talking of prospects, Nouri is averaging 7.67 for his seven games, which is a delight. We then draw 3-3 with Twente away, despite 61% possession and 20 shots to 12. As long as we are paying the right way, I’m less concerned about the odd result, especially as we are now top of the league after five games. Helmond Sport take us to penalties in the Dutch Cup and though we win, I give the chaps a bit of an earful. Amin Younes has the gall to complain, and so I offer him to clubs and sell him for £1m to Montpellier. I am not a fan of whingers and he’s not Dutch either, so I don’t feel compelled to be nice to him.
Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 15.25.09We beat Zenit 2-0 away, with Fischer man-of-the-match. It’s a superb result. Less awesome is a 1-0 loss at home to PSV immediately afterwards, but my young squad are shattered from the game in Russia and I’m genuinely not fussed. We play well and generate chances, but can’t quite force the goal; it’s not the end of the world, though, and I make sure the squad know that. I rest Nouri, who is rapidly beomcing one of my favourite players, as well as van Rhijn and Riedewald, against Heracles with a home game against Atléti up afterwards. Michael Brouwer has stormer in goal for the home side but we still carve out a 2-1 win, with Fischer and Milik scoring. And the plan to rest players is a success too, as we beat Atléti 2-1 at home to put us three from three at the top of our group. The continental hangover is in evidence as we then draw 1-1 with Vitesse, but with a young, physically weak squad, it’s almost a certainty that such intense matches will take their toll. Nonetheless, after only 10 games, a seven point gap between PSV at the top and us in second has opened up, and I’m keen to rectify that. I hire Harry Decheiver from Go Ahead Eagles to manage the U19s, having noticed that we don’t have someone in that role (oops) for £900 a week and £55k as a fee to his former club. I also ask for and receive from the board an upgrade of the youth facilities, which I had asked for before but been denied due to not having been long at the club. It’ll cost £2.7m and take a year, but it’s integral to the plan.
Atléti defeat us 4-1 away, but before that we manage a 4-0 win at home to Roda JC using the 3-3-3-1 formation, which is pleasing. We keep up the pressure on PSV in the league, too, with a string of victories, and I introduce new players like Robert Muric and Ashraf El Mahdioui into the first team squad, with the latter especially playing well. Kasper Dolberg comes in against SC Heerenveen and scores, the sixth or seventh player from the youth set-up to whom I’ve given a debut, as we beat them 3-0. We beat 3rd placed FC Utrecht 2-1 away with a brace from Milik and then cruise past FC Den Bosch 2-0 in the fourth round of the Dutch cup.
We draw Arsenal in the Champions League First Knockout Round. B Team Assistant Manager Jaap Stam is lured away to be the Sparta Rotterdam manager, and I wish him the best of luck. Have you seen the size of him? Feyenoord sack Gio van Bronckhorst and we beat De Graafschap 2-0, with Milik getting his 22nd of the season. We head into the mid-season break with the club offering me a new contract until 2018. I accept, of course.
Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 15.54.28At the midway point, we are 2nd in the Eredivisie by two points behind PSV and have achieved a knock-out round tie in the Champions League without buying a single player and with an average squad age of 20. Will the success continue? Will we win something? Find out next time…
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