This season has made for interesting football in Europe. For those of us who tend to cast their eye towards Holland, the drama began twenty three days ago, on December 6th, when we witnessed Martin Jol’s surprise resignation from Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax.
For fans in Britain, this was perceived as a little toocoincidential to the similar parting of Newcastle manager, Chris Hughton. Before we knew it, Sky Sports News had us believe that Jol had done the noble thing, and was on his way back to the promise land after spending a few years in banishment for his sins at White Hart Lane .
Outside the media cloud, fans of the game where no more than a little surprised as any fan of Dutch football would tell you, the writing had been on the wall for some time, for poor Martin.
Understandably, on the surface of it all, it seemed a little drastic. Sure he didnt win the league last year, but his side came within a point and scored 106 goals along the way as well as their 18th KNVB Cup.
Cracks began to creep in during the pre-season when fans expectations for their club went in to over drive. While journalists and proffesionals throughout the game heralded FC Twente‘s success the previous season, some Ajax fans saw it as an embarassment and where sure to let Jol know that it would’nt happen again.
Football is a sport that is often dictated by the will of its followers. This is usually regarded as something to be proud of, yet, it can often have a negative effect on the productivity of the team and understanding of a clubs situation. Ajax, and specifically Martin Jol went into the 2010-11 season with an uncontrollable wave of expectation just waiting for them to slip up.
This atmosphere surrounding the club would in tale, lead to the demise of Martin Jol as Ajax manager.
Despite this, the club started brightly with sixteen points from a possible eighteen in the first six games of the season, as well as progression through the qualifying rounds of the Champions League to qualify for the Group stages for the first time in five years.
Form soon took a nose dive, when the Dutch side struggled to juggle European nights with important matches at home. An opening day 2-0 defeat to Real Madrid was quickly followed by a 2-2 draw with FC Twente as well as a 1-1 draw to Milan coinciding with a 2-1 defeat to FC Utrecht. By the fifth week of the Champions League group stage’s, Ajax had dropped seventeen points in the Eredivisie and where now playing catch up to PSV and FC Twente.
By this point the vultures where circling over head, and following a lucky 1-1 draw with NEC Nijmegen, on the eve of a Champions League tie with Milan, Martin Jol resigned from manager of Ajax.
I came to the conclusion that the expectations after last season were just too high. We cannot meet those expectations and that hurts me..The amount of criticism that the club has had to endure daily has led to unrest in the club and among players. – Martin Jol
Following this, the board installed youth side coach, Frank De Boer as care taker manager till the winter break. De Boer had minimal experience in coaching before taking the wheel at Ajax’s famous Youth Academy, in 2007. Partner this with a surprise appointment of assistant to Bert van Marwijkat as they guided Holland to the World Cup Final earlier in the year, and it’s easy to see that De Boer seemed like a logical fit, albeit it a temporary one. Little did they know just how much of an impression he would make.
De Boer’s first act as interm manager was to return the club to its famous 4-3-3 system that saw the club enjoy so much success in the late 70’s and under Van Gaal in the 90’s. A formation that allows the the full backs to get forward, utter expression from the wing forwards, and the involvment of an attacking midfielder through the middle that bred the term ‘total football‘ all those years ago.
The De Boer renaissance had begun and de Joden fans where believing the hype. De Boer was quick to inject some belief into the sleeping giant, quoting Cruyff himself, and likening his team’s style to that of past era’s for the club.
When it comes to playing football, movement on the field and attacking, I am close to Johan Cruyff’s philosophy.- Frank De Boer
The rejuvenated Ajax side’s first test came at the San Siro, only two days after the appointment of their new coach, where they had to beat AC Milan to qualify for the Europa League and continue in Europe after Christmas.
The contrast between the new playing style and that of the Jol, was evident to see. The most notable feature being the width with which the side was displaying. De Boer had opted to play Suarez on his preferred left, where he had scored so many goals the season before, and had urged the full backs, specifically Van Der Wiel, to move forward and take advantage of Milan’s narrow formation.
Perhaps more importantly though, he had changed lone striker, Siem De Jong’s role from playing off the shoulder of the last defender to sitting deeper, holding the ball up, and getting involved in build up play as well as contributing to passing the ball out wide to Suarez or Sulejmani.
This led to a a devot Ajax side that controlled the game with possession, and wide play between full backs and the two wide forwards. Ajax went on to win the game 2-0 as Frank De Boer welcomed himself to the European stage with the return of total football to Ajax.
Four days later, Ajax where at home to Vitesse sustaining their momentum with a 1-0 win, followed by a 1-0 win over AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch Cup as De Boer continued to mark an impression on the club and finish the year with three out of three.
Besides the impressive style of play De Boer had the team playing, another key element that he has instilled back into the club was its faith in the youth academy. The side that faced Vitesse had no less than eleven players from the clubs own youth sides, with players such as Rodney Sneijder and Lorenzo Ebecilio brought up to the first team after playing under De Boer in the under twenty one squad.
De Boer has shown a depth of knowledge throughout the club that hasnt been seen since the likes of Van Gaal or Koeman. For a club that has witnessed seven managers in the past seven seasons, and five years without any European football, fans will be excused for beginning to believe they have finally found someone who knows the club and is ready to take Ajax back to the top of Dutch Football.
Perhaps a little too early to say, but lets hope its a sign of good things to come.