Cruyff's legacy not forgotten as Ten Hag leads another mini-era of success
For football enthusiasts, watching Ajax dazzle on the international stage soothes the soul.
At a time when the world game has been taken over by the mega rich, Ajax represent football's pure and glorious past.
Ajax's most famous name – Johan Cruyff – made the club what it is, imposing the style that would become so successful for years, helping the Dutch giants to win the Champions League in 1995.
That DNA continues to flow through the veins of players and staff – Cruyff's unforgettable legacy not lost on those in Amsterdam, where Erik ten Hag's history-makers have dazzled in the Eredivisie and Champions League in 2021-22.
Continuing to stay true to Cruyff's values five years after his death, Ajax have swept all before them in Europe this season.
Ajax became the first Dutch team to win all six of their games in a single Champions League group-stage campaign, while they also celebrated six successive victories in the European Cup/Champions League for the first time in their illustrious history.
"I think he would be proud of the level of football and type of football Erik ten Hag is playing with the team," Ajax CEO Edwin van der Sar – who was part of that triumphant 1995 team – told Stats Perform.
A world-renowned philosophy, the manner in which Ajax teams are built remains largely in the image of their favourite son. Cruyff's influence on the club's academy is still so ingrained.
After all these years, Ajax still seem so happily married to the romantic notions of how the game should be played thanks to Cruyff, but is there a need to adapt or modify when it comes to being faithful to his masterplan?
"Football adapts and evolves all the time," Van der Sar said. "I got a call from Johan Cruyff 10 years ago when I was still playing at Manchester United. He wanted to have players into the board of directors. He asked me the question if I was open to that. I had to think about it and speak to some guys like former United CEO David Gill – what it involves etc. I took up the job in 2012.
"Of course the philosophy of the club is quite similar. We changed some things in the youth setup and making sure to bring Ajax back to European level. Not buying players for big money and not delivering. We had to refocus on bringing our players into the team. Four or five years ago, we took a new step with the reserves we had, the scouting department. A lot of things are connected with Cruyff."
While not around to witness Ajax's reclamation, Cruyff would approve of Ten Hag and his men.
Possession and pressing have been paramount under Ten Hag's watchful eye since he moved to Amsterdam in 2017 and, heading into a Champions League last-16 date with Benfica, Ajax lead the way this term for shots after high turnover (16) and passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA – 7.9).
Title-holders Chelsea, meanwhile, are the only team to have managed more high turnovers and possession won in the final third than Dutch champions Ajax.
It is a similar story in the Eredivisie, with Ten Hag's men – a point behind leaders PSV – leading the way for high turnovers (210), possession won in the final third (126) and PPDA (8.9). De Godenzonen have scored a whopping 49 goals in 16 games, while conceding only four.
"It's always a challenge being a respectable, big club from a small country to make an impact in the football world," said former Ajax, Juventus, Manchester United and Netherlands goalkeeper Van der Sar said. "We've done that over several decades of football. To the level we're playing at the moment, in the Champions League playing six and winning six. It's great encouragement for the coach and compliment for the players and the way they're playing. It's fantastic to be the director of Ajax."
Ten Hag guided Ajax to a remarkable Champions League semi-final in 2018-19 before that team was dismantled – Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt were lured away by Barcelona and Juventus respectively. Hakim Ziyech made the move to Chelsea, while Donny van de Beek eventually joined United last year.
But the highly rated Dutchman and two-time Eredivisie winner is leading a new mini-era of success with a mix of youth and experience – spearheaded by the likes of Dusan Tadic, Daley Blind, Antony and Sebastien Haller, who this term became the quickest player to reach 10 goals in a Champions League career, eclipsing Erling Haaland.
Haller also became the first player to score in each of his opening six games in the competition, while the former West Ham forward is only the second Ajax player to score 10-plus goals in a single season of the premier club competition following Soren Lerby in 1979-80.
"It's fantastic if you say the 18-19 team – De Ligt or De Jong they left us after the year – and if you see now, we have Ryan Gravenberch in midfield and Jurrien Timber, both coming from our academy and slotting into those places that those two big-name players, replacing them and reaching a similar level," added Van der Sar. "Compared to the experience of Dusan Tadic, Daley Blind and Antony coming in as a young Brazilian striker. The team is gelling fantastically together but of course we know in the last 16, quarter-finals, there are massive teams coming up. We're confident."
Van der Sar also underlined the club's faith in the next generation.
He said: "Promoting youth is in our DNA. We will always do that. That combination – four or five years ago we changed the approach a little bit to make sure if we want to compete or be in the Champions League, you also have to have experienced players. The desire and mentality, so in that way we changed the approach a bit. We combine it with the young players here who are getting opportunities to make their first steps on the international podium. That approach works fantastically for us."
Ten Hag's exploits have not gone unnoticed amid growing links to Premier League giants United, who are on the hunt for a new long-term manager following the interim appointment of Ralf Rangnick until the end of the season.
Since Ten Hag was named coach four years ago, Ajax this term boast their best figures in terms of high turnovers (13.0) and possession won in final third (8.0) across all competitions, highlighting their continued improvement on the 51-year-old's watch.
"You see it also with players, sometimes they think they're finished at Ajax and want to take the next step," Van der Sar said when discussing Ten Hag's future and whether the environment was key to his next club. "I've seen it myself when I went from Ajax to Juventus – it wasn't a natural fit. The level of football, the family, the expectations, it can be difficult abroad.
"But someone with the quality of Erik and the way he lets Ajax play and tick for the last four years, it's obvious there's a lot of interest in him. He is named among the big clubs in Europe. Eventually he will take the next step, but we will try to delay it as long as possible but of course, at a certain point it's up to him. But we have to challenge him and make sure he maybe sees will there be a next level – can we be even better? That's what we're working hard for to make sure the players are staying, the scouting brings new talents and the structure around him are ready for a successful period."
Recalling Ten Hag's arrival, Van der Sar added: "I remember speaking with him at Marc Overmars' house. Marc lives in the east of Holland, not as big as Australia but for Holland, it's still a drive. Came very well prepared. Knew what to expect. Talked about philosophies and things that needed to change. Taking the next step, putting the bar even higher every time. The last four years, every year he has taken the bar higher and higher.
"You also need the organisation to come up with that and that's been provided – the scouting, youth set up, commercial guys and media guys. Not only on the pitch we want to play in the Champions League, also the office. I live in two worlds – the training ground and the office I'm looking to the stadium. In both worlds, we want to play Champions League football. Being at the highest level."
Rio Ferdinand has been vocal previously regarding player signings and managerial appointments at Old Trafford. So, has Van der Sar been approached by his former team-mate when it comes to Ten Hag?
"Rio is quite vocal on his own media channels and the DMs [direct messages]," said the 51-year-old. "He is a great character and fantastic player, and pundit and business also. I respect him a lot. I texted him stop hassling me about players, coaches and directors to come over to England [smiling]."
The return of club legends Van der Sar and Marc Overmars, as CEO and director football respectively, have been key in maintaining Ajax's legacy and position among Europe's elite, despite contrasting budgets.
Van der Sar won four Eredivisie titles, the Champions League, UEFA Cup and UEFA Super Cup among his 14 honours at Ajax in the 1990s before leaving in 1999, while former team-mate Overmars was also part of that conquering European outfit 26 years ago.
Now, the Dutch duo are embracing their Ajax roles off the pitch.
"We've had success and the money we've earned in our career, but it all started here at Ajax. We're happy to give something back to the club that gave us our first opportunity and a lot of things," Van der Sar said, having returned to the club in 2012 as marketing director before becoming CEO four years later.
The pair's work has not gone unnoticed. Overmars – who first became the director of football in 2012 – was sought after by Newcastle United before re-signing a week ago.
Van der Sar's future is now in the spotlight, linked with a return to Manchester United, where he enjoyed Premier League and Champions League success between 2005 and 2011.
However, Van der Sar is in no rush to leave his beloved Ajax.
"The last sentence was a good one – once your work at Ajax is done," Van der Sar replied when asked if he had a desire and interest to make his back way to United once his work with Ajax was done. "I think Marc and myself are enjoying it very much here at Ajax. The freedom and rewards, the level of the club is still growing. That brings joy to yourself and gives you a lot of confidence. We're easy in that way.
"For the moment I'm really happy in Amsterdam. I think we're not ready yet. We can make a step higher and that's something we're aiming for. To be really, really successful on the pitch. It's not easy, but we're going [to give it a] go."
Van der Sar and Overmars have established a successful structure at Ajax and it is something United are believed to be prepared to mirror by bringing in their former goalkeeper as Ed Woodward prepares to vacate his role as CEO.
Having not won the Premier League since 2013, United – up until this point – have been reluctant to appoint a director of football.
That reluctance and lack of a clear and unified vision in Manchester has seen the style of play and philosophy chop and change – David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have come and gone, and with them, the need for the club to constantly tailor to the needs of the next manager.
Ajax on the other hand, their philosophy remains the same and it will continue to be the case with Ten Hag and beyond.
"That is one of the things we changed 10 years ago that the structure is good for the club," Van der Sar said. "There's experience and quality, there's a desire to perform at the highest level and then the coach or maybe with assistant coach, one-two persons must fit into our system at the club. That's completely different in England. If you get a new manager, seven, eight, nine, 10 people, video, scouting, data, physios, doctors and everything.
"I don't think that is the right approach. I want to make sure the heart of the club and the knowledge of the club is there, that we know about the young players coming through, they know the young players need to adjust, what kind of sessions and training they need and then they're ready to be in the first team. That's why the assistant coaches are the guys who have been at the club – Michael Reizeger, Winston Bogarde, Richard Witschge, John Heitinga being the coach of the second team. We need that experience to make sure and aware to the coach that these players are coming through. That we don't have to buy a player, give this guy a chance and he will perform for you."
While popular in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, the director of football model is a topic that generates debate, particularly in England. Is it more helpful than obstructive for a coach in football?
"A coach is very important for the team," said 130-time Netherlands international Van der Sar. "He has a short-term future and for Marc and myself, we have to think long term about what's good for the club. But yeah, it can be difficult, difficult part of conversation with coach and director football.
"But I think at Ajax, we find an ideal solution at the moment. Marc and Erik have a fantastic working relationship together. Let's see what the future brings us for the club. First focus on the league and then look forward to the Champions League games in March. Hopefully a great team comes here to Amsterdam and hopefully we can entertain fans across the world."