Andrew Dolan writes his weekly feature, which previews teams that were great while they lasted. This week it’s to Amsterdam and the Ajax side of 2004/05.
Ajax have always been known for creating their own talents and stars and having to then sell them on at a huge profit, just to stay competitive. Often these stars come in twos or threes. However, every now and then an entire team of young players are allowed to grow and mature together from the academy and graduate into the first team and when they do, the results have been sensational.
From the Johann Cruyff European Cup teams of the 70s to the Louis Van Gaal led team of 1996 which beat the mighty Juventus in the Champions League Final.
That team had such stars as Edwin Van der Sar, Edgar Davids, the de Boer brothers Frank and Ronald, Jari Litmanen, Kanu and Patrick Kluivert. Yes, Ajax have always been able to produce stars and teams that can challenge the very best.
One team of graduates that has gone somewhat under the radar in recent history was the class of 2004. That team may not have won the trophies of their more illustrious alumni, but they were not short of star names. The class list reads as follows;
Nigel De Jong
Rafael Van Der Vaart
Now to be fair, not all players were in the same class growing up and not all played together in starting line ups. But stop and think for a second the possibilities of what might have been for this group of players.
A team of internationals, seven Dutch, two Brazilian, two Belgian, one South African and a Swede.
Close to £400m total in transfer fees. League titles across Europe. Champions Leagues.
For all its talent this side was never allowed to reach its full potential. Cut short by foreign teams ready to pounce at any moment. Seeing the ability of each player even without the titles and championships they deserved. 2004/05 saw Ajax finish second in the Eredivisie, reaching the semi-final of the Dutch cup and failing to get out of their group in the Champions League.
Yet here they were, players getting picked up left, right and centre. And why? Because there is something different about a player from Ajax. They are taught not just tactically, but technically. Educated like real students. Taught valuable lessons about winning and losing.
At Ajax players aren’t brought up with a mentality that winning is the most important thing, it’s how you win that matters. Players are allowed to be expressive with the ball. Showmanship isn’t encouraged but it is seen as a player expressing his personality on the game.
Frank De Boer recently said the reason for England’s failure to compete at international tournaments is their failure to teach young players how to enjoy playing the game right.
He said the importance of winning on players means they are under too much pressure when they receive the ball and so don’t develop properly how to treat it.
If we look at the players from the 2004/05 Ajax team we can see that each of them went on to play in attacking, exciting teams that required good technical and tactical awareness.
GK: Maarten Stekelenburg
Stekelenburg would soon establish himself as the team’s, and Holland’s no.1 goalkeeper. In 2011 he signed for AS Roma. In 2013 he made the mistake of deciding to sign for relegation bound Fulham. Injuries have since seen him drop out of the Holland side.
Now on loan at AS Monaco he is looking to prove himself again and get back into international contention. A huge talent, as of yet unfulfilled, at 31 time is running out, but with 54 caps for his country, he cannot be considered a flop just yet. United signed Van Der Sar at 34 after all, keep an eye on this one.
Defence: Johnny Heitinga, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Maxwell, Urby Emanuelson & Felipe Luis
Some of these players were very young at the time and would remain in the side for a few more years at least. All have gone on to play for their countries and play for the biggest sides in Europe. Vertonghen and Felipe Luis are both now in the Premier League at Spurs and Chelsea, whilst Vermaelen has recently signed for Barcelona -a team Maxwell also played for.
Heitinga peaked at Atletico Madrid and Everton briefly, whilst Emanuelson recently left AC Milan for AS Roma in Italy. At their best this defense would undoubtedly match any in club football at the moment.
Midfield: Steven Pienaar, Nigel De Jong, Rafael Van Der Vaart & Wesley Sneijder
The fact that if three of these players were fit they would make up 3/4 of the current Holland national side says it all. De Jong has won a Premier League with Man City, Van Der Vaart and Sneijder both have leagues with Real Madrid and Sneijder also has a Champions League with Inter Milan.
A midfield of strength, creativity and of course technical ability. Pienaar has been great at Everton for the past few years, briefly interrupted by an unwelcome stay at Spurs, he is back at Goodison and is loved by the fans.
Strikers; Ryan Babel & Zlatan Ibrahimovic
This writer has no shame in admitting that he is a huge fan of Ryan Babel. When he signed for Liverpool in 2007 for £11m he was seen as one of the brightest young players in Europe. “The next Thierry Henry” they said, and for that first season and a half it looked like they were right.
His pace, ball control and quickness of thought made him look like an unpolished diamond. Surely a few years of coaching at Liverpool, and he would blossom into the player we knew he could be? Unfortunately it wasn’t to be.
Some memorable goals against Man Utd and Arsenal in the Champions League quarter final were as good as it got for Babel. Benitez unwilling to play him in consecutive matches meant he was never able to get any consistency in his game. He did play for his country however and was sold for a modest £7m in 2011. Babel definitely did not fulfill his potential, but will remain a cult figure in the hearts’ of many Reds.
Up front with the great man is the one they call simply, Zlatan.
A man who went on to win 11 league titles in 12 years with 6 different teams. Over £150m in transfer fees. An enigma of a man. He inspires a nation and is one of the most recognisable players on the planet. Zlatan has been arguably the best centre forward in the world for the last 10 years (if we count Messi and Ronaldo as wingers). He leads teams from the front and makes the impossible possible.
The “Good feet for a Bigman” cliche essentially died with Ibrahimovic. He took it, chewed it up and spat it out. Some of the tricks, flicks, feints, passes and goals he can produce are often mind boggling.
Take this goal for example:
The undoubted star graduate from this great side, Zlatan could have led this team to leagues and Champions Leagues for years. Plucked from Malmo at the age of 16, he quickly forced his way into the first team and didn’t look back.
Two league titles in two years, then he was off to Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan and now he appears to have settled at PSG.
One thing is for sure, wherever Zlatan goes, goals and titles follow. He expresses himself entirely when on the ball. Confidence, skill and leadership are all taught and bred into the players at Ajax and if ever a player embodied this, it’s Zlatan.
Andrew Dolan, Pundit Arena.