Ajax’s youngsters come up short in Europa League final
STOCKHOLM (AP) — The Europa League final proved to be a game too far for Ajax.
Talked up as potentially the best team produced by the once-great Dutch club in more than a decade, Ajax’s youthful class of 2017 came up well short in a 2-0 loss to Manchester United in Stockholm on Wednesday.
“Not good enough,” was Ajax coach Peter Bosz’s damning assessment.
Bosz put that down to a number of factors: The enormity of the occasion, the team’s inexperience, United’s cautious approach and physicality, and a dose of misfortune.
“I haven’t seen the Ajax that I am used to,” the coach said.
With an accent on entertainment and attacking play, Ajax has restored its identity this season, developing under Bosz into a team built in the image of his most famous player — Johan Cruyff.
Through what is now widely referred to as the “Cruyff Revolution” in 2011, the Netherlands great attempted to halt the decline of Ajax by bringing back some of its leading former players — including Marc Overmars, Edwin van der Sar, Wim Jonk — in various capacities to run the club and making youth players the cornerstone of the team.
Cruyff died in March 2016 but one of his many legacies that remain is the state of the current Ajax lineup, which has an average age of around 22 and has thrilled European soccer this season with some swashbuckling performances on its run to the Europa League final.
In Stockholm, Ajax fielded a side featuring six players aged 21 or younger. On this occasion, youth proved to be a disadvantage.
United bullied Ajax’s youngsters with their physicality and game management, while United manager Jose Mourinho’s risk-averse, long-ball tactics nullified Ajax’s high press.
Falling 1-0 behind in the 18th minute to Paul Pogba’s deflected shot made Ajax’s task even harder. The Dutch team looked neat and tidy in periods, but barely threatened United goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
Possibly the biggest disappointment was Kasper Dolberg, the highly rated Danish striker who had limited impact before being substituted in the 63rd minute. By then, Ajax was 2-0 behind after Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s goal in the 48th.
“I think it was a boring game,” Bosz said, before highlighting United’s big-game experience.
“This is one aspect of the game they were better at. (Ajax’s players) are not used to playing a final. It’s all new for them. They will learn a lot from it and we will become stronger. If we keep this squad together, we will be stronger, for sure.”
That’s the question, now: Can Bosz keep hold of its stars?
Much like Monaco, whose run to the Champions League semifinals enchanted European soccer, Ajax is in danger of having its team torn apart by the continent’s richer clubs this offseason.
Dolberg, midfielder Hakim Ziyech and center back Davinson Sanchez are likely to be in demand, in particular.
Then again, such is Ajax’s youth set-up that a new breed of talented youngsters will likely come along and take their place. That’s the direction the club is taking, with the likes of Dennis Bergkamp and Aron Winter — former players for Ajax and the Dutch national team — now among the coaches.
Ajax fell short in the Eredivisie, finishing second to Feyenoord, and has now lost in the Europa League final.
The young team will learn from these near misses, though, and the future could still be bright.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80