There is a general feeling of relaxation about Ajax manager Erik ten Hag as he watches the first training session back after the international break. His team sit second in the Eredivisie behind leaders and current champions PSV but with a lot of football still to be played and with an exciting and youthful sides in the league at his disposal, ten Hag looks like he doesn’t have a care in the world. The same however cannot be said for Edwin van der Sar who as the club’s general director is now batting down the hatches as he prepares to ride out a very big storm approaching.
Ajax and van der Sar have every reason to be nervous as clubs across Europe prepare to test their resilience by making moves for three of their emerging starlets. Scouts from the elite clubs have been arriving steadily and leaving hastily, almost giddy at the prospect of telling their owners what they have just found. Ajax has built a stellar reputation on developing young players and selling them on for vast profit with the likes of Kluivert (Patrick and son Justin), Wesley Sneijder, Dennis Bergkamp, both De Boers and van der Sar himself all having coming from the clubs youth ranks. But this latest crop is something special. In almost every position, Ajax have produced a quality player that now occupies space in their first team.
From Andre Onana in goal to Donny van de Beek and Carel Eiting in midfield and Vaclav Cerny in attack, this team screams youthful exuberance and talent. But there are three stars that are standing out more than the rest and shinning the brightest – centre back Matthijis de Ligt, midfielder Frenkie De Jong and striker Kasper Dolberg. Despite being still young (De Jong and Dolberg are 21, de Ligt only 19), all three are capped at full international level for their respective countries (De Jong, de Ligt for Holland and Dolberg for Denmark) and all three are destined to become global superstars.
de Ligt has all the markers of being a total defender – strong with both feet, commanding in the air as he is on the ground, with a strong range of passing and viable leadership qualities to boot. Indeed his teammate often talks about how de Ligt takes centre stage in the locker room and rallies the players before they head out. Dolberg on the other hand is quiet and reserved around his teammates but explodes with energy and pace on the field. Despite a difficult year last season that was blighted by injuries, the blonde striker is back and firing on all cylinders this campaign. Finally de Jong who has been likened to Franz Beckenbeur, Xavi and Frank Rijkaard at one time or another is a predominately deep lying midfielder whose versatility and football orientated brain lets him control games with ease. Although he never actually came through the youth system at Ajax (he was bought from Willem II), he plays as if he has spend a decade learning at the academy. With precision passing and a good eye for goal too, he is the complete midfielder who will only get better as he gets older.
Now positioned as a selling club, Ajax know that holding on to these three in particular will be almost impossible so ensuring the biggest payout possible will be the main goal. That should not be an issue given the interest levels reported in various European newspapers. de Ligt is attracting interest from Juventus and Barcelona whilst Dolberg has Napoli and Tottenham drooling beyond control. But its Frenkie de Jong who could secure the club the biggest pay out with Pep Guardiola such a big fan that he is asking Manchester City to sanction a pre-agreement with the player valued at €70 million now in order to hold off interest from his former club Barcelona. Frenkie, who was named by his parents after Frankie Goes to Hollywood is seen as an ideal replacement for the aging Fernandinho and could become Guardiola’s centrepiece as he looks to build the next iteration of his Manchester City team.
Ajax Technical Director Marc Overmars has hinted that the club is already preparing to lose the trio but is hopeful that they can remain in Holland until at least the summer. For ten Hag, keeping all three will give him a better chance of clawing back and overtaking Mark van Bommel’s PSV side in the race for the championship. Losing them in the winter transfer window would not be preferable but would arm him with a substantial war chest of funds which could be used to bring in more players. Either way, Ajax is set to benefit from the trio in more than one way. In all of this, Overmars does not seem stressed and like ten Hag is relaxed about the prospect knowing that he only has to look over his shoulder to see who’s next coming off the Ajax youth production line.