Among all the great names of European football, Ajax have an unique status. They revolutionised the game – and not just once but in three distinct phases.
The first, and most important, revolution began half a century ago, with Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, who established the irresistible, fluid style of play that came to be known as Total Football. The two of them went on to establish a similar style of football at Barcelona, which has more or less persisted to this day – as an aim, at any rate.
Phase Two came with Cruyff’s return to Amsterdam in the 1980s, and the team of Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten. They too went abroad, this time to Italy rather than Spain, and along with Ruud Gullit became the star players in Arrigo Sacchi’s all-conquering Milan side.
A decade later came Phase Three, under the leadership of Louis van Gaal, with players such as Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids, both of whom went on to enjoy more success abroad, again in Italy.
Like all great revolutions, the transformation of European football by Ajax had its contradictions. Michels and Cruyff were pioneers, Van Gaal’s teams, and his whole methodology, were quite different. Yet the players who were exported from Ajax had a similar dramatic effect on their new clubs. The Ajax approach to the development of young players had a huge influence on Barcelona, and their respective academies have become a model to which other big clubs aspire.
So for Ajax to be back in a European final for the first time since 1996 is an event.
Never mind Jose Mourinho’s polemic about clubs competing in the Europa League after being knocked out of the main competition. The question for Ajax and for Dutch football in general is whether this is a one-off event, or part of something more significant – perhaps even a fourth revolutionary phase.
There are some grounds for Dutch optimism. Ajax have been gradually building towards this moment, despite periodic fallouts at management and board level, including a dispute between two of their legends, Cruyff, who died last year, and Van Basten, that threatened to paralyse the club. It may be significant that they now have an outsider in charge.
Peter Bosz had nothing to do with Ajax before last year: his background was with their arch-enemies Feyenoord, and most recently with Vitesse. But he has a coaching team that includes Dennis Bergkamp, while Edwin van der Sar – a legend for both tomorrow’s finalists – is employed on the marketing side. Above all, Bosz is inspired by the tradition, drawing on both Van Gaal’s time in charge, when he regularly journeyed from Rotterdam to Amsterdam to watch Ajax training sessions, and on the examples of Cruyff - his football idol – and Pep Guardiola.
Like Guardiola, Bosz believes in attack, with constant pressing, a very high defensive line and the intelligent exploitation of space. He accepts it is a risky approach, particularly against a side such as United, but the emphasis is on winning the ball back as quickly as possible – a five-second rule.
“The five-second rule is something that if you lose the ball, this is the best moment to get the ball back again. The opponent needs more or less five seconds to get in the right positions. We have to get it back right away.”
That was Bosz on eve of the 3-1 defeat against Lyon, when the Ajax dream almost died. Swaggering with a 5-1 aggregate lead, his young side conceded two goals right on half-time, and were close to conceding two more at the end, when they were down to 10 men.
Their inexperience is a weakness, especially at the back. They have conceded 17 goals in their European campaign, and players such as Colombian centre-back Davinson Sanchez are in their first full season. Their senior Dutch player, Davy Klaassen, a transfer target for several Premier League clubs, is still only 24.
But these youngsters show no fear, and their attackers could cause United problems. They will almost certainly concede goals, but they might score one or two as well.