Analysis

Are you watching, Arsene? How Marc Overmars has overseen a new, Cruyff-inspired revolution at Ajax

Arsene Wenger has never looked fondly upon directors of football, but his former player is making a name for himself as the architect of a transfer strategy that’s taken a thrilling young Ajax side to the Europa League final

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The so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’ had been going on for almost two years when Marc Overmars was appointed as Ajax’s new director of football in June 2012. The former winger’s new job consisted of overseeing the club’s transfer policy, youth academy and scouting network.

Through his columns in the media, Cruyff chastised Ajax for having lost their way

Overmars’ quick ascendance within Ajax's power structure was a direct result of a revolution - one started by none other than Johan Cruyff, the best player in Dutch football history and the most powerful voice in Ajax circles.

In 2010, Cruyff had started to openly criticise his club’s policies – especially the tendency to give acquired players playing time in favour of those from its own youth academy. He was also criticial of the style of play, which wasn’t attack-minded and attractive enough for Cruyff’s liking. Through his columns in the media, Cruyff chastised Ajax for having lost their way and no longer having the type of vision that made the club great in its heydays of the 1970s and 1990s.

Even after his death in 2016, Cruyff's ideas still resonate at Ajax

Cruyff stated that Ajax should primarily be run by former players of the club. The youth academy also had to become the main priority in Amsterdam again. Finally, according to Cruyff, Ajax’s playing style should permanently be associated with intelligent positional play, high pressing and an attacking approach, conducted within a 4-3-3-formation.

In 2012, with Frank de Boer installed as the new manager, Overmars was placed atop the Ajax hierarchy. He would serve as a guardian of ‘Plan Cruyff’, and shift the club’s focus back to its famed youth academy system.

Early doubters

At first, purists within the club heavily criticised Overmars’ policies. He received the blame for a couple of transfer that didn’t pan out, even though Ajax won two national titles in their first two seasons.

Critics stated that Overmars did too little to uphold the newly implemented doctrine of Cruyff

His critics stated that the former Gunner actually did too little to uphold the newly implemented doctrine of Cruyff, by adding too many bought-in players who didn’t add significant quality to the first team.

The criticism from within the club eventually led to a change in Overmars’ responsibilities. As of 2015, Edwin van der Sar was to take over some of his tasks, while Overmars was now - as director of player policy - accountable for one job at Ajax: transfers.

Edwin van der Sar and Overmars plot Ajax's future together

Even though Ajax’s success had increased during his tenure, Overmars wasn't particularly popular among the club’s fans. Rather quickly, in fact, he earned a reputation for being stingy.

Ajax supporters grew frustrated at his refusal to spend money in the transfer market, while the club was raking in huge sums for some of its outgoing transfers.

  Expenses Income
2012/13 £4.9m £28.3m
2013/14 £5.9m £20.7m
2014/15 £11.1m £24.9m
2015/16 £9.8m £5.2m
2016/17 £30.7m £69.6m

Transfer balance Ajax 2012-17: +£86.3m

When Cruyff started his revolution in 2010, public support was almost unanimously on his side. But now that some of his proposed policies were actually being executed by Overmars, short-term worries about success and frustration about the absence of big-money transfers were mounting quickly. 'Marc Netto' - net spend - became an often-heard nickname for the former Netherlands international.

Hardened by the early criticisms, Overmars held on to Cruyff’s envisioned policy of replacing star power from within. Homegrown academy players were to be developed into the next batch of revered Ajacieden.

Public outcry reached boiling point in the summer 0f 2016, when Overmars was basically forced by public opinion into buying Hakim Ziyech, who had excelled at Twente and Heerenveen, and was open about his wish to play for Ajax. In hindsight, Overmars caving to snap up Ziyech has been a blessing for all parties involved: the Dutch-Moroccan playmaker has exceeded lofty expectations, and very quickly become Ajax’s star player.

Positive turnaround

Hindsight also puts Overmars’ decision-making in a very different, much more positive light. The current starting XI has been assembled for less than £20m and now has an estimated transfer value of over £70m (according to Transfermarket).

But judging by Overmars’ negotiating skills, Ajax will exceed this estimated total by some way in the real-life transfer market. For instance, last summer he agreed a deal with Napoli for the Italian club to pay around £28m for Arek Milik. The Polish striker had been very effective in his two years in Amsterdam, scoring 32 goals in 52 league games, but never quite fit the possession-based playing style at Ajax like Kasper Dolberg currently does.

Then this winter, Overmars persuaded Tianjin Teda, Wolfsburg and Lille to pay a combined £21m for the superfluous trio of Nemanja Gudelj, Riechedly Bazoer and Anwar El Ghazi respectively.

Ajax’s prowess in striking good transfer deals becomes all the more impressive when compared to their upcoming Europa League opponent, Manchester United. Jose Mourinho's current squad contains 11 players that have cost United more as individual signings than Ajax's entire crop put together, and includes players like Luke Shaw, Marouane Fellaini and Anthony Martial.

The young core of Ajax players is helped by the presence of new manager Peter Bosz. After a turbulent first month in August where Ajax were embarrassed by FK Rostov (1-5 on aggregate) in the Champions League qualifiers, Bosz has melded his young squad into what he'd envisioned upon his arrival in Amsterdam – a high-octane, high-pressing young team that plays in a recognisable, attack-minded style.

Overmars' ‘stinginess’ has, in the long term, provided Ajax with an extremely youthful but very talented squad that is finally fulfilling Cruyff's wishes.

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