Death, disparity or defiance: What does Champions League Group D mean for Ajax?

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“When’s the final?” was Frank de Boer’s light-hearted response to the draw for this season’s Champions League group phase. The mood quickly turned sombre, laughter replaced by a legitimate cause for trepidation, as his Ajax side found themselves in Group D, with that letter presumably standing for 'death'. 

The Dutch champions were placed in a group alongside Real Madrid and Manchester City, with Borussia Dortmund, the strongest of the fourth seeds, completing the quartet.

For neutrals it’s a mouth-watering prospect – a real ‘Group of Champions’, with all four reigning title holders from their respective nations – but for Ajax it is, as De Boer himself dubbed it, ‘a doomsday scenario’.  After all, facing the champions of Europe’s three strongest leagues is never going to be easy...

This will be the third successive season the Amsterdammers and Real Madrid meet. In 2010 it was met with enthusiasm. Not so in 2012. That feeling has been reserved for Dortmund. Ajax’s last visit to North Rhine-Westphalia was on route to their last European Cup final in 1996. Emphasis on ‘last’ as each passing year it becomes nigh on impossible they will reach another. Manchester City – like José Mourinho’s side – is full of battle-hardened internationals laced with quality.

Their rivals struggled to justify Ajax’s threat. Emilio Butragueño, Real Madrid’s director of football, described them as a “legendary club” and by that virtue won’t make things easy – how their past will help is anyone’s guess – despite the fact last season Los Blancos had no trouble. Patrick Vieira, Manchester City's football development executive, echoed Butragueño.

By name they make the group more glamorous. In reality they’re imposters void of household names the likes of which you’d find at the Bernabéu, Westfalenstadion and City of Manchester Stadium.

"Errrrrrm, can we not just go in Group A instead...?"

‘D’ could also stand for ‘disaster’. It’s telling that the only positive De Boer could muster is that their supporters would have a good time. He knows in every game Ajax will be bringing a knife to a gunfight. Though mentor, club icon and advisor Johan Cruyff believes facing these teams will enrich his players, there’s no telling how many will be in Amsterdam next season, regardless of whether lessons are learnt.

Jan Vertonghen and Vurnon Anita, two regular members of the side that won back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012, departed for pastures this summer.  Although this was perhaps understandable in the case of the hugely talented Vertonghen, it was less so in that of Anita, who for much of his time at the club had been a bit-part player and wasn’t deemed indispensable until the second half of last season.

Losing experience annually has affected the average squad age, for the second season running they boast the youngest in the Champions League.

De Boer’s current first choice XI cost less than €10m to assemble - unlike their opponents, for Ajax, spending €30M on a midfielder is unfeasible. Anita’s long-term heir Ilan Boccara, for example, was signed from PSG’s B team for €500,000.

“Am I jealous of [Roberto] Mancini and Mourinho? Nope,” De Boer told de Volkskrant, adding there’s more satisfaction gained as a coach by promoting from within.

That’s the cornerstone of their new transfer policy, albeit one, which has been forced upon them, and the hiring of Marc Overmars as sporting director, has made it a smooth progression.

If there’s nobody emerging then they have to make the most of a very good scouting network – as they did by signing Tobias Sana, a creative winger from IFK Göteborg for €350,000, which already looks to be money spent. The Swede scored three goals in his first three outings for the Dutch champions.

Tobias Sana is already looking a tidy signing for Ajax at just €350,000

“The days of spending €6m for a player are over,” De Boer declared when the transfer window closed. This summer Ajax spent around €5.9m on nine new recruits, two exceeded €1m; Niklas Moisander (€3m) – earmarked by Vertonghen as his successor – and Lucas Andersen (€1.3m), another highly rated Danish prodigy.

‘D’ is for ‘disparity’, to borrow Immanuel Wallerstein’s ‘world system theory’, in European club football terms: Real Madrid and Manchester City are ‘core clubs’, Borussia Dortmund ‘periphery’ and Ajax ‘semi periphery’.

Inevitable once UEFA embraced globalisation by expanding the Champions League, growth of television’s role is another factor, if they reassure you there’s equilibrium its deception. This is the harsh reality De Boer has accepted; he must rely on inexperienced players in terms of international exposure, age and club football appearances.

‘D’ stands for ‘defiance’. To his credit they’ve started to adapt. The most significant step De Boer has taken has been reintroducing the ‘Michels model’ of individualised training, a means to rapidly accelerate player development, specifically reacting to in-game scenarios.

De Boer knew against Real Madrid last year there would be limited openings, but whenever a chance arose, his players weren’t mentally sharp. The Madrid press labelled them naive. Naivety is often the by-product of a lack of experience. As Immanuel Kant put it "theory without experience is mere intellectual play."

Before visiting Old Trafford last season De Boer hired former volleyball coach Peter Murphy to improve the mental process of his more inexperienced players. “The realisation we could beat Manchester United came after the game,” De Boer said. He’s turned to him again in lead up to this European campaign.

Ajax won at Old Trafford last term, but still crashed out of the Europa League

‘D’ is for ‘defeat’. An honourable one would be tolerated, especially given the calibre of opposition they face, but that doesn’t necessarily mean taking points will be improbable. Mourinho, for example, told Spanish daily AS: “With Ajax you never know, they can cause a surprise.”

We’ve seen it many times before with David versus Goliath confrontations, but realistically Ajax need to be daring as well as being dogged, they can’t rely on luck alone, but their underdog status could yet be advantageous. “The pressure is on the other teams,” De Boer said moments after the draw. “We're just going to play our own game.”

They will to an extent. In his brief tenure, De Boer has transformed Ajax’s shape and dynamism, part of his mandate when taking the reins in December 2010, being patient – putting in extra hours on the training field – and waiting for the right time, to unleash their new/old style of play – an amalgamation of the competing Van Gaal and Cruyff schools – on the pitch.

The tactical tweaking by De Boer – designed to limit ‘errors’ – has allowed Ajax to control games, with greater emphasis on ball circulation and retention allowing them to score with sweeping moves, adhering to the club mantra: "Simple football is the most beautiful."

One notable result of Murphy’s input is how De Boer’s players – already well versed tactically – now think correctly under pressure. Also having the wherewithal to adjust tactics, formation and positional interchange if it’s not working, similar to the Royal Marines ‘Dislocated Expectations’.

In the Eredivisie the opposition is limited. However the sides in Group D will be a different proposition. “In such a group, heroes are born," said Borussia Dortmund's CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke. It’s difficult to see where an Ajax one will come from - maybe a collective act of heroism is more realistic. D for destiny, or not...

De Boer’s demeanour suggests he won’t abandon his principles, a gamble that’s almost certain to backfire, but is nonetheless admirable.

“I’m afraid of no one,” he once said. His reluctant admittance Ajax are no longer a force in Europe was uttered in a tone never heard before.

It was painfully depressing. However he is in every sense of the word befitting of his predecessors.

Could ‘D’ also be for ‘dream’?