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Date: December 6, 2021 6:03 am
Why it's time to take Ajax seriously as a Champions League title contender

Why it’s time to take Ajax seriously as a Champions League title contender

Look at Ajax’s team sheet and your first impression may not be European champions in waiting. A team made up of Premier League reclamation projects, Dutch veterans and young talent just beginning to flourish on this continent is not the Champions League blueprint.

West Ham flop Sebastien Haller topping the scoring charts? A 38-year-old goalkeeper who spent part of his career warming the bench in the Eredivisie keeping two clean sheets in four games? A veteran winger in Steven Berghuis repurposed into one of the competition’s most devastating creators? You’d hardly call it a blueprint for contention. 

Yet give Erik ten Hag’s side — 2-1 winners over Besiktas on Wednesday — the most cursory of glances whilst examining their statistical profile, though, and it is clear that this is a team that deserves to be taken seriously. They have romped their way to the top of Group C, one of just three teams with five wins from five. Ajax look to close out the group with a perfect record on Dec. 7 at home against Sporting CP on Paramount+. 

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The last time a Dutch side won its first five European Cup games Johann Cruyff and company were lifting the trophy in Rotterdam. Admittedly it was Feyenoord who romped their way through the early rounds of that particular tournament but Ajax who emerged victorious in what was the apotheosis of Total Football.

This team is not quite on that level but it feels like you ought to say that before anyone gets too carried away. Certainly they look to be a team of at least similar quality to the one that Ten Hag guided within a Lucas Moura goal of the 2019 Champions League final. That squad was flush with more bright young things — Donny van de Beek, Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs de Ligt were swept up by wealthier clubs in the months that followed — but aside from a thrashing of Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu they did not put together quite the same streak of imposing wins that this Ajax side already have.

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Five games into the group stages the Dutch champions are the second-highest scorers in the Champions League so far with 13 to their name, a goals per game rate that looks meek in comparison their gaudy return of 42 in 13 Eredivise matches so far. They have the competition’s second-highest non-penalty expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes behind Manchester City, more expected assists than Bayern by a margin of six percent and have created the joint most chances in the group stages. In almost any attacking metric you care to examine four teams are way ahead of the competition: Liverpool, Bayern, Man City and Ajax.

Whilst their attacking stats place them alongside Robert Lewandowski and company, their defense is not too shabby either. They have conceded just three goals, although they are perhaps giving up more opportunities than the likes of Chelsea. Opponents have a combined non-penalty xG of 4.96, not quite comparable to Thomas Tuchel and company but still an impressive return from five games. Both their goalkeepers have prevented more than one goal in the group stages according to Opta’s metric — which assesses how many a player concedes compared to the post shot xG they face — with Remko Pasveer second only to Odysseas Vlachodimos in that particular metric. 

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To all this statistical excellence you might make the point: but what about the opponents? If Ten Hag’s team keep winning easily is that not merely a sign that Group C was a cakewalk? Admittedly UEFA did not pit the Eredivisie champions against any of Europe’s hyper teams but Borussia Dortmund, Sporting and Besiktas should, in theory, offer no easy games. Except that is very much what Ajax have managed to contrive for themselves. Sporting were made to look exceptionally ordinary by Haller and company in Matchday 1. Their recent form in this competition would suggest they are anything but.

Similarly the Bundesliga’s second best side looked like Fortuna Sittard or Vitesse on their trip to the Johann Cruyff Arena. Opponents can play extremely well, as Besiktas did tonight, and still get beaten by an Ajax side that looks some way from its best possible level. For a time the Turkish champions looked to have found a way to make life difficult for the Dutch backline, Georges-Kevin N’Koudou frequently finding space in behind on the left wing to make chances for the dangerous Cyle Larin.

Ten Hag had rotated his side with Haller, Jurrien Timber and Daley Blind on the bench from the outside whilst Antony, who ranks alongside Lewandowski and Tadic as one of the competition’s top performers so far, did not feature in any capacity. A side with six changes to their name did not quite click in the first half — though they still put up an adequate 0.84xG in that period — but it is the mark of a serious contender that they can respond to such setbacks in the assertive fashion Ajax did Wednesday. 

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They went back to what works for them, Haller leading the line and Tadic scheming off the left. Besiktas presumably prepared for that but had no answer for this side as the Ivory Coast international netted goals eight and nine of the group stage. No one has scored more five games into their Champions League career.

“I liked the comeback from my players,” said ten Hag. “We were down at halftime but we showed great attitude in the second half. It is not easy, especially against Besiktas, with their supporters. But we were able to turn it around and it is a good feeling, it gives us confidence.”

A 2-1 win in Istanbul may not be as eye catching as thumping victories against Sporting and Dortmund but it is no less encouraging. Ajax have spent most of the group stages showing how they can excel with their best players at the peak of their powers. Against Besiktas a weakened team got the job done, albeit with a little help from their big names.

It is yet another feather in Ajax’s cap. This curious cast of mid-tier veterans, untested talent and the odd holdover from 2019 should not be as good as it is. Discount them from winning it all at your peril.





Source: https://www.cbssports.com/soccer/news/why-its-time-to-take-ajax-seriously-as-a-champions-league-title-contender/ by [author_name]

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