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Overmars is sure his Ajax starlets can emulate '90s greats

 

By Jack Pitt-Brooke

When Marc Overmars returned to Ajax in 2012, he had one goal. He had won the Champions League with Ajax in 1995, but since then the giant club had been dwarfed in the new financial landscape. Overmars was the new technical director and he was desperate to drag his old team back into a European final.

Tomorrow night in Stockholm, Overmars' ambition will be fulfilled. Ajax will play Manchester United for the Europa League title.

It is their first European final since they lost the Champions League decider to Juventus in 1996, a game Overmars missed with injury. But for Overmars and the rest of the veterans of that great mid-1990s side, guiding this team back to the top is what it is all about.

"It makes me proud," Overmars tells me in his office at De Toekmost. "When I started here I wanted to do the same as I did as a player, and reach a final. Now to achieve it this year is fantastic for us."

Football history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes, and it does so very clearly in the case of Ajax then and now. The 1995 team was a young side, mostly but not exclusively local, playing adventurous pressing football inspired by the values of Johan Cruyff. All of that is true now, and not by chance. This team has been drawn up on the lines of the old one.

Overmars is still struck by how his band of "schoolboys" upset the odds and beat reigning champions AC Milan 1-0 in Vienna. He was 22, Edgar Davids was 22, Michael Reiziger was 22, Patrick Kluivert was 18. But they took on the Milan of Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and the rest and won. This Ajax team is young. And it gives him confidence they can beat United.

"That is why I feel the comparison to 1995," Overmars says. "Because we were also schoolboys. We arrived at the final in our tracksuits, we came in and we had our lunch. All those other clubs already had labs and everything."

The current team is even younger. Matthijs de Ligt is 17, Justin Kluivert is 18, Kasper Dolberg is 19. But Overmars knows that youngsters can flourish if they are good enough. "We have some real schoolboys," Overmars says. "But they can play fantastic football. I remember Andres Iniesta playing with us at Barcelona. He was also a schoolboy. But in the end, it is all about are you smarter than who you play against?"

Overmars' job is to go and find players who are smart enough to fit into Peter Bosz's team. One of his great triumphs has been Davinson Sanchez, the imposing 20-year-old centre-back signed last summer from Atletico Nacional in Colombia. He was a risk but he has fitted in perfectly and will eventually make Ajax a huge profit on their €5m investment.

"You don't win games only with good football, we have to find a mix," Overmars says. "I see how Sanchez fits into this team, what a big influence he has, but he is maybe not a typical Ajax player."

Or take Hakim Ziyech, one of the great triumphs of Overmars' tenure. The Moroccan midfielder had impressed first with Heerenveen then with Twente, so Ajax spent €11m on him last summer. Ziyech had been playing out on the right at Twente but Ajax thought that they could turn him into a dominant midfielder if they could just make him work harder and run more without the ball.

Former Arsenal ace Overmars is delighted with how Ziyech has done that, a vindication for his decision to sign him. "At Twente, Hakim was running 7km a game," Overmars explains. "Here, he is running almost 12km. He had to adapt, he had to fight more. At the beginning, he could not play the full 90 minutes.

"Now he is doing fantastic, because he has the strength now and the power."

When Ajax beat Schalke in the quarter-finals, Ziyech was still running the game in extra-time, when Ajax scored twice to make it through.

The result is a team which mixes home-grown products with clever imports, just like the 1995 team did.

"It is quite comparable," Overmars says. "I was bought myself from Willem II. On the right we had Finidi George, and up front we had Jari Litmanen. Now we also have three 'foreigners' up front: Dolberg, who came here at 17, Amin Younes and Bertrand Traore."

But the real thread that links that team and this one is the football itself. Bosz is a purist whose football is proudly adherent to the principles of Cruyff. Ajax pass the ball, press hard, and have their back four as high up the pitch as they can. The people change but the values stay the same.

"Exactly the same, exactly the same," Overmars enthuses. "Here it is not allowed to bring in a coach with different ideas."

So what exactly does this mean in practice? "We take a lot of risk from behind, we try to play up front most of the time. Most teams say 'we lock it down in defence, then we will see'. We know in football most coaches think 'I have to secure the back, when that's good, we can move on'." Like Jose Mourinho? "Yes."

It is a risk, but it is working. Ajax finished a strong second in Eredivisie, just one point behind Feyenoord. And they have played some brilliant football in Europe, shredding Lyon and Schalke on their way to the final in Stockholm.

The only question left is how long this team can stay together. Overmars points that teams in the Championship in England have a bigger budget and that his players could earn "10 times more" elsewhere.

Of course Ajax accept that their players will eventually want to do that and they are proud of the ones that do. In the brochure that Overmars shows to potential recruits there is a picture of Christian Eriksen.

"Christian played for four years in the first team," Overmars recalls. "Then he came to me and said he was looking forward to seeing another league. We shook hands and we came to an agreement with Spurs in 30 minutes. Because he showed us commitment for four years, and he won the title three times. Then you can go.

"The team is focused on winning prizes. They are not thinking about their careers. When I was playing, after a few years, I said 'I want to move on'. They will move on, but in two years."

Overmars' Ajax team won one Champions League and Intercontinental Cup, and lost the Champions League final the following year, before they finally disbanded in 1996 and 1997, the year he left for Arsenal. That is the pathway that is set up for these new young Ajax players. But first they have to win.

  • Ajax v Man Utd, Europa League Final: Friends Arena, Stockholm, Wednesday, 7.45pm

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