Ajax Amsterdam’s unexpected march to the Champions League semi-finals has done much to highlight the dynamic young talent at the club, but it was their decision to add more experience to the team that has proven key to their success.
Ajax, who visit Tottenham Hotspur in Tuesday’s semi-final first leg and are chasing a domestic league and cup double, have always been a club prepared to field young players, but they made a conscious decision last year to inject more experience into the team.
Successfully fusing the two is what has proven the catalyst for a sensational season for the Dutch club, according to coach Erik ten Hag, who has been a quiet force driving the team to victories over Juventus and Real Madrid this season.
"Marc Overmars and I made an analysis towards the end of last season. Our conclusion was that we lacked players in their mid-20s. We lacked experience,” he said.
Ajax brought back Daley Blind, 29, from Manchester United and signed Dusan Tadic, 30, from Southampton.
“We were also glad that Hakim Ziyech stayed on.”
The 26-year-old Morocco international had been set to leave at the end of the last campaign but did not find a new club.
Ten Hag initially feared the gelling process might take longer than hoped.
“Because of the players coming back late after the World Cup we didn’t really get the hours on the training ground we wanted and we had to try and figure things out as we went along,” he said.
That included three Champions League preliminary round ties before the group phase, including trips to Austria, Belgium and Ukraine.
"It worked to our benefit," added Ten Hag. "The team grew quickly, having to play so many important and decisive games. We had a lot of so-called ‘cup finals’ early on in the season."
The playing system was also adjusted to suit the individual qualities of the players, the coach explained.
"We saw Frenkie de Jong as the key midfielder and moved him to the middle. The way he has developed has been crazy," said Ten Hag.
Ajax have already agreed to sell the 21-year-old to Barcelona. Ten Hag said he had hoped it would not happen, but he understands the decision.
"Ajax want to be a top European team but because the financial muscle of clubs in the smaller leagues is a growing weaker each year in comparison to the big countries, we have had to do things differently, abandoning some principles in order to be competitive.
"Key players will leave. These days it is impossible to keep together a team like ours for very long."