Manchester United vs. Ajax: A return to relevance

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Manchester United and Ajax Amsterdam will battle it out on Wednesday for a European trophy. This sounds like the type of statement that would have been fitting in the 1990s given United’s dominance in England and Ajax’s Dutch and European legacy. Unfortunately, these two giants of the game have been in decline. Ajax have not been a European giant for just over 20 years while Manchester United are still suffering the post-Fergie hangover four years after the great man’s departure.

The two greatest managers over the last 100 years are Ajax’s Rinus Michels and the aforementioned Sir Alex Ferguson. The last man to win a European title with Ajax (Louis Van Gaal) was sacked by Manchester United after winning the FA Cup last season. The two clubs have quite a few links and these two clubs should be doing better than contesting Europe’s secondary trophy.

The simple truth here is both clubs are rebuilding themselves, however they are doing it in totally different ways. Dutch football does not have the historic appeal or the financial lure for the world’s top players. So, as football has became more money driven, Ajax have been left behind by the big hitters in Spain, England, Italy, Germany and now France. As a result, unlike other big clubs, Ajax continued to resort to youth development as its primary means of refreshing its team. This season though, it does seem like Ajax have taken that to a whole new level. The captain, Davy Klaassen, is only 24. The average age of the squad is 22, and with players like Jordan Kluivert, Kasper Dolberg and Amin Younes, Ajax are playing an expansive, attacking brand of football. The Ajax we used to know are finally back after years of pragmatism and European irrelevance.

Manchester United are also famous for youth development, something that seemed to be back in vogue with vigour under Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal. The appointment of Jose Mourinho however has taken the club in the direction that Chairman Ed Woodward really wants; United’s very own Galacticos. So far the expensive process hasn’t reaped the rewards the club would have hoped. With some of the world’s most expensive players in transfer fees and wages like Pogba, Ibrahimovic, Rooney, Martial and more, United should not even have to be here. After finishing 6th in the Premier League they need this more than ever.

One could argue that Ajax need a win to prove that a single minded focus on youth can still be fruitful. A win for Ajax could truly make the Dutch team relevant on the European stage again after 21 long years. Who knows, next season they may be the next Monaco. On the other hand, Jose Mourinho needs this trophy to show that he hasn’t lost his special touch. Manchester United desperately need to get back into the Champions League to attract top players and to ensure they don’t continue their decline for financial reasons as well as to maintain its elite status. You feel that a win here will also propel United back into relevance, and unlike Ajax, it’s unlikely that the return will be temporary. A win for Manchester United means players the calibre of Antoine Griezmann could join Woodward’s Galacticos. These types of players will look to challenge Bayern, Real Madrid, Juventus and Barcelona year in and year out. Ajax’s relevancy will likely be fleeting as money talks and the way they fund themselves now is almost solely through player sales. So for footballing reasons perhaps the pressure really is on Manchester United to come good in this game.

For non-footballing reasons, one feels that Manchester United need to win this match as well. 22 people and 59 were injured in a vile terrorist attack during a concert at the Manchester Arena. It’s impossible to think this won’t have affected the players and the club. United actually had  students at the concert, so this is very personal indeed. No doubt opposing fans will come together which is apt considering the game is being played at the Friends Arena. Whether United can deal with the pressure of the fixture we will have to wait and see. Ajax aren’t here to let United have a fairytale ending to their season. It will be a captivating encounter, one that could bring relevancy back to one of the two clubs but also to Europe’s second competition as well.


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