Who will be Ajax's next 'next generation'?
Background photo: Tsonga4, CC BY-SA 4.0
Touted as Champions League cannon fodder in the Round of 16, Ajax of Amsterdam turned heads. Their young and talented squad, led by manager Erik ten Hag, provided some memorable moments in this season’s competition. After overcoming the odds to conquer the defending champions and serial winners Real Madrid, the Lancers followed up with an aggregate victory over Juventus in the quarterfinals despite Cristiano Ronaldo scoring in both legs.
The fearless youngsters at the heart of the team have nothing to lose and everything to prove. Playing with their hearts on their sleeves serves them well so far, attracting many a neutral fan across the continent.
Sadly, the general consensus is that Europe’s elite are poised to swoop for the Dutch side's more celebrated talents. These promising individuals won't be a team after the summer transfer window.
Frenkie de Jong’s future is already decided. He heads to Barcelona in July, expected to be the long-term midfield partner to the Brazilian Arthur. Matthijs de Ligt, David Neres, Donny van de Beek and Daley Sinkgraven are all expected to draw interest from The Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga and beyond.
Amsterdam's history bubbles over with young stars nurtured in the fabled Ajax Youth Academy. When these future legends move on to a new challenge, others always await the chance to prove themselves.
Currently, the situation is no different. Ten Hag won't relish losing his best players, but he knows more are at his disposal.
Let’s take a look at a few of those hungry teens.
A boy who will barely be 17 when next season begins, Gravenberch might be unready to claim a regular space in the Ajax midfield, but there is little doubt that he can become a real star in the future.
At the club since 2010, he has already broken Clarence Seedorf's record as the youngest Player to represent the Godenzonen in the Eredivisie.
With Frenkie de Jong’s future already decided, Ajax needs a replacement. Gravenberch resembles De Jong in some ways. silky-smooth, he's comfortable with the ball at his feet. He is taller, though and, more attack-minded, a physical presence to give defenders nightmares.
Whether he is called upon to play a major part next season or the club deems it prudent to keep him in the youth ranks a while longer, big things can be expected of this precocious young talent.
Club captain Matthijs de Ligt is possibly the most sought-after player among Ajax’s ranks. Partnering the imperious Virgil van Dijk in the national team and linked with most of Europe’s top sides, odds are the central defender will leave the nest in June. When that happens, Daley Blind will require a new partner. Enter Perr Schuurs.
Signed from Fortuna Sittard for around €2 million in January 2018, the tall 19-year-old was gifted nine first-team minutes in the 5-0 Eredivisie victory over AZ Alkmaar in October but has otherwise found himself on the bench or with the second team this season.
Next term, he can anticipate a greater role. A regular captain for Jong Ajax in the latter half of the 2018/19 campaign, Schuurs possesses the leadership skills to replace his compatriot not just as a defender but as a leader on the pitch.
Hakim Ziyech is Ten Hag's preferred choice on the right wing. He too could be on his way out. Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United are reportedly keen on the 26-year-old. If the Moroccan does leave, Cerny is a shoo-in to take his place.
The Czech U21 moved from Pribram five years ago. Nine goals and 11 assists in the Eerste Divisie with Jong Ajax provided a belated introduction.
Cerny is best deployed on the right where he will cut inside onto his favoured left foot but is comfortable on the left as well. If Ziyech stays, he could replace David Neres, assuming the Brazilian departs.
There is no telling what the future holds for anyone. Ask Ronnie O'Sullivan and James Cahill. That said, the omens are good for Ajax no matter how many young talents embark on careers elsewhere in 2019/20. The club expects no less from them than to make way for yet another generation.