Peter Bosz was the tough defensive midfield destroyer that captained the Eredivisie title-winning Feyenoord side of 1993. His philosophy now as manager is markedly different to how he played. “I want to entertain the fans. I want to hear the oohs and aaahs rolling from the Arena stands” is Bosz’s leading mantra.
On Wednesday he will stand on the touchline of Ajax’s first European final for 21 years and his dynamic collection of young talent, who tore Lyon to shreds in the opening leg of the semi-final, are certain to bring the excitement. Seven of the side that freely laid the French team to waste 4-1 in Amsterdam were aged 21 or under.
It is Manchester United, who have stumbled to Stockholm under the direction of Jose Mourinho’s prosaic low-risk football, who stand in Bosz’s way and leaving aside the petty sniping over fixture congestion and squad rotation it is searing up to be a monstrous collision of two distinct styles.
“A victory for football” is how Bosz describes the return of Ajax to the headline acts of European competition but he will know that only lifting the Europa League trophy, having missed out on the Eredivisie to Feyenoord by a point, will give his team vindication.
“When I see my team only defending and destroying like I did I will not enjoy it,” says Bosz and Mourinho, whose ultra-conservative game-plan is based on offering up the ball to the opposition, will be viewed as a clear enemy, a nemesis to the Dutch club’s ideals. ‘The master of mindgames’ is how the Portuguese is branded on Ajax’s website.
With Champions League qualification on offer United dare not lose, with a projected £50 million shortfall in revenue and their bumper shirt sponsorship deal with Adidas set to fall in value if they miss out, and Mourinho, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic injured and his team shorn of momentum due to a poor ending to the season, will be happy to slip into his naturally pragmatic shell.
After falling so close to surrendering the 4-1 lead to Lyon in the riveting second-leg in France and requiring extra-time to move past Schalke despite leading 2-0 from the first-leg, an Ajax defence that can be brittle on the continent will buoy United who have the fearless Marcus Rashford leading their own line.
United have been turgid in their run to final however and Mourinho, with no sign his team will perform with the swagger that has been missing since the defeat of Chelsea at Easter, is likely to prioritise safety.
He has plenty to worry about with Kasper Dolberg leading the line on the back of a debut season in which the 19-year-old has scored 23 goals and provided 7 assists. At 24, attacking midfielder Davy Klaasen is a squad veteran and the captain has supported Dolberg with 19 goals and 12 assists in 48 matches.
Bertrand Traore, the gangly 21-year-old on loan from Chelsea, scored twice in the 4-1 thrashing of Lyon and his long, galloping legs and burning pace will offer powerful threat on the right. Devastating at moving from wide areas into central space to score goals, nobody has had more shots on target than the Burkinabe in this season’s Europa League` (16) and only Zenit’s Giuliano has been directly involved in more goals than Traore (8).
Amin Younes, the 23-year-old with 12 goals this season and the Europa League’s leading dribbler with 73, will line up on the left having just been called up to Germany’s Confederations Cup squad.
Last weekend’s season-concluding 1-3 win at Willem II, ultimately too late for them to wrestle the title from rivals Feyenoord, was achieved with the Eredivisie’s youngest ever team and with Justin Kluivert, the son of Patrick who scored the winner against AC Milan in the 1995 Champions League final, defender Matthijs De Ligt and defensive midfielder Donny Van De Beek, Ajax have a squad packed with potential, reared and nurtured in their ever-productive academy.
17-year-old De Ligt has recently been capped by the Netherlands and fellow centre-half Davinson Sanchez, a 20-year-old Colombian signed last summer from Atletico Nacional, has excelled in his debut season. With Barcelona already interested, the €5 million investment in the defender, on the instruction of technical director Marc Overmars, appears to be smart business.
Overmars leads a pack of former Ajax players who are now involved with the club in different capacities. Edwin Van der Sar is the CEO, Jaap Stam was working with the defenders before taking charge at Reading. Richard Witschge, Winston Bogarde and Aaron Winter are on the coaching staff along with assistant manager Dennis Bergkamp.
With Bergkamp influential in coaching the team’s forwards it is little surprise they have been so prolific or how Kluivert has become such a precocious talent. One wonders why Arsenal, who allowed Thierry Henry to inexplicably depart from the coaching team, have not sought his genius to pass on such invaluable knowledge in a similar manner.
In charge of them all is Bosz, a former student of Johan Cruyff and a disciple of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. He is a preacher of the hard-pressing game, working to a 5-second rule for his team to hunt and retrieve the ball, and espouses solid concentration when his team are set-up off the ball.
But it is what his team do on the ball that matters most to the 53-year-old and it was in Lasse Schone, the 30-year-old former attacking midfielder who he converted to holding midfielder at the expense of Anwar el Ghazi and Nemanja Gudelj, who they found the missing piece of the jigsaw.
“This is the #6 role and I have very specific wishes for that player” said Bosz, “Someone like Guardiola, or Cesc Fabregas”. “Lasse gets the ball and turns around and moves forward. Those qualities are essential to our game.” That a potentially disruptive Gudelj and El Ghazi were both swiftly moved on after clashing with the manager shows the authority and respect Bosz demands from his young squad.
Alongside Schone in midfield will be Hakim Ziyech, the excellent Moroccan who has four assists in his last three Europa League matches. Ajax’s standing in Dutch football allowed them to beat a host of interested clubs to sign Ziyech from Twente for a bargain €11 million last August.
The imposing Nick Viergever, a much-needed experienced head at the heart of defence who scored the vital extra-time goal to take Ajax beyond Schalke in the quarter-finals, cost €2 million to sign from AZ Alkmaar in 2014.
Despite this Ajax know their place in the food chain and after the sales of Arkadiusz Milik to Napoli and Jasper Cillesen to Barcelona for a combined £38 million last summer, one suspects the vultures will be circling Bosz’s captivating bunch, with Klaasen and Dolberg already linked with moves away, in the same way AS Monaco’s successful squad faces being disbanded over the summer.
The sale of Milik allowed Ajax to break the £10 million barrier for the first time when they signed David Neres, another teenage forward, from Sao Paulo in January. It is a different atmosphere to the one occupied by United and their £89 million purchase of Paul Pogba.
“We don’t have the spending power of other clubs. We want to bring our own players through” says Van der Sar and after the final, whatever happens, a rejuvenated Ajax will be already rebuilding, guided by the wisdom coursing throughout the club.
With so much riding on it two worlds are set to battle it out in Stockholm and it is the one occupied by Bosz, Bergkamp, Overmars and their band of emerging talents that capture imagination the most.