Reinvented by de Boer, Ajax’s Daley Blind transforms into the ‘Dutch Lahm’

By Mohamed Moallim

Innovation swirls around Ajax like leaves, in the Vondelpark, on a blustery autumn’s day. “Almost every club tries to imitate them,” Aad de Mos, who managed them between 1980 and 1985, recently said. “But they are unique and two steps ahead [of their rivals].” What kept Ajax ahead of the game, and could do so again, is the education their footballers receive. One such individual is Daley Blind son of club legend Danny.
His impressive displays at left-back over the last eighteen months cemented his position as one of the most improved footballers in the Netherlands, but the last few months has seen him reinvent himself, moving into the heart of midfield where he continues to excel. [[MORE]]
Arguably the tactical manoeuvre so far this season at least the most high profile. But this is nothing new in Amsterdam, the idea (and pursuit) of universality, being comfortable in multiple positions, is central to the club’s ethos and instilled from an early age. Blind isn’t the first player – whilst donning the colours of Ajax – to move into a new position, subsequently making it his own, and will certainly not be the last. 
His transformation, in some quarters, is reminiscent of Johan Neeskens who began at right-back – where he greatly impressed – before converted into midfielder tour de force.  However it’s more accurate to say Blind has gone back to his roots, a testament to his versatility that he’s an accomplished left-back, for much of his youth playing career he was utilised as a ‘number six’ (or controlling midfielder). Frank de Boer throughout last season (2012-13) hinted Blind’s future would be in midfield it so happened to come to fruition in the following campaign. 
His familiarity in the role and Ajax’s modern interpretation of totaalvoetbal (modified by Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal, which De Boer has gradually re-implemented) has made his assimilation smooth. His energy and discipline has become the kernel around which the rest of the side’s panache is constructed. In the role Blind is essentially a ‘third centre-back’ – dropping between the central defenders – and conductor rolled into one. He’s tasked with retaining and recycling possession: averaging 68.6 passes, 2.1 tackles and 2 interceptions per game (according to WhoScored.com).
Blind, who often operates as single-minded man-marker – normally designated to do a job on the opposition’s playmaker – shuttles across the pitch following the ball once with it his impeccable metronomic passing and grandiose football intelligence triggers their positional game/ Ajax in possession morph into a 2-3-2-3, one-touch combination football is second nature to them. In the Eredivisie their pass accuracy (86.8%) and average possession (62.9%) is ranked first (stats from WhoScored.com). He dictates the tempo: whether Ajax needs to slow things down or raise it. This also depends how high up the pitch they are. 
The controller, or in De Boer’s system ‘third centre-back’, is the most important position. Sergio Busquets – a revelation under Pep Guardiola and easily Barça’s second most important player – plays a similar role and has long fascinated the former Oranje captain. Guardiola, now managing Bayern Munich, played alongside De Boer for three seasons at Barça and has been a silent influence. As teammates they enjoyed lengthy conversations about the game. De Boer noted how Guardiola back then was effectively a coach. Guardiola equally saw the same.
Both see Cruyff and Van Gaal as a reference and share a steadfast belief in the ‘Ajax model’. Ronald – Frank’s twin – once commented Guardiola is obsessed calling him ‘half-Dutch’. He even approached De Boer to be his assistant at the Catalan giants only for the Dutchman to politely turn the offer down in order to strike out his own path. Guardiola’s four-year stint as Barça manager impacted on De Boer as it showed the ‘Ajax way’, in its purest form, still has a place in the modern game. 
No position typifies it more than the controller (see Frank Rijkaard), but Busquets is an up to date version, one that has since been pivotal to De Boer realising his objectives which is to dominate games through possession: circulation football as a means to not only create goal scoring opportunities but also a defensive weapon. If you have the ball the opposition can’t harm you. Blind is equally of most value – if not crucial – when out of possession as he would instigate Ajax’s pressing game (or ‘pressure play’): making the pitch as small as possible (compressing and closing down all space), enabling them to retain possession and win the ball back at times mercilessly more often than not by provoking their opponents into making a mistake. 
"The controlling midfielder in the modern game primarily builds [the attack]," De Mos adds. "Philipp Lahm and Blind have shown that." The former, under Guardiola, has thrived in midfield but equally remains as Europe’s finest right-back. Blind is a considerable distance from Lahm’s all-round level but there’s nothing stopping him reaching it. 
Blind’s seamless transition is second to his resurrection. Before the arrival of De Boer his future in Amsterdam was bleak. De Boer’s unyielding faith was built on seeing the potential he is now exhibiting. By restoring Ajax’s classical approach Blind, a De Toekomst graduate, has flourished. The inconsistencies that dogged him, at times shot of confidence, coincidentally eroded. “I’m indebted to Frank de Boer,” Blind said looking back.
His consistent performances throughout last season, many of which stood out, earned him the club’s player of the year award and a first Netherlands call-up. He’s been ever-present at left-back since making his debut against Italy in February 2013. Van Gaal, who still views Blind as his “first choice”, recognises the “number six” role is his true position. Nigel de Jong, who’s been a shining light at AC Milan, is expected to play there for Oranje at the World Cup.
He is now in the nations conscious. Elf Voetbal magazine, who at the backend of 2012 published an op-ed titled “The rehabilitation of Daley Blind”, readers named him – alongside Lucas Piazón of Vitesse – as the best player of the first half of the season. Not many would disagree. He is the pivot of a side chasing a historic fourth successive championship. And few are backing against them.
Now an elder statesman, albeit only 23-years-old, it will be surprising if he doesn’t follow in his father’s footsteps and captain the club he joined as an eight-year-old on a full-time basis. He recently wore the armband, decorated in Amsterdam’s coat of arms, away to ADO Den Haag describing it as “a special moment.”
A role model is Paolo Maldini, remaining a one-club man could prove to be difficult, but there’s no escaping his current iconic status: “Daley Blind is een echte Ajacied” as supporters now enthusiastically chant – hard to imagine only two years ago.  ”Everyone knows Ajax is my club,” he said after penning a three-year contract extension in spring 2013.  He’s really come full circle.
This piece was written by Mohamed Moallim, a Senior Writer for AFR. Comments below please.

Reinvented by de Boer, Ajax’s Daley Blind transforms into the ‘Dutch Lahm’

By Mohamed Moallim

Innovation swirls around Ajax like leaves, in the Vondelpark, on a blustery autumn’s day. “Almost every club tries to imitate them,” Aad de Mos, who managed them between 1980 and 1985, recently said. “But they are unique and two steps ahead [of their rivals].” What kept Ajax ahead of the game, and could do so again, is the education their footballers receive. One such individual is Daley Blind son of club legend Danny.

His impressive displays at left-back over the last eighteen months cemented his position as one of the most improved footballers in the Netherlands, but the last few months has seen him reinvent himself, moving into the heart of midfield where he continues to excel.

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Football Stadiums by Oscar Bolton Green

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As Europe searches for drama, the Eredivisie’s title race rises

With seven games remaining in the Eredivisie the destination of the championship is no clearer than it was at the beginning of the campaign. At this time of writing four sides are in contention separated by three points making this the most eagerly anticipated climax to any of Europe’s major leagues. Like the season finale of a gripping television drama series, its one not to be missed.

How this has come about is attributed to a new economic reality, one that has slowly weakened Dutch clubs, as a result the gap between the traditional old guard (consisting of Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV) and majority of the division isn’t as wide as it once was. You get the feeling this season won’t be a one-off.

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Taking in the Ajax experience in Amsterdam with The Eurofan

It’s the home of bicycles, nightlife, Van Gogh and Ajax Amsterdam, of course. Since the launch of Copa90 last summer, one of their most entertaining shows follows the adventures of The Eurofan. It’s a show presented by Tom Deacon, who’s also a comedian and DJ for Radio 1, where he’s sent to different football cities each Champions League week to become a fan of the home team.

So far he’s travelled to Spain, Romania, Turkey, France, Russia and Celtic. And now, even though its not Champions League week, the Eurofan has flown to Amsterdam to become a fan of Ajax.

But this time he was accompanied by a friend of AFR, KSIJust as we documented the Ajax experience, together they explored the city, learned about the culture behind Ajax, interacted with fans and attended ‘De Klassieker’ - the heated Ajax vs Feyenoord derby.

You can watch the rest of Eurofan series here. Posted by Dom.

The Dynamic Danes continue to explode at Ajax

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Morten Olsen, national team coach of Denmark, can be forgiven if he decides to start shuttling between Copenhagen to Amsterdam on a regular basis. He would though have a very good reason. Ajax, where he won the double in his only full season before leaving unceremoniously, is again preying on his mind.

Outside his homeland no club other than Ajax boasts a larger Danish contingent, compatriots with pivotal roles, who aren’t just there to make up the numbers. 

Their 3-1 victory over PSV last Saturday was a testament, spearheaded by one of the most naturally gifted footballers to leave the land of Hamlet in recent years, Viktor Fischer.

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Through Ryu’s Lens: City disappointment, Chelsea delight

This week’s Champions League action may have temporarily taken a back seat for some due to the battle between FC Romney and Obama United, but the drama wasn’t in short support in politics or football. Ajax (and their thousands of travelling fans) left Mancini enraged and Balotelli disappointed, as Manchester City’s Champions League dream awakened to a rude reality. Chelsea continued to play with an unprecedented level of entertainment at Stamford Bridge, barely edging out Shakhtar Donetsk. Ryu Voelkel made the trip from Berlin to Manchester to London to take it all in.

Interact with Ryu on twitter @Toksuede and check his Flickr. Posted by Eric.

Frank De Boer’s smokescreen ‘gras-rel’

By Mohamed Moallim

After trawling out for a closer inspection, what he saw left a concerned expression on his face, after taking it all in he slowly walked back inside fearing the worst. Constantly preying on his mind, they had to somehow leave with all three points, they didn’t. The subsequent result only prompted him to make it a bigger issue. It was an odd outburst, only coming out as a feeble excuse, even if there was a point.

The individual in question: Frank de Boer, his concern: state of the Kyocera Stadion pitch, result: ‘gras-rel’ (or grass riot).

“I don’t know where the man who cuts the grass is, he’s certainly not here,” the Ajax manager bemoaned. The length according to him was detrimental to his side, “Everyone knows short grass is advantageous to our style of play.” Before kick-off he graphically exaggerated how it came up and “tickled” his armpits. Maurice Steijn, manager of Den Haag, agreed “The grass was too long”.

However there was no sympathy from Kees Kortekaas, the groundsman, “It’s almost the same length at the Amsterdam ArenA,” he pointed out, “De Boer lost two points and probably should have something to complain about. I find it much ado about nothing.”

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You’ve probably not heard of him, but Liverpool’s new winger Assaidi is a player who the Kop will grow to enjoy

By Mohamed Moallim

Most managers in the Eredivisie, adhering to the unwritten code, would stop short of describing a player as ‘world class’ or remotely anywhere near the reason being as it would be interpreted as overhyping a talent nowhere near the finished article.

Ron Jans however broke protocol. The former Heerenveen boss, now at Standard de Liège, after a mercurial display by Oussama Assaidi last season couldn’t hold back. “When it comes to beating the opposition he’s up there with the best in the world,” Jans enthused. This interestingly enough wasn’t picked up yet it’s fair to say not many would agree.

But in saying that it’s easy getting caught up a player dubbed ‘the Ferrari’ his style is as elegant as watching a Daytona ride into the sunset. Assaidi treats every game as a personal highlight reel, beating defenders at whim either by sheer pace or wit, as a result turning into one of the biggest benefactors of the YouTube generation in the Netherlands. Love him or hate him you can’t deny he’s a showman. Yes, the soundtrack can be annoying, but that becomes irrelevant once you’re mesmerised by his fleet of foot like a magician’s sleight of hand.  Now you see it.

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Frank de Boer’s vision: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

By Mohamed Moallim

Jim Collins, in “Good to Great”, wrote the secret of long-term corporate success lies in cultivating a distinctive set of values. For all the talk of diversity and globalisation, this usually means promoting from within and putting down deep local roots. Boris Groysberg, Harvard Business School, affirms companies are too obsessed with hiring stars rather than developing teams.

Both theorists have an ally in Frank de Boer. The difference is that he’s not concerned with Wall Street but the future of AFC Ajax. In essence the former left-back’s vision, to make the Dutch giants top of the food chain again, is the one perpetuated by Johan Cruyff, who championed De Boer to succeed Martin Jol. The legendary number 14 distinctive management model has been proven a success at FC Barcelona. De Boer is hopeful Ajax can enjoy similar riches. “Whether his vision can lead to a utopia in these times remains to be seen.”

After months of upheaval, the Amsterdam club are now restructuring around Cruyff’s philosophy with him in a new role overseeing the transition. Despite his departure from the board he still pulls the strings. With a historic back-to-back Eredivisie won, all eyes focus on the next phase: making an impact in Europe.

Europe is once again the final frontier. A club rich in tradition, decorated with success on the continent, knows the reality is different from years gone by. To once again conquer they will require luck and in the words of De Boer, “sheer belief”. As well as accelerating the individual development of his players. Their ‘daring’ brand of possession-based football, reminiscent of the period between 1986 and 1997 should hold them in good stead. But they will need to be braver, compact as well as clinical. It might not get them far but it’s a start. A presence in the latter stages of European competition is the first objective of a long-term goal.

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