Ajax 2018/19 is part of 90min's 20 Greatest Teams of the Decade series.
For the majority of the 21st century, Ajax were seen as one of those B-tier teams. They were always really good, but consistently pretty far away from being good enough to dominate Europe.
That was the perception heading into the 2018/19 season. Ajax would probably win the Eredivisie and then drop out of the Champions League pretty early on. The last time Ajax had even qualified for the top competition was for the 2014/15 campaign, so they looked like they wouldn't be much of a threat.
However, when all was said and done, they were seen as perhaps the single most exciting team on the planet.
The build-up to this incredible season began on 21 December 2017. Manager Marcel Keizer had been sacked for failing to challenge for the Eredivisie title that year, and the Ajax chiefs opted to replace him with a man by the name of Erik ten Hag.
Ten Hag had emerged as one of Dutch football's most exciting managers, but he still had a long way to go to prove he was good enough to lead one of the Eredivisie's top sides.
His side lost just two games across the remainder of the 17/18 season, but that wasn't enough to stop PSV Eindhoven from winning the title. Improvements were needed.
Now with the chance to sculpt the team in his own image, Ten Hag embarked on what many felt was an underwhelming shopping spree. They spent big money on both Daley Blind and Dušan Tadić in the summer for 2018, which many felt was a mistake.
However, Ten Hag did not agree, and boy was he proved right.
He created a brand new tactic. One which played up to the club's links with iconic Dutch forward Johan Cruyff, who was all about possession, speed and systematic dominance. He wanted to overwhelm his opponents.
In goal, you had the trusted André Onana. The young Cameroonian was raised in the Barcelona academy, but left in search of first-team football back in 2015. It didn't take him long to find it, as his impressive reflexes and composure on the ball made him the perfect base for Ten Hag's side.
In front of Onana was the centre-back pairing of Blind and exciting youngster Matthijs de Ligt. Both comfortable in the tackle and with the ball at their feet, they were pass-first defenders who were called upon to link everything together from the back.
Next up was base of Ajax's midfield, which was made up of the experienced Lasse Schøne and the mesmeric Frenkie de Jong (whose importance to the team will be discussed later).
As attacking midfielders, David Neres, Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech were given free roam of the field, and they combined with Tadić further forward.
However, the thing which made Ajax so brilliant was their system.
The intention was to create diamonds all over the field, so as to increase their passing options at all angles. They would invite pressure on their two centre-backs, but both Blind and De Ligt were more than comfortable dealing with that.
They would use their passing vision to find a midfielder. It was usually De Jong, whose job was to float between the lines and pick up possession wherever it was needed. You'd see him at centre-back and you'd see him at centre-forward if required.
The midfielder brought his stunning ability to drift into space, so he always found himself available for a pass. It was De Jong's job to pull the strings, and his refusal to lose his composure made him a superstar in this role.
De Jong would look to get the ball to one of Ajax's four attackers, and he could do so because of their flawless understanding of Ten Hag's system.
Playing as a centre-forward, Tadić was perhaps the most important cog in the Ajax machine. He would drift into space deep in midfield, dragging defenders around with him, and that would create space for inside forwards like Hakim Ziyech and David Neres.
Forming a tight-knit diamond, the four players would pick their passes to ghost round defenders, and there was not a single thing that could be done to stop them. Ziyech's creativity ensured that final ball could come from literally anywhere on the field, and they were always one pass away from scoring a goal.
Cruyff's Barcelona side of the 1990s did something very similar, and it resulted in unprecedented success. In Ten Hag's Ajax, every player understood the system perfectly, meaning they could do just about anything they wanted on the pitch.
During the group stage of the Champions League, Ajax remained unbeaten in a group which also featured Bayern Munich.
In fact, they battled to 1-1 and 3-3 draws against the Bundesliga giants, and they certainly deserved each result. They created excellent chances and knew how to take them, and they attracted interest from fans across Europe by doing so. There was a real intrigue about what they were doing.
However, the bubble looked to have burst as they were drawn against defending champions Real Madrid in the last 16. Los Blancos picked up a 2-1 win at the Johan Cruyff Arena in the first leg, and it all looked to be over.
Ajax weren't given a copy of the script, and rocked up to the Santiago Bernabéu to produce one of the most stunning performances in European history. They cantered to a 4-1 victory thanks to goals from Ziyech, Neres, Tadić and Schøne.
It was one of the most shocking results of all time, but the thing which made it even more surprising was just how much Ajax deserved it. They were utterly outstanding, dominating Real at every opportunity.
The magic surely had to stop in the quarter-final, where they met Juventus. Cristiano Ronaldo and friends turned up to Amsterdam, only to be comprehensively bested on the pitch. The game finished 1-1, but Juventus were certainly fortunate to get out of that alive.
Ronaldo gave I Bianconeri the lead in the second leg, but again Ajax did not lie down. Goals from Van de Beek and De Ligt left Juventus stunned, and saw Ajax move through to the semi-final.
They avoided defeat against Bayern, humiliated Real and bested Juventus, all in the same season. Most teams don't even get to say that across their entire existence.
Could they be stopped? They had systematically picked apart the best Europe had to offer, and only Tottenham Hotspur stood between Ajax and a place in the final.
A 1-0 win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium looked to have got the ball rolling. Yet again, they were comfortable throughout, and fans across the world had truly started to believe that this was Ajax's year.
Unfortunately, Lucas Moura spoiled all the fun with a last-gasp winner in the second leg, which saw Spurs advance and Ajax crash out in some of the most emotional scenes you are ever likely to witness.
They did still win the Eredivisie and KNVB Beker, so it wasn't all doom and gloom, but there was a noticeable disappointment in the air as Ajax knew they probably deserved a place in the final.
To finish, let's go over some individual accolades from the season.
Onana kept 26 clean sheets all year. Golden Boy winner De Ligt earned himself a £67.5m move to Juventus. Neres racked up 12 goals and 15 assists. Van de Beek managed 17 and 13. And they're just the normal stats.
Ziyech bagged 21 goals and 24 assists, but even that pales in comparison to Tadić. The Southampton reject fired home 38 goals and 24 assists in all competitions, which is just mind-blowing.
This Ajax side had everything. Led by a passionate manager with a frightening understanding of tactics, Ajax were full of hyper-talented, enthusiastic stars-in-the-making, all of whom wanted to leave their mark on European football.
It's safe to say: mission accomplished.
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