The fate of the Ajax trio and the legacy of Tulip Mania

“A golden bait hung temptingly out before the people, and one after the other, they rushed to the tulip-marts, like flies around a honey-pot” Charles Mackay, 1841

On the 3rd of February 1637, the Dutch Republic saw the dramatic end of Tulip Mania. A speculative bubble where prices rose dramatically and then crashed spectacularly. Investors overvalued the tulip bulb leading to prices so high no one could afford it, this in turn led to a significant price drop.

The much-vaunted tulip had become the desired flower in the courts of the European elite. The newly introduced flower and its deep saturated colours were alluring to all, and the colonial powers in Spain and Portugal were eager to purchase and flaunt the latest fashions to impress their courtiers.

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The traders of the tulip bulb were purchasing potential as they speculated on the future windfall they would receive. But what happens when you haven’t done due diligence, and that potential dissipates before your eyes?

Frenkie goes to Hollywood

Frenkie de Jong was purchased for 86 million euros by Barcelona in the summer of 2018 after a dazzling season at Ajax. It was an obvious move, in theory, a young disciple of the Amsterdam school should always naturally slip into a Barcelona midfield. What he found when he got there, however, was dysfunction, stagnation, and club lost in transition. An identity crisis that the Catalonians are still in the middle of trying to resolve.

Ronald Koeman’s arrival helped to reignite him and his second season was a vast improvement on the first. There remains the question of his position though. He is a natural centre midfield player but has spent the majority of the time in a defensive role, or even at centre-back.

With only three goals and four assists this season in La Liga he has yet to show his full potential in this team. The performance in the Copa Del Rey final where he scored and made two assists may be a coming of age moment in his Barcelona career. After two years in Catalonia, it needs to be.

For the national side, he has been ever-present since his emergence. De Boer has slipped him into a more defensive role for the majority of the bigger games, but he flourishes when Marten de Roon is behind him in the holding position as his focus is purely on possession with the ball.

For de Jong in particular this needs to be his breakout tournament. Having been in Messi’s shadow since signing for Barcelona he needs to stamp his authority on the game and become a star in his own right. The European Championships would be a good place to start.

Catenaccio Kid

As the youngest of the Dutch trio to move, Matthijs de Ligt has also shown the most promise since his arrival in Italy. The youngest captain in the history of Ajax has already made 27 appearances for the national side at only 21-years-of-age, and he has a Serie A title in his back pocket. What can we say of his progression as a footballer though?

He was purchased to serve as a squire under the veteran Giorgio Chiellini. Learning the dark arts of Catenaccio from the old Italian master. At Ajax, the focus is on playing the ball out from the back but at Juventus, the focus is on tactical awareness and defensive organisation. De Ligt has added these qualities to his game to become a more rounded defender in every aspect.

His performances for the national team have been impressive and he has nailed down his place. Without their defensive talisman in Virgil Van Dijk, the young de Ligt has stood up and provided leadership beyond his years. The Nations League victory against England being a standout. He will be essential if de Boer continues with three at the back as they look to play deeper with de Vrij and Blind.

Under Pirlo he has had to survive a dysfunctional season as the Old Lady of Turin barely secured Champions League football. With Allegri’s return, the focus will be back on a more defensive approach, but the Dutchman might not be there for long. A possible move to Madrid, Munich, or Manchester could elevate his game now that he has served his time under the professor of the dark arts. His agent Mino Riola will see to it.

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Donny Boy

“Many who, for a brief season, had emerged from the humbler walks of life, were cast back into their original obscurity”  Charles Mackay

Manchester United purchased Donny Van De Beek for what now seems to be no apparent reason. What Ed Woodward had in mind when he made the signing we may never know, but he seemingly did not consult Ole Gunner Solksjaer on the subject before he sanctioned the deal. And as such the unfortunate Van de Beek has made only four premier league starts this season.

Van de Beek probably watched on in envy at Ajax as he saw his teammates get big money moves. Maybe the rush to sign for United was a reaction and he didn’t ask the right questions before going to England. His move to United has been a disaster. So often he has cut a solemn and almost depressed figure on the bench as he remains unused. It seems strange that he was even signed at all when Bruno Fernandes was so dominant in his position as the United playmaker.

And what now for Donny, having had to pull out of the Euros he is left at a crossroads in his career. At 24 he should be entering his prime years. Atrophy is the worst thing in the life of a young footballer. Van de Beek has endured a nightmare and his confidence must be now at rock bottom as he sees Davy Klassen, who has now taken his place at Ajax and the national team, now flourish. He will no longer have the opportunity to prove his worth at his first tournament. With a World Cup next year, Van de Beek needs to move somewhere he is valued before the colour goes out on his career.

Stewardship

“Johan Cruyff would turn in his grave”
Ronald de Boer, 2021

Jose Mourinho once dubbed Frank de Boer the ‘worst manager in the history of the Premier League’. Taking over from Ronald Koeman in September 2020, the former Barcelona player did not have a burning hot CV to speak of. His brief affair with Inter Milan ended in farce and his mission to turn Crystal Palace into a Total Football team was never really on the cards in hindsight. His initial success with Ajax now seems like a lifetime ago.

Straying from the 4-3-3 is sacrosanct in Dutch football. Playing five at the back in the recent games against Scotland and Georgia irked the public at home. His brother Ronald de Boer declared after the Scottish game that “Johan Cruyff would turn in his grave” if he saw how this Dutch team played under his brother’s command. Total Football has been abandoned in favor of a more conservative approach.

The surprisingly swashbuckling style they had under Koeman is long gone and the Dutch do not have the attacking firepower upfront to match England, France, or Portugal. They topped the charts in their nations league group but their last competitive fixture against a serious team was a 4-2 defeat to Turkey.

Can de Boer get the best out of this squad? It remains to be seen. But a rejuvenation of Dutch football in terms of individuals has certainly come back after a double tournament hiatus. De Jong has been given free rein in the midfield with de Roon protecting him and de Ligt is the spearhead of the defence so neither can claim they don’t have the opportunity to flourish in this new approach.

Euro 2020: Postponement timing cools Dutch expectations

The trio

Since they moved their separate ways they have all had varying degrees of fortune, be it good, bad, or downright ugly. They might have seemed like obvious moves at the time. Who could turn down Barcelona, Juventus, and Manchester United? But the reason they came to prominence was because of the team they were in and the uncompromising style they played.

The European Superclubs all had different aspirations upon signing them. They possibly bought them because they were the new darlings of the Champions League and decided to rush to the markets before their competitors got ahead. De Ligt is the only one you could call an unequivocal success. The others have struggled after securing moves. The familiarity of the football they played at Ajax is what made them shine. Together they created sparkling performances in a system they were born to play.

What will now become of Frenkie, Matthijs and Donny? For Van de Beek the nightmare continues, but De Jong and De Ligt now have an opportunity to show their true worth on the international stage. While it is asking a lot to expect them to win, a semi-final is not beyond their reach considering the draw they have.

Valuations have been hard to come by as the Euros have been delayed by a year. Who has improved and who has regressed, what overestimations lie in store for us? The tulip lies dormant from June to September, let’s hope that’s not the case for Dutch football too.

The Author

John McMahon

Sportswriter and self-proclaimed football boot aficionado. John McMahon hails from Co. Laois and covers domestic and European football.

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