Last night, the Europa League final ended 2-0 in favour of Manchester United. The time leading up to the match presented high stakes and even higher excitement. The stakes were high on both sides.
For Ajax, it was the last chance to grab a trophy this season and was also the first time in 22 years that the Dutch club had made it back to a European final. Not to mention they did so with one of the youngest squads ever.
They even made a lovely video to celebrate their return:
Manchester United, on the other hand, came into the game at the end of a lacklustre season, ending 6th in the Premier League. Despite winning the EFL Cup and Community Shield, it was the club’s last chance to grab a ticket to next year’s Champions League. Not to mention the recent tragedy in the team’s home city, meaning Manchester United had added drive to do right by their city and win.
The Match between Ajax and Manchester
The game was overshadowed by Monday’s terrorist attack in Manchester. A minute’s silence was held at the outset and players on both sides were wearing black armbands out of respect for the victims. United Manager José Mourinho said after the victory that if they could exchange the trophy for the lives lost, they would in an instant. The English team dedicated the win to the victims of the attack.
Paul Pogba, who rejoined the United team after a €110 million transfer in August last year, proved his worth as he scored the first goal for Manchester United.
It was a shot that deflected significantly off of Sanchez, leaving Onana helpless. Ajax fans hoped their side would bounce back from this (they’ve done it before). But after Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored the second goal around 47 minutes in, it became an exceptionally trying task.
Despite Ajax’s loss, the club and their supporters have much to be proud of. The young squad, while unable to overcome the star-studded Man U, showed the world they have the potential to compete with the best.
In Amsterdam, the Museumplein filled quickly with over 100,000 people viewing the UEFA match on big screens. Dutch police had to send out an alert, warning more people from travelling to the capital as the city was packed with Ajax fans and security concerns were abundant.
It must have been a deflated atmosphere when that second goal was scored against Ajax, but despite it all, the ‘Ajacieden‘ dealt with the loss well. Making it to the final was an achievement in itself for the young, promising team and it’s clear the city understood that. Although Museumplein emptied quickly after the final whistle, Amsterdam still held onto an optimistic atmosphere throughout the rest of the night.
Songs and chants echoed through the nation’s capital (and the many busy trains) and the crowds headed home peacefully, leaving little trouble in their wake. Hopefully next time, they can take home more than a runners-up medal as well.
From the side of Manchester, there seems to be hope for next season. With the legendary club claiming a spot in next year’s Champions League, it seems things are looking up for the team who have struggled so mightily these few seasons.
While the young Ajax players have shown their potential and are mostly playing wonderful and exciting football, this also means that players are more likely to leave. Ajax has long been known as a stairway to stardom, producing legends like Cruijff, van Basten, Ibrahimovic, Suarez, Eriksen, Bergkamp, Kluivert, Sneijder, Davids, Litmanen, etc., etc., etc.
Unfortunately it seems that these young talents are leaving the team earlier and earlier, lured away by financial sums that even the nation’s biggest club can’t compete against. It’s leaving Ajax, and the Dutch position in Europe, increasingly more vulnerable and it’s hard not to start wondering about how to reduce the talent drain.
The problem isn’t limited to Ajax. The whole Dutch league has the same issues, it simply can’t afford to compete with the world’s big-leagues like those in England, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Just taking a quick look at the cost difference between Ajax and Manchester should say enough. Man U is estimated at about £628 million, while the Dutch squad is currently valued at around £39 million.
It shouldn’t be surprising. Ajax’s revenues are around £90 million per year… and then there’s the fact that Pogba cost Manchester United a whopping £89 million.
But let’s be honest: the issue of Dutch finances are not the most immediate problem. The biggest problem for Ajax probably lies with the cup’s winners. Even if you’re an Ajax fan (in case you didn’t notice, the authors are), you have to respect the Man United team. How couldn’t you? After all, you can’t deny their success and excellent execution of strategy.
The club has always played good football. Beautiful football. They were exciting to watch, and even if it wasn’t always necessarily attacking football, they played with a conviction and a heart that few others had. They showed confidence and strength, and have long been a club to be respected, maybe even feared.
But watching the the game yesterday, we didn’t feel that respect, and certainly not that fear. Rather, we felt disappointed. To properly explain why that is, let’s take a quick look at the stats.
So let’s break it down a bit. Ajax had 69% possession. That’s crazy. That’s Barcelona levels, and the reason is quite simple. It’s because Manchester executed Mourinho’s strategy perfectly. They scored a goal (as messy and chaotic as it was), and then they locked down completely, attempting little more than kicking the ball back to the middle line every time Ajax attacked.
It became even worse in the second half, but as an indication, this strategy led to a pass accuracy of just 67% in the first half for the English squad as they weren’t actually trying to build up their attack. Of course, the individual talent of Manchester shone through brightly, capitalizing on every half-chance. With just 7 shots, 4 were on target, and 2 were goals. On the other hand, Ajax had 17 shots with just 3 on target.
But truthfully, Peter Bosz said it best, “It was a boring game. There were no chances from both sides.” In case you didn’t watch the match, it’s true, there were no real chances. Despite the high number of shots, there weren’t many dangerous chances. Even the goals were scrappy, with Pogba scoring off an unfortunate deflection and Mkhitaryan netting his from a messy corner kick.
Play may have been effective, but ‘boring’ isn’t Man U. Not by a long shot. We’re not thrilled that it was at the cost of Ajax, we can acknowledge that a team of Manchester’s calibre may well deserve their spot in the Champions League.
But not by playing the way they did last night.
What happened to the exciting, fearsome, self-confident United front? The city once had a club that upheld a tradition of fine, beautiful football. Now Mourinho, hired to save the club from decline, has arguably morphed the legendary association into an fearful and boring squad. Granted, he’s won plenty of trophies, but one of us fears he’s only contributing to the downfall. Of course, other things grate about the clubs’s current manager: here’s another nice reflection of his style.
Alternatively, you could say the results speak for themselves. Man U fans still love their team, and found the game exciting to watch. A fan could say that United were focused and controlled, like troops in an army. Anyway, you can’t rush success and it takes time to win back that zest of days gone by.
In the end though, Ajax simply didn’t have their day and Manchester deserved to win. We just wish it had been with more of that MU flair.