Off the Crossbar: A changing of the guard

The Champions League treated soccer fans with a host of captivating fixtures last week: Porto and Manchester United overcame 2–0 first leg deficits to advance to the quarterfinals, while Dutch side Ajax defeated Spanish giants Real Madrid 4–1 to overcome a first leg defeat and send the three-time defending champions crashing out of the competition. Despite an obvious gulf in experience and reputation, Ajax thoroughly outclassed Madrid and deserved the victory.

On paper, the match should never have been close — according to Ajax’s director of football Marc Overmars, the Dutch side’s wage bill for their first, second and youth teams is equal to the annual wage of Real Madrid’s star Gareth Bale. It was a fascinating battle between two historic clubs with diametrically opposed philosophies, and perhaps signaled the end of an era in the European game.

On one side you have Ajax Amsterdam, a club renowned for its commitment to youth players and playing the game the ‘right’ way. The club’s philosophy of playing possession-based, attacking soccer is ingrained in the players’ heads from the moment they join the team, regardless of age. Star midfielder Frenkie de Jong is perfect example. The 21-year old is just as comfortable taking on players in the opposition’s final third as he is making last-ditch tackles in his own defensive third. Club captain Matthijs de Ligt is just 19 but has been at the club since he was about 8 years old — a symbol of Ajax’s belief in its youth.

On the other side, you have Real Madrid, one of the most powerful clubs in the world, with a roster full of superstars. With a shaky-at-best La Liga campaign this year, Madrid was looking to their favorite competition for redemption. Club President Florentino Perez is famous for his transfer strategy of spending exorbitant sums of money for so-called “Galacticos” — players who command respect both on and off the field.

While Madrid obviously had to cope with the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo this past summer, the rest of the Spanish side has remained relatively unchanged. But after years of success, the game has finally passed this group by. De Jong and his midfield partners ran circles around Madrid’s central trio of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro is group that in past years has outclassed almost every other midfield they came up against.

There is a new wave of young players emerging in the European game today, most notably led by French sensation Kylian Mbappé. This generation grew up watching Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona teams dissect opponents with their tiki-taka style of play, and, like the Frenchman, almost all of them are athletic and comfortable on the ball.

Ajax’s win signaled a change of the guard in modern soccer. With stars like Messi and Ronaldo approaching the end of their careers, the time is now ripe for the next generation of players like Mbappé and De Jong to make a name for themselves on the global stage.