PS: Ajax starts special preparation

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In the series Preseason (PS), Ajax Showtime observes the preparation of Ajax for the 2020/2021 season. In part 1 the preview of the unofficial start of the Amsterdammers.

Despite the very difficult phase after the winter break, Ajax was on course for a new league title. The coronavirus outbreak caused the much-discussed end of the Eredivisie season. Now, four months after the abrupt end of the season, the ball finally starts rolling again. With this preview you are completely ready for the season preparation of Ajax.

Structure of season preparation

Where many Eredivisie clubs choose a longer preparation than usual this summer, Ajax is working towards the new season in a different way. The Amsterdammers have trained in two blocks of several weeks since the Eredivisie was interrupted because of the outbreak of the coronavirus. On July 11, the last training of the second block was planned and on August 1, the third and last training block will start. The players of Ajax had a holiday between the training blocks.

Due to the corona measures, it was forbidden to have physical contact with each other during the first and partial second training block. The Ajax players could therefore not play position or party games during this period, something that fortunately has been allowed again since July 1. At the start of the last training block, actually the real preparation for the new season, the Ajax selection no longer has any corona obstacles on the football field. There is therefore plenty to work towards the start of the new Eredivisie season, which for Ajax starts on Sunday 13 September with the game against Sparta Rotterdam.

In preparation for this official kick-off of the new football season, Ajax plays three exhibition games. On Saturday August 8, the Johan Cruijff ArenA will practice against RKC Waalwijk, after which FC Utrecht will visit Amsterdam on Thursday, August 13. Subsequently, the inspector of trainer Erik ten Hag will stay in the Austrian Bramberg am Wildkogel from August 15 to 22. A training camp will be located here. During this training camp, matches are played against Red Bull Salzburg and an opponent yet to be determined. After returning to Amsterdam until the interland period of early September, Ajax will then train for a full week, after which the Ajax players will have to be ready for the seasonal overture at Het Kasteel against Sparta Rotterdam after the international break.

Antony and Kudus are great eye-catchers

During the season preparation, newcomers Antony and Mohammed Kudus will be the players with the most eyes on them. The attacking left-footers, from Sâo Paulo and FC Nordsjælland respectively, are the biggest Ajax purchases so far this summer. Antony can eventually become the most expensive Ajax player of all time. Thanks to some bonuses, the transfer fee of the Brazilian can reach a maximum of 21.75 million euros. Both Antony and Kudus can manage on both sides, while it should be noted that Kudus could also play more from the midfield. In the first exhibition games of next season, it will become clear what the entry level of the youngsters is and what Ten Hag is planning with the duo.

Returning Stekelenburg and mercenaries

In the shadow of millions of purchases Antony and Kudus, the Ajax selection will also be completed this summer with the return of Maarten Stekelenburg and mercenaries Noa Lang, Sven Botman, Lisandro Magallán and Dennis Johnsen. In the coming season, however, only Stekelenburg and Lang seem to be able to play a role in the main force of Ajax. The transfer from Botman to Lille was announced on Friday and Magallán and Johnsen no longer seem to have a future in Amsterdam. Both players are already certain that they can look forward to a new employer this summer.

The 37-year-old Stekelenburg, who comes over from Everton on a free transfer, is known to have been appointed reserve keeper. If André Onana unexpectedly makes a transfer this summer, Ajax will again enter the market to attract a first goalkeeper. For Lang this preparation will become clear what his chances of playing time at Ajax are. With the departure of Hakim Ziyech to Chelsea, space has been created for a new creative. But the chance that Lang, after a reasonable six months on a rental basis with FC Twente, will compete with David Neres, Antony, Kudus, Quincy Promes and possibly Dusan Tadić in his favor, does not seem too great.

Maarten Stekelenburg will return to Ajax this summer as a reserve goalkeeper.

Are Onana and Tagliafico going to reunite with Ziyech?

So far, of all key players, only Ziyech and Joël Veltman have left Ajax. In addition to the departure of this experienced duo to the Premier League, mercenaries Ryan Babel and Bruno Varela returned to their clubs, Benjamin van Leer left for Sparta Rotterdam and Kik Pierie was loaned to FC Twente. The Tukkers will also take over Danilo Pereira on a rental basis from Ajax.

Chances are that Ajax wants to clean up the selection even more this summer. Magallán is on the nomination to leave and if the perspective of Razvan Marin and Zakaria Labyad does not improve, it is certainly not inconceivable that they will also leave Ajax this summer. These three players, all of middle football age, do not seem to have to count on a serious role in the Ajax main force in the near future and may want to breathe new life into their football careers elsewhere.

This may also be the case for André Onana, Nicolás Tagliafico and Donny van de Beek, the key players around who are currently the most transferring movement. Onana and Tagliafico have been linked to Chelsea several times, while Van de Beek may move to Manchester United. Tagliafico and Van de Beek have the greatest chance of leaving this trio. Tagliafico is almost 28 years old and has agreed with Ajax that he can leave for 25 million euros. Van de Beek has impressed throughout Europe in the past two seasons, particularly in the Champions League.

Midfield puzzle

In addition to the transfer violence, which, despite the corona crisis, is starting to unleash around Ajax, it is interesting this summer to see how Ten Hag wants to organize his midfield. Most positions in the Ajax team are fairly fixed or well occupied, but the midline of the team is still a question mark. Provided he stays, Van de Beek is a certainty, but there are many other options. Lisandro Martínez, in his debut season at Ajax who is usually a controlling midfielder, will be tried by Ten Hag on the left back position and Ziyech has left. This frees up two spots. Despite the fact that Ajax has enough options, given the interest in Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, the Amsterdam club does not seem completely convinced of the possibilities that are available within the current selection.

Still, with Ryan Gravenberch, Carel Eiting and possibly Daley Blind, Martínez, Edson Álvarez or Marin, there are enough options available to organize the Ajax midfield. Perhaps the midfield puzzle with one of them, supplemented by a more attacking player like Kudus, Antony, Promes or Tadić and in combination with Van de Beek during this preparation does come together and an external reinforcement proves unnecessary. During the first exhibition games of this season, Ten Hag will look more into his cards and it will become clear what ideas the Ajax coach has about the interpretation of his midfield.

Neres hooks up later

One point that will undoubtedly give Ten Hag headaches is the injury of David Neres. On November 5, 2019, the Brazilian got injured with his meniscus against Chelsea and the latest news is that he will still have to train individually at the start of the preparation for the new season. Where Neres was already expected to be fit last winter break, it is actually not justifiable that the winger after ‘a backlash’ should now also miss the unofficial start of the new season. After eight months of rehabilitation, the first group training of the new season will come too early for Neres. Whether the winger can still join the group later in the preparation remains to be seen. In any case, it is clear that he suffers from a rare complex meniscus injury.

Possible surprises

Just like every summer, a few talents will take their chance during the preparation. Where last season Sergiño Dest made a strong statement in the preparation, this year this role may be reserved for Jurriën Timber and Kenneth Taylor. Timber was a base player during Ajax’s last game before the Eredivisie was interrupted and kept sc against Heerenveen Edson Álvarez and Perr Schuurs on the bench. If the defender is able to continue this line during the season preparation, he could just follow in the footsteps of his peer, Dest, and he might be the successor of the Veltman who left for Brighton & Hove Albion.

For Taylor, a definitive step to Ajax’s main squad is a little further away, but the strong season that he had in Jong Ajax and the problems that Ajax faces for filling in the midfield could just as easily lead Taylor to preparation will present itself as a serious option for Ajax midfield. The eighteen-year-old has the insight, the technique and the ability to control the Ajax game as a controlling midfielder and accelerate it where necessary. If Taylor is able to do this at the highest level, the step to Ajax 1 may flash faster than expected.

Furthermore, Naci Ünüvar, Sontje Hansen and Brian Brobbey also knock on the door of the Ajax main force from Jong Ajax. However, these three top talents face significantly more competition than Timber in the rear and Taylor in midfield. Nevertheless, it is beyond dispute that Ünüvar, Hansen and Brobbey can join the selection of Ten Hag this summer. The trainer is charmed by the trio and will certainly give the youngsters opportunities in the season preparation.

Thijs Zwagerman (Twitter: @ThijsZwagerman | e-mail: T.Zwa[email protected])


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