The Ajax Connection: Tottenham’s Secret to Potential Success

Ajax’s renowned De Toekomst youth academy has historically produced an abundance of world-class talent. Despite this, the Amsterdam club has become increasingly unable to hold on to its greatest assets in recent years. Although many clubs have been beneficiaries of Ajax’s fine youth system, perhaps no club in recent years has exploited their Academy graduates more so than Tottenham.

Tottenham’s Ajax connection can be traced back to transfer deadline day in August 2005, when Edgar Davids was signed on a free transfer from Inter Milan. Although ‘The Pitbull’ had not been signed directly from Ajax, he had graduated from the academy and enjoyed five successful years in the first-team.

Davids’ time at Ajax culminated in their famous Champions League victory in 1995. Following this, Davids forged a strong career at Juventus under Marcelo Lippi who once referred to him as “my one-man engine room”. Tottenham perhaps did not see the best of an ageing Pitbull and his famous goggles during 40 league appearances over two seasons. Even so, his energetic and combative performances were the driving force behind Spurs’ pursuit of Champions League football under Martin Jol. Had it not been for the notorious ‘lasagne-gate’ incident, Spurs and their super-stretchy shirts might just have made it.

Tottenham would have to wait a couple of years before investing in another Ajax talent, with a further deadline day acquisition in August 2010; this time, Rafael van der Vaart. Once more, Spurs had not acquired the player directly from Ajax, but would still reap the rewards of Rafa’s superior football education.

After a disappointing spell at Real Madrid, van der Vaart became an instant success at Tottenham, adding flair and class to Harry Redknapp’s side and combining surprisingly well with Peter Crouch. VdV became a cult hero amongst Spurs fans, mostly due to his passionate, goalscoring displays in North London derbies. van der Vaart recently described leaving Tottenham in 2012 as his biggest regret in football.

The new signing

Fast forward five years and a stronger Tottenham side now features a core of three Ajax Academy graduates alongside new signing, Davinson Sanchez. The Colombian Sanchez moved to Ajax from Athlétic National in 2016 and, therefore, is not an Academy graduate. Nevertheless, the young centre-back certainly benefitted from his experience during the 2016/17 season in which a typically youthful Ajax side reached the Europa League Final. The hefty fee for a relatively untested centre-back has raised some eyebrows, but Ajax are yet to fail Tottenham. And furthermore, what can really be considered a ‘hefty’ fee in football these days?

Title challengers?

Spurs’ recent (somewhat unsuccessful) title challenges owe much to Daniel Levy’s shrewd business with Ajax. Indeed, two former Ajax stars have provided the strong defensive basis for Tottenham to challenge over the last two seasons. Jan Vertonghen, who signed from Ajax in the summer of 2012, was later joined by Belgium counterpart Toby Alderweireld in 2015. The two have gone on to form perhaps the most formidable centre-back partnership in the Premier League currently. Sanchez’s arrival may now signal the completion of Tottenham’s conversion to a back three, and an entirely Ajax-bred backline.

Perhaps of equal significance was the signing of Christian Eriksen from Ajax in 2013 for what now seems an absolute steal at a fee of around £11.5million. As a part of Tottenham’s ludicrous ‘Bale money’ signings, Eriksen can be the only player within that group considered a true success at Spurs, with Erik Lamela’s somewhat bizarre disappearance preventing his plaudits.

Eriksen has slowly developed into one of the Premier League’s strongest playmakers, contributing eight goals and 15 assists in the league last season. The Dane’s high football IQ and nonchalant style has combined well with Dele Alli and Harry Kane and could set the Premier League alight this season despite a slow start.

Policy change

Although the impact of Davids and van der Vaart at Tottenham should be acknowledged, their more recent rummages into Ajax territory must be considered a change in policy. Spurs are now acquiring these players prior to or as they approach their prime. Jan, Toby, and Eriksen were 25, 26 and 21 respectively when they joined Tottenham; Davinson Sanchez also just 21. Contrastingly, Davids and van der Vaart were 32 and 27 and both viewed as injury-prone. Tottenham’s adoption of a policy to invest in young talents has enabled them to acquire players at their peak athletic potential and with room for technical improvement. No longer looking for a ‘quick-fix’ but rather building for the future.

But why would Ajax, in particular, be such fertile territory for Daniel Levy? Both Tottenham and Ajax fans alike have typically used their clubs Jewish heritages as a statement of identity. However, it is doubtful that this would have any impact upon club policy. Rather it seems more simple. Tottenham are financially incapable of spending hundreds of millions on superstars, unlike the Manchester City’s and PSGs of this world.

Instead, Ajax provides a reliable port-of-call for cheaper talents who have absorbed the football education to enable them to develop into top players. More importantly, Ajax can no longer be considered a European powerhouse and do not have the financial strength or appeal to hold onto to their greatest players. Regardless, it would be of no surprise to see Spurs looking towards Amsterdam again in the following windows. After all, De Toekomst translates to the word ‘future’, which is quite applicable, perhaps more so for Tottenham than Ajax.