#IBWM100 on Football Manager – Season Four with Ajax

F.C. København and Denmark full-back Ludwig Augustinsson

The first three instalments of this story have been well received; and I’m always keen to do everything I can to continue the happiness of others. We’re back for a fourth season and ideally one that will see Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax being competitive in Europe, rather than finishing bottom of their Champions League group.

If you have not read the first three parts of this story, then I would suggest you head in that direction first. It’ll make it easier for you to understand how I have ended up with such a changed squad in the space of three years. They can be found here – 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18.

We have now reached season four – 2018/19 – and my #IBWM100 heavy squad has just won their second Eredivisie title. Unfortunately the poor performances of Dutch sides across the continental competitions in the last couple of seasons means that we will need to navigate two qualifying rounds to reach the group stages. That’ll make pre-season more important and more intense than I would prefer; but not much I can do about it now.

As planning started for 2018/19, the fruits of the youth development labour I instigated in 2015 looked to ripening nicely. When I joined Ajax I decided to give my Head of Youth Development Wim Jonk and Director of Football Marc Overmars free reign over who they brought into the youth team – both in terms of teenage signings and youth intakes.

Overmars actually departed the club during my second season, as he got a little too big for his boots and requested a weekly wage well above what the budget allowed. He was replaced by Martyn Glover – who has recently left Leeds for Sunderland – a superior option to the former Dutch international in terms of fulfilling the role. I counteracted the loss of an Ajax legend from the back-room team by hiring Rafael van der Vaart as an Under 19s coach.

All I asked of Jonk and Glover was that they tried to secure young players capable of progressing into the first-team squad, and it was a philosophy that I made sure the board were keen on as well. I retained the right to approve all moves, to ensure they were all players that I could envisage slotting into our usual 4-2-3-1 formation but the job of finding teenage prospects belonged to them.

In the first three seasons there hadn’t been many new youth signings to shout about. The only players to seriously break into the squad were already part of the club when I joined and the others had featured in games when all I was interested in was resting those ahead of them in the pecking order. During 2017/18 – the third season – Moises Navarro, a versatile forward signed from Heerenveen, and Lassana Faye, a left-back pinched off PSV Eindhoven, both played a handful of matches and showed initial signs that they will eventually be regulars in the first team panel.

However things were different as I “talked” to each of my coaches ahead of 2018/19. As I “asked” all of them to name their Best XI within our squad, a new name popped up as the starting left winger in almost every selection. Having agreed in the January of the previous season to bring in a wing-back from Cercle Brugge on a free transfer, I’d okayed the move for Van Van Tung as he appeared to be bursting at the seams with potential. I’d assumed he could spend his first two years at Ajax becoming a natural at full-back (wing-back, midfielder and attacking midfielder were his natural roles).

Within two months of joining, he was not only considered to be worthy of a place in the senior squad but every one of my coaches were telling me to play him regularly. I gave Van Van Tung his first start in the Dutch Super Cup against Zinedine Zidane’s Heerenveen and in the 22nd minute, he recorded his first assist in an Ajax shirt – whipping the ball in for Lucas Anderson to open the scoring. We won the Super Cup 3-1 with our own loanee Matt Quinn netting Heerenveen’s consolation. I’ve already considered that Van Van Tung – #V2T – may go on to have a career that potentially emulates Ivica Strok.

Celtic and Scotland full-back Kieran Tierney

Given the rules I am playing too – signing only #IBWM100 players – I am yet to use all of my transfer budget in a single season, and with the club comfortably making money I have encouraged the board to spend the surplus on the youth facilities, on more coaches and on affiliate teams to bring through youth players. During 2017/18 there were more than 50 players that had contracts with Ajax, who spent the season out on loan. Five of them may eventually be good enough for my first team squad; but as long we can make some money on the rest, the whole process should just about pay for itself.

Unsurprisingly Jonny was the subject of much transfer speculation, and we eventually agreed to let him join Real Madrid for £20 million. Mitchell Dijks actually beat the Spaniard out the door (headed to Stade Rennais for £1.5 million) and at one point, I faced the prospect of having no left-backs in the squad as Lassana Faye had already moved away on loan to PSV. As Jonny mulled over his move to Real Madrid, I used the time to sign three #IBWM100 full-backs.

Ludwig Augustinsson, a very solid full-back for F.C. København who is attracting interest from Serie A and the Premier League, joined for £9 million from Napoli via West Ham and highly rated teenage left-back Kieran Tierney joined on loan from Celtic (purely as back-up as he hasn’t quite kicked on in this universe) to sort out the left side of defence. Kevin Diks, an exciting right-back doing very good things with Vitesse, was drafted in to add competition at right-back.

Centre-back Duje Caleta–Car joined on a free transfer under the assumption he’d rotate in and out of the side as required and possibly replace Almany Toure (who didn’t leave), and he was joined by Leon Bailey on deadline day. Both Davy Klaassen (£17 million to Wolfsburg) and Srdjan Plavsic (£5 million to Levante) agreed moves away on the final day of the summer window and I responded by bringing in Bailey for £10 million to feature across the front-line.

2018/19 kicked off with 16 members of the #IBWM100 in the first team squad, and another three out on loan.

Either side of the Dutch Super Cup win, we squeaked past IF Elfsborg on away goals (1-2 in the away leg and then 0-1 at home). That set-up two clashes with Sparta Prague for the right to play in the Champions League Group Stages. Having started the league season with one win and three draws, and drawing the first leg 1-1 at the Amsterdam ArenA I didn’t fancy our chances in the away leg.

I set the team to be well-disciplined, retain their shape and then break forward at speed. It worked and our season was kicked started with a 3-0 victory that sent us into the group stages and was followed by fives win in our next six league games. More importantly I seemed to have finally figured out to set out the team for away games in Europe.

Our reward for winning two qualifying ties? Barcelona, Benfica and HNK Rijeka in Group E. I felt reasonably confident of getting the better of the Croatian champions and therefore, focused on gunning for third place.

FC Red Bull Salzburg and Croatia defender Duje Caleta–Car

In amongst a winning run in the league, our first group game took us to the Nou Camp. We went with the same disciplined, counter-attacking system as the Sparta Prague game and it worked a treat. Gianluigi Donnarumma had a storming game and we walked away with all three points; 0-1 thank you very much.

That was followed up with a dramatic 3-2 home win over Rijeka – all thanks to Hector Villalba and his 92nd minute hat-trick goal – and suddenly the objectives were very different. Third place would no longer cut it for me, even if the board were still pleased that I’d reached the group.

The league form suffered as I tried to focus on the Champions League – resting key players or substituting them off when games weren’t entirely killed off – but it felt worth it when we went 0-2 up away at Benfica inside five minutes. They battled back for a deserved 2-2 draw but when it was followed up with another sharing of the points in the return match, I allowed myself to glance at the other groups to weigh who we might just face in the last 16.

Our fifth match saw Barcelona arrive in Amsterdam desperate to avenge their alleged wrongs of our first meeting. All we needed to qualify was a draw, but instead they grabbed a 0-1 win in the 93rd minute through Luis Suarez. That left the group finely poised with Benfica on 9 pts and Ajax locked with Barcelona on 8. Pleasingly they had to face each other in the final match while we were away to Rijeka. Richairo Zivkovic stepped up and netted twice in the final 30 minutes to secure a 0-2 victory, and help us to top spot in the group. Benfica had two men sent off in their final group game but somehow held on to a 1-1 draw and second place in the group. Barcelona fell into the Europa League.

We finished the year with three wins in four league matches but were dumped out of the Dutch Cup by VVV. As everyone headed off on their Christmas holidays, we were in fourth place in the Eredivisie (only six points away from leaders PSV despite some stuttering on our part). More importantly, we’d remained in European competition and been drawn against AS Monaco in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Vitesse and Netherlands full-back Kevin Diks

As the New Year dawned; I got the team together for a squad meeting and tried to convince them that we could comfortably win the title. They agreed and we put together a stunning run of form in the league that clawed back points from PSV on a near weekly basis. Having been to Monaco and drawn 2-2 in the first leg thanks to a hugely spirited fight-back in the second half, I tried to keep the players relaxed for the return match at home. Even though I figured we had the players to beat Monaco, no-one had pegged us as anything close to favourites so I didn’t want any undue pressure.

Zivkovic scored in the second minute and then Kristoffer Ajer wrapped up the tie in the 62 minute to send us rather unbelievably into the quarter finals. In the same month a 2-1 win over PSV sent us top of the league by a point and wins over FC Groningen, Feyenoord, AZ and Vitesse helped us stretch out a five point gap.

The first leg of the quarter final went as I expected it might. We matched Manchester United for chances, had more efforts on target but couldn’t find a way through. Juan Mata scored the only goal of the game – smashing in the rebound after Donnarumma had stopped his penalty – and when Anthony Martial scored twice in the second leg; I let the team loose. Sensing no shame in going out in the quarter finals with a team not expected to get out of their group, I told the team to go for it and at least try to find a way past David De Gea.

That’s when things got really weird.

Leon Bailey arrived at the back post to nod in Daley Sinkgraven’s cross in the 71st minute and his effort was followed in four minutes later by Luka Jovic glancing in Ricardo van Rhijn’s early cross. Suddenly we were no longer playing for pride. We were only an away goal from the semi-finals and United appeared to panic. They didn’t know whether to look for another goal or try to cling on. They did neither and simply left gaps for us to exploit. With 86 minutes on the clock, Sebastian Driussi slipped between the full-back and Aleksandar Dragovic and poked home our third goal of the night.

I lost my shit.

Seriously. There was screaming.

Argentina and River Plate midfielder Sebastian Driussi

Then the first leg of the semi-final happened and I had to pinch myself (once I’d save the game to ensure I didn’t lose it). To beat Bayern 3-0 at home was simply stunning and I gave all of the credit to our defence as I danced around post-match. By this stage I imagined myself just walking into the post-match press conference and shrugging at the journalists as they asked me to explain things.

Ahead of the second leg, I started to believe that we might have done enough to reach the final – even though FC Bayern were far superior to us in every department. The Eredivisie had been sewn up weeks ago and I’d started to again favour the Champions League with my team selections. Unfortunately we were awful in the second leg and allowed Bayern to come at us. Thankfully, we weren’t that awful and Luka Jovic’s away goal was just enough to get us into the Champions League Final against Paris Saint-Germain with a 4-3 aggregate win.

The second leg of the semi-final was actually played after the end of the Eredivisie season so I had to organise two friendlies (against Jong Ajax and NAC Breda of the Jupiler League) to keep the team match-fit.

The entire top three in the Eredivisie Young Player of the Year award were Ajax players – Van Van Tung was named the winner ahead of Kristoffer Ajer and Leon Bailey. Weirdly we were completely shunned when the top three for the Golden Boot were announced, although Richairo Zivkovic claimed the Top Goalscorer award thanks to his haul of 20. I was named the Manager’s Manager of the Year.

As the Champions League final approached – also my 200th game in charge – I made sure to keep the players relaxed with all of my answers in the press conferences. I heaped pressure on PSG and made it clear that I saw us as the rank outsiders, just happy to be there.

The opening minutes were tense with neither side wanting to lose the match before it had properly got going. We kept PSG at arm’s length, restricted their chances to shots from distance and made a series of fouls to break their rhythm. All we needed was one of our front four to do something magical at the other end.

Step forward – Van Van Tung.

The Belgian winger, with Vietnamese heritage, scored the opening two goals and then set up the third as we eased to a 3-0 victory. You can watch the goals here. The team picked up five yellow cards, which I didn’t mind at all and were dogged in their defence as we closed out the game. #V2T was rightfully named the man of the match and club captain Ricardo van Rhijn had the pleasure of lifting the Champions League trophy high above his head.

Mission completed.

The End.

Netherlands full-back and Ajax club captain Ricardo van Rhijn

Kristoffer Ajer 41(6) appearances, 9 goals, 7 assists, 6 player of the match, 7 yellow cards, 7.68 average rating

When Davy Klaaseen departed for Wolfsburg, Ricardo van Rhijn was promoted to club captain and Kristoffer Ajer assumed the role as his assistant. He also took over the penalty taking duties for the team, and has gone on to have a sterling season – chipping in with goals and assists. His consistency is a huge benefit to the team as I know he can be relied on to perform. Van Rhijn’s abilities aren’t what they used to be and towards the end of the season, he was handed the armband more and more. That will only increase.

Goran Karačić 30 apps, 50 goals conceded, 7 clean sheets, 6.74 avg (on loan at VVV)

After a couple of barren seasons, things picked up during season four for Goran. He went out on loan to VVV in the Eredivisie and was a regular performer. He was part of the team that knocked us out of the Dutch Cup, and his performances in the league were good. He did manage to score an own goal against us when we faced them in the league so at least he did us a favour there. He was rewarded at the end of the season with a new contract although given that we’ve just signed a very exciting Paraguayan newgen, he’ll spend his time out on loan again.

Bartłomiej Drągowski 6 apps, 4 gls con, 4 cln shts, 6.90 avg

With Champions League success as my ultimate priority I decided to forego the previous plan of rotating goalkeepers in and out. Then the Champions League kept going and there was never a suitable time to give Dragowski a prolonged run in the team. He did a more than decent job during the games that he played but I feel bad that the majority of his game time came for Jong Ajax. Pleasingly Barcelona and Bartlomiej agreed to extend the loan for another year just before the Champions League.

Almamy Touré 18(5) apps, 2 gls, 2 assts, 4 yellows, 1 red card, 7.19 avg

Almamy Toure deserves better than his current role in the Ajax squad, and I feel bad that he has spent so long being a squad player. Ultimately he’s not good enough to be a regular in the first-team and I won’t begrudge him a move when someone arrives with an offer than matches the £5 million we forked out for him initially. Kevin Diks’ arrival as back-up full-back meant he had to wait for his chances in the centre of defence.

Héctor Villalba 23(13) apps, 16 gls, 5 assts, 3 pom, 1 yellow, 7.52 avg

The biggest headache I have before almost every game is who to play in the right-wing position. Héctor Villalba – despite not being being the “best” player for the position – refused to give it up to either of the two recent signings; and just continues to score goals. He’s a direct player and the perfect foil to the creative skills of Van Van Tung and Sebastián Driussi. 16 goals and another five assists is a more than decent return.

Andreas Christensen 42 apps, 1 gl, 1 asst, 7 yellows, 1 red, 7.13 avg

Has been worth every penny of the club record fee that we dished out for him a couple of years ago. Andreas is a solid, dependable defensive rock upon which the rest of the team can be built. He should really have a host of Germany caps to his name, except that their national team manager refuses to select actual footballers and just plums for their football super soliders that show up for international games. Let’s not mention the red card against Barcelona.

Julian Weigl 35(5) apps, 1 asst, 1 pom, 12 yellows, 7.13 avg

It was mentioned last season that Julian Weigl is the only midfielder in my system that has to do a disciplined role. Last season he ended up getting off three times. This year he wasn’t dismissed once. I’ll claim that as progress. He and Ajer are a near-perfect double pivot in the midfield, and so much of our good work filters through them. Weigl had another dependable season. He wins the ball and sets attacks in motion; exactly as I need.

Sebastián Driussi 43(3) apps, 19 gls, 14 assts, 7 pom, 2 yellows, 7.70 avg

He scored the all-important goal in the Champions League quarter-final. That’s enough for me to call his season a success.

Add in involvement in 33 goals in 47 appearances, an ability to pull the strings for the entire team and a place in the Champions League Team of the Season then it’s close to something special. Driussi is a fantastic footballer and it is a pleasure to have him at the club.

Jonathan Tah 46(1) apps, 1 gl, 2 assts, 9 yellows, 7.27 avg

Despite an awkward first few months at the club when he was on loan from Leverkusen, Jonathan Tah has grown to become the best defender at the club. It also helps that he is not afraid to move forward with the ball out of defence. The biggest compliment I can pay to Andreas or Jonathan is that I never worried about who my pairing would be ahead of any of the big games – it was always going to be them (when available).

Gianluigi Donnarumma 48 apps, 50 gls con, 14 cln shts, 2 pom, 6.97 avg

Gianluigi cemented himself as the number one at the club with a series of consistent performances. He retained his level throughout the season and there was never a suggestion to drop him, other than to give Bartlomiej some minutes. Our attacking style right to the end of some games left him more exposed than was really necessary; but the clean sheets he did keep – like the one against Barcelona – were vital. He thoroughly deserved the Italy call-up he received in the wake of the European Cup win.

Phakamani Mahlambi 9(11) apps, 3 gls, 2 assts, 6.93 avg (on loan at NEC)

Phakamani headed out on loan for another year but didn’t have the same impact that he did during 2017/18. Five goals from 20 appearances is decent; but it’s not enough to get him a chance in this Ajax squad. He is a perfectly good Eredivisie midfielder but my current squad is now way above “perfectly good”. It’s time for him and us to start thinking about moving on.

Luka Jovic 20(18) apps, 15 gls, 4 pom, 1 yellow, 7.11 avg

Richairo Zivkovic missed nearly 20th of the season through injury. As such Luka Jovic was the focal point of the team during some important parts of the campaign and he did a terrific job. He scored 15 goals in all competitions, with six of those coming in the Champions League. He scored the goals that got us into the group stages and was able to produce the battling performances that were required in the knock-out stages. He proved himself to be an excellent forward.

Federico Bernardeschi 13(9) apps, 2 gls, 3 assts, 1 pom, 6.98 avg

Leon Bailey, Hector Villalba and Federico Bernardeschi can all play the same position. Unfortunately for Federico, he is probably third in the pecking order. As it is, he just hasn’t kicked on and been able to fulfill his potential. The few goals that he was involved in do stick in the mind but he’s under pressure to deliver – and so far hasn’t been able to do so.

Duje Caleta–Car 8 apps, 2 assts, 1 yellow, 7.26 avg

Signed on a free transfer, Duje was a regular for Jong Ajax through the season as he had to slot in behind Tah, Christensen and Toure for two centre-backs spot in the first team. He did well when he was drafted in to play and will take on Almamy’s job as third defender should the Malian leave the club.

Bartosz Kapustka 33 apps, 6 gls, 2 assts, 1 pom, 1 yellow, 7.26 avg (on loan at Utrecht)

Arrived on a free transfer and then immediately went out on loan to Utrecht. He had a decent season in the Eredivisie and finished with a commendable 7.26 average rating. He won’t ever be good enough to play any of the three midfielders positions that he might be capable of; so another loan is highly likely.

Ludwig Augustinsson 40(4) apps, 9 assts, 2 pom, 3 yellows, 7.30 avg

Aware that I would lose Jonny towards the end of last season, I already knew Ludwig was the full-back that I wanted to replace him. The Danish international is an excellent defender and made the transition from the Spaniard surprisingly easy. He was justifiably named in the Champions League Team of the Season.

Kieran Tierney 1(2) apps, 1 assts, 7.50 avg

Kieran was signed on loan in a little bit of a panic and was never going to be a regular in the team. I actually think his two sub appearances came on the left wing so he was only needed once at left-back. He plugged a hole when I needed him and I can’t say fairer than that. He went back to Celtic in January and spent the rest of the year with Kilmarnock; bit of a change.

Kevin Diks 14(6) app, 3 assts, 5 yellow, 7.38 avg

Ricardo van Rhijn will turn 28 during the summer between 2018/19 and 2019/20 and he is no longer the all-action full-back that he used to be. Kevin Diks may just get the chance to make the right-back spot all his own. He played 20 times during his debut season, rarely put a foot wrong and improved as a player. Excellent.

Leon Bailey 21(12) apps, 12 gls, 8 assts, 1 pom, 1 yellow, 7.37 avg

Something of a snap signing in the face of Klaassen departing, Bailey took a little while to get going but eventually got there. 12 goals and eight assists from approximately 25 full 90s of football – a very good rate of production. It also shouldn’t be forgotten that he set the ball rolling during THAT comeback against Manchester United with his smart finish.

One comment

  • February 11, 2016 - 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Do you have a link to the database you used (if it is a custom one) and also do you have a shortlist with the 100 (98) already in it?

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