Some Advice: Jump on the Ajax Bandwagon Before It's Too Late

Remember three years ago? This team might be even better

Three years ago, Ajax weren’t even favorites to win the Eredivisie. Seven games into the domestic season, they already trailed PSV Eindhoven by five points -- most of which came from a 3-0 beatdown at the Philips Stadion. With a team that included the likes of soon-to-be Napoli’s Hirving Lozano, Tottenham’s Steve Bergwijn, Inter Milan’s Denzel Dumfries, RB Leipzig’s Angelino, and Borussia Dortmund’s Donyell Malen, Mark Van Bommel had PSV flying in his first season as a professional manager. Although Ajax dominated possession in the match, PSV ran them off the field on the counter, scoring three goals in the first half and turning 14 shots into eight on target thanks to all the space they created behind the Ajax back line.

Although Ajax had made a memorable run to the 2017 Europa League final -- only to lose to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United -- this match seemed to confirm that PSV once again ruled the birthplace of Total Football. They’d won three of the previous four league titles, and with a five-point lead just seven games into the 2018-19 season, it seemed like they’d make it four in five. As of October 3, 2018, FiveThirtyEight’s projection model gave PSV a 61-percent chance of winning the Eredivisie.

You probably remember what happened next. Ajax did the thing that no one’s supposed to be able to do anymore: took a bunch of kids, played fast-paced possession soccer, dominated bigger and richer clubs, and made it to within a minute of the Champions League final. Back home, they won 24 of their final 27 games to finish top of the league with 86 points and an absurd plus-87 goal differential from 34 matches.

We loved them because they were new, because of the history, because they were babies, because they never stopped attacking. They scored 119 goals in the Eredivisie -- a cool 3.5 per game, or 13 more than they’ve scored in any season this century. We also loved them because we knew it wouldn’t last. That summer, Ajax sold midfielder Frenkie De Jong to Barcelona and center back Matthijs De Ligt to Juventus, both for about $94 million, more than double the club’s previous record for a sale. A year later, Hakim Ziyech went off to Chelsea for $44 million and Donnie Van De Beek for around the same to Manchester United. A bunch of teams that weren’t as good as Ajax but had a lot more money than Ajax bought all of Ajax’s best players. Fun while it lasted, fellas; that’s just how the game works.

Except, here’s the thing. This year’s Ajax? They might not only be just as good as the now-legendary 2018-19 team; no, they might be even better.

We’ll just start here. FiveThirtyEight has a model that predicts soccer games, team strength, league quality, all that good stuff. Check out the details on the methodology here, but the gist is that every time a team plays a game, its rating is adjusted based on the final score (with garbage time and man-up goals removed), the expected-goal tallies for each side, and the non-shot xG tallies (“estimate of how many goals a team ‘should’ have scored based on non-shooting actions they took around the opposing team’s goal: passes, interceptions, take-ons and tackle”), and the opponent in the match. At the start of the season, 67 percent of a team’s rating is based on their rating at the end of the previous season, and 33 percent is based on the implied market value of the roster based on the estimates from Transfermarkt. From there, the rating gets adjusted with all of the information already outlined, and the the start-of-season priors begin to fade into the past. And so, this model knows that Ajax only has the 17th-most valuable roster among the Champions League’s 32 group-stage participants, and it knows that Ajax plays in a comparatively weaker domestic league against weaker competition.

And yet, this model thinks that Ajax are currently the ... third-best team in the world.

Do I buy that? Do I buy that Ajax are better than Liverpool and Chelsea? No, not quite. But that’s not really the point. The exact ranking isn’t really important; what’s important is that there’s a pretty strong signal that Ajax are one of the best teams in the world. Not convinced by an xG-based algorithm? Even the club Elo ratings -- which are purely determined by a team’s results and the quality of the opponents those results come again -- still have Ajax ranked 13th. 

Why, then, do both ratings systems like Ajax so much? To use a technical term: they’ve been absolutely fucking destroying everyone in their path. To start, last season they actually won more points in the league than they did in 18-19: 88, the second-most in Eredivisie history. The only teams to win more were the Ajax sides of 71-72 and 72-73, i.e. arguably the greatest team in the history of European soccer, the one that only, you know, completely revolutionized the way people played and thought about the sport. Those were Johan Cruyff’s last two years with the club; they won the Champions League in 73 and 72 and 71. The only other Ajax team to reach 88 points? The 1994-95 team that also won the Champions League.

Through seven games this season, they’ve won six and drawn one. Including van Bommel’s PSV, only 10 teams have started an Eredivisie season with 21 points from seven games. Ajax only have 19 from seven this year, but they’ve scored 30 goals and allowed one. Only the 97-98 Ajax team (plus-32) had a higher goal differential -- a better predictor of future points than ... points -- than this year’s squad, and the third-best goal-differential through seven games (plus-24) was last year’s squad.

Given how these numbers compare to some of the truly great Ajax teams, it seems unlikely that most other clubs in the world could just be dropped into the Eredivisie and improve on the team’s performances. That is, unless you think Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United is better than Cruyff’s Ajax. On top of that, Ajax have mostly been really good whenever they’ve played a team from another league over the past year plus. Last season, they played a pair of matches against each of Liverpool, FC Midtjylland, Atalanta, Lille, Young Boys, and Roma across the Champions and Europa Leagues. Across those 12 games, per FBref, they created 23.7 xG and conceded 12.1. On a per-game basis, that’s an xG differential of plus-0.97; only six teams across the Big Five Leagues produced better numbers in their leagues last season. And then there’s this season: only one match, against the defending champs of the Portuguese league, the sixth-strongest competition on the continent per UEFA’s coefficient rankings. 

The game was in Portugal, and no, there were no red cards:

So, basically, what you’re left with is a team that’s winning games and scoring and suppressing goals in the Eredivisie at the same rate as all of the Ajax teams that eventually won the Champions League. And while they haven’t matched up with any of Europe’s elite this calendar year, they’ve dominated just about everyone they’ve played from a “bigger” league, even if those results didn’t always go their way.

They have the same coach, Erik Ten Hag, who led them to the semifinals last time, and they’ve still got their best player, Dusan Tadic, from that run. Daley Blind is still pinging balls out from the back, and they’ve added Sebastien Haller up top. That might sound silly to Premier League fans, but he was fantastic for Frankfurt before he got to West Ham, and he’s been unstoppable for Ajax ever since he left West Ham. Just ask Sporting. Everton reject Davy Klassen is there, too. They’ve built out their base with players who left dysfunctional situations at richer teams for reasons only vaguely connected to their own performances.

Much like in 18-19, Ajax have a great coach and a core of talented vets discarded by Premier League clubs, surrounded by a bunch of kids either produced by one of the best academies in the world or identified and acquired at a young age. This time it’s 21-year-old Brazilian winger Antony and rangy 19-year-old midfielder Ryan Gravenberch, among others, who might already be good enough to play for one of the biggest clubs in the world. Although some of the names aren’t as high profile this time around, the biggest difference between that team and this team is that, as of late September, this version is already a lot better than the one that shocked the world.