Real Madrid’s three years of Champions League dominance was abruptly ended by a European sleeping giant. Ryan Hunn explores Ajax’s victory at the Bernabeu and the influence of Frenkie de Jong, the Barcelona-bound rising star who makes them tick.
In music there often comes a moment in an artist or band’s career where it becomes clear that they have arrived. They will build a reputation for being an incredible live act, and friends will tell you how you have to see them. After a couple of years of small, underground gigs comes the moment when they land on a bill that breaks them to a larger audience, and it’s then that those who followed them since those early shows in a 50-capacity basement will say they told you so.
For Ajax, that moment came at the Bernabéu, where they stole the show to end Real Madrid’s reign as European Champions after an incredible 1,012 days. They impressed in the same way that a breakthrough act would blow away a crowd, before the legacy band took to the stage, playing those same hits they had done for the last twenty years. Fearless, exciting, and fluid but always rhythmic, Ajax are full-on jazz in a world of stadium rock. And at the heart of the ensemble stands the ultimate football jazzer: Frenkie de Jong.
If the stage was, rather oddly, a big one for the four-time European champions, it was a huge one for De Jong. At 21 years old and playing at the Bernabéu for the first time, ahead of a summer move to Camp Nou, the pressure on the bright future of the Barcelona midfield was immense. It would be natural and understandable for a player in such circumstances to freeze under the spotlight, but De Jong did not. His performance was so calm and so assured that it was as if he had already played there a hundred times.
Going up against a midfield featuring a World Cup winner, the current Ballon d’Or holder and the winners of multiple Champions Leagues, De Jong was the best midfielder on the pitch. During five first-half minutes, the Dutchman left VinÍcius Juníor and Luka Modrić on their backsides in what resembled a Kyrie Irving highlight reel. He produced a series of sudden fakes and movements to throw the opposition off balance; yet every drop of the shoulder, swivel, or turn was never unnecessary, never too much, always just enough.
In fact, the match-up with Modrić was one heavy in symbolism. The Croatian has, at times, been described as Cruyffian, but De Jong is possibly the most Cruyffian player there has been since Johan Cruyff himself. For many young fans, he will be the song they’ll love for years before one day finding out it’s actually a cover. And while the similarities are easy to make and very real, De Jong is acutely aware of how heavy such comparisons can be. Speaking in De Telegraaf, he said, "It's nice to hear of course, but I'm really far from Cruyff's level, and I will never be, so I do not have any illusions about that."
However, it’s not just comparisons to a club and national great that show De Jong’s self awareness. After the game in Madrid, he was keen to highlight how much he feels he has to learn. “I played a decent game, but at the end of the game it almost got tricky because of me.” He ended with an almost 91% pass completion rate, winning all his attempted tackles and registering six ball recoveries (via StatsZone). But it was one error that he emphasised, where he gave the ball away late in the game. “I shouldn’t have lost that ball there, but I had cramps in both legs,” he explained. “In a night like this that error luckily wasn’t punished.” After the biggest European night for the club in over 20 years, such comments speak volumes about De Jong the person, as well as the player.
For someone so young and gifted with the ball, what is arguably most impressive about the young Dutchman is what he does without it. He made just 49 passes at the Bernabéu, yet always seemed to be affecting play: pointing, moving, helping those around him. Being so in tune with when to take over is akin to a seasoned jazz band leader, who only plays when they need to and who let their bandmates shine, despite possessing the ability to casually deliver solos worthy of standing ovations.
Quite how far this Ajax will go remains to be seen but, in a sense, that isn’t really the point. The results of Cruyff’s overhaul almost a decade ago are only now starting to be seen, rebooting the identity that made the club so loved when they won three European Cups in a row in the early 1970s. De Jong will move on, and possibly more too, but this Ajax have once again brought fresh energy to the biggest stage. And wherever Cruyff may be, you know he will be smiling.