Bayern Munich and AFC Ajax. Two clubs that are so far apart yet so inextricably linked. Through history, through footballing philosophy, and through personnel. Today, three of the defenders that started in Ajax’s iconic 2018/19 squad are currently part of the Bayern Munich squad, as is then 16-year-old upstart Ryan Gravenberch. Funnily enough, Bayern have only ever bought two players from Ajax before, although a few of Ajax’s alumni have stopped off elsewhere before winding up in Munich (such as Matthijs de Ligt who took a short three-year detour in Italy before ending up where we all felt he belonged).
But what exactly is it that attracts these two clubs together? Surely there must be some sort of binding force, subconscious or conscious.
While Ajax have in recent years steered away from it, it is well recorded that the club imaged itself as a club with Jewish roots. Amsterdam has always been historically perceived as a secular city, and Ajax’s stadium is located right next to a notably Jewish neighbourhood. This was first noticed during the 1930s and the club ran with it, making the Jewish roots a central part of the club’s fan culture until the anti-Semitic chants and taunts eventually caused the club to pivot away.
Contrary to the memes on Twitter, Bayern were not in favour of the Nazi party in any way, shape or form, rather they were founded by two Jews. It faced many taunts of being a club owned and run by Jews during the 1930s and 1940s when anti-Semitic sentiments ran rampant in Germany, however these sentiments have (obviously) become an artifact of the past, and Bayern themselves have also left this identity in the past.
While both clubs have left their Jewish identities behind, there is something rather poetic about it.
Football teams play differently.
Stunning revelation, I know.
Bayern Munich and Ajax are unique in this regard however. They aren’t the only clubs to do it for sure, but they consistently have groups of players and coaches that combine industrious function with gorgeous form and style. While under Hansi Flick Bayern became more machine than soul, it has since regained that free form under Julian Nagelsmann, and almost every iconic Bayern team before then has had a soul at its heart. Ajax too have always been lined with individual talents and free flowing football. Their most famous player, Johan Cruyff, is famous not only for his playing career but for his invention of ‘total football’. This philosophy of free-flowing football has percolated throughout the generations, penetrating even the modern generations of Ajax’s players. Similarly, Bayern players are often lauded for their versatility and adaptability, often switching positions mid-game. Some of Bayern’s best players in recent years have all had to adapt to a new position in the midst of their careers (Leroy Sané, Joshua Kimmich multiple times, Alphonso Davies, Philipp Lahm, Thomas Müller, Rafinha, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and so many more). Both clubs desire players capable of playing in more than one place, and that adaptability is not readily available everywhere.
On top of all of this, Bayern require a certain ‘profile’ of player. Not only a determined personality and work ethic, but also their technical attributes. Bayern’s team is full of top top ball players from the attack all the way to between the sticks. This has become more common as of late as building from the back has become the norm, but Bayern still boast a defensive unit with ball playing ability far beyond what we see at other European teams.
Ajax’s philosophy of total football has somewhat translated into a similar search for versatility and this has affected their players’ qualities. Ajax’s youth products are always extremely fit and extremely hard-working. They live and breathe football, and love playing all over the park. The qualities of an Ajax centre-back still include the ability to ping the ball accurately up the field like a defensive midfielder, and this is clear when their line-ups are analysed. People often forget that Frenkie de Jong played most of the 2018/19 season at centre-back alongside Matthijs de Ligt, but his ball-playing abilities and ability to break the lines so effortlessly have seen him adapted to a defensive midfielder role (and now as a No. 8 which nobody except FC Barcelona manager Xavi wants).
Even now, the Ajax products at Bayern are capable of playing in so many positions and roles. Matthijs de Ligt is capable of playing at centre-back and defensive midfielder as well as an emergency striker, and he is the most limited of the four. Daley Blind can play at centre-back, left-back and defensive midfielder. Noussair Mazraoui can play at right-back and left-back, and his inversions and forays into the final third mean he would be comfortable playing at right-wing too. Finally, Ryan Gravenberch can play as a No. 6, No. 8 and No. 10, three completely different roles in midfield. They have all seamlessly slipped into the jigsaw of the Bayern squad, and Bayern are lucky to have such versatile players.
It shows truly how many permutations of a starting XI Bayern can throw at the wall when you look at people who don’t watch Bayern attempt to make a preferred starting XI and they do things like putting Serge Gnabry on the left-wing, Lucas Hernández at left-back or Joshua Kimmich at right-back because these are positions we’ve seen them play at a high level but they do not primarily because they are so much better elsewhere.
The same goes for Ajax’s starting XI. Daley Blind has played at left back for the majority of this season but most people still have the impression he is too slow for that position. Dušan Tadić has been employed on the right for a major chunk of his appearances for Ajax this season after playing on the left for the last three years, and honestly I still don’t fully understand Mohammed Kudus’ automatisms and positional shifts when he plays up front. Yes, he plays as a striker. Most think he plays on the left, but that is actually where Steven Bergwijn balls out. Steven Berghuis too, a player most think would play on the right, actually plays through the middle. He played as a 10 in Erik ten Hag’s 4-2-3-1 last season, swinging from side to side as an effective ‘third winger’, but this season under Alfred Schreuder he has adapted to a less pendulum-like role, rather driving through the middle off of Brian Brobbey/Mohammed Kudus up front.
The amount of automatisms and positional fluidity requires a very special type of coach, and it’s no coincidence that Bayern and Ajax have shared a few coaches in the past, including most recently Erik ten Hag who went from coaching Bayern II to Ajax.
All of these mind-melting positional shifts are present only in these two clubs plus wherever Pep Guardiola is at any given moment in time. The kind of personnel required for these different setups are rare, and often Bayern must resort to shopping in Amsterdam if they are to get what they want.
A safe pair of hands
Ultimately it comes down to the players themselves.
Bayern Munich have a reputation for taking players at young ages and growing them into world stars with very few hiccups. While teams like Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and every Premier League club barring Manchester City have a history of flops and big transfers and names that fell flat, Bayern have a very clean record (minus maybe one or two players) of transfers. When a player moves to Bayern they can be guaranteed that a proper roadmap to the top will be laid out for them, rather than being lost in a mush of established stars and legends bidding farewell.
This safety is a huge factor in negotiations, and it’s often why we see players say they ‘ONLY want Bayern’ despite having interest from other teams, often teams offering the parent club larger financial incentives. Remember when Chelsea outbid Bayern by 20m for Matthijs de Ligt and yet de Ligt still ended up at Bayern? Gravenberch similarly lasered in on Bayern despite interest from Manchester United. Remember, this is a Manchester United with Erik ten Hag at the helm: a man who has seen Gravenberch grow up from the U-17s all the way to the first team and is probably something like a father figure to him.
If all else fails, Bayern Munich is a guarantee of trophies. Silverware runs in the blood of every Bayern player, and they are often amongst the favourites to win the Champions League. It is an opportunity too sweet to pass. The security Bayern provides for its players is second to none. To leave the Bayern bubble is a risk many would scoff at even if they are not being given as many chances as they feel they deserve.
As an adorer of pure football, I of course love watching Ajax. There are a few players I loved to watch, and I think would be useful at Bayern.
Frenkie de Jong left Ajax for FC Barcelona and has been linked with a move to Munich every summer since. I don’t think it will happen, but if it does I would be ecstatic. He has the capability to become the next Andrea Pirlo, sitting in the No. 6 spot and pinging long balls across the length of the pitch.
If Benjamin Pavard were to leave, Devyne Rensch would be the perfect replacement. He is capable of playing at right back and centre-back, and has very similar qualities to Pavard. His passing is crisp and simple, and he plays rather simple, but he doesn’t slow the pace down.
Lucas Ocampos is a player who I really love. What do I love about him? He’s a winger who wears the shirt number 5. Do I really have to extrapolate? Okay of course I do. He is a rare breed, a true winger. He was world class at Olympique Marseille a few years and has failed to re-capture that form, but a fresh start at Bayern could do the trick. He is 28 however, so I don’t see it as a long-term option.
Finally, Hakim Ziyech. I can’t believe he’s 29 already. One of my favourite players of all time to watch. If anyone doubted what I said about Ziyech in the past, that World Cup should have put things in perspective. Ziyech is one of the most gifted players to ever touch the game and I actually have no joke lost sleep thinking of what his career could have been had he not joined Chelsea. Please come to Bayern soon lad. I need you.
Why do you think Ajax and Bayern seem to be linked so closely to each other? Which Ajax alumnus do you want to join the Bavarians next? Let us know in the discussion below.