AFC Ajax

Saturday 21st November 2015

Ajax v SC Cambuur

Given that this was the first day of ‘Brussels Lockdown’, I wasn’t even sure if I’d get to this game.  The Amsterdam ArenA, home of Ajax, was always a stadium I wanted to visit regardless of the state of Ajax themselves.  Turns out they are a very decent team, with weaknesses and flaws, who play in an amazing stadium.  The Amsterdam ArenA is pretty special and, if Ajax can somehow unify their seemingly factioned fans, it could have an atmosphere to match.

Talk to each other
Talk to each other

Getting There

The closure of the Brussels Metro was more of an inconvenience than a problem as I simply took a tram and bus, staying overground, to Gare du Nord to get on the Megabus (www.megabus.com).  Sleet was falling, marking the end of the extended Autumn, soaking into my socks before the bus had even arrived.  Luckily, it arrived punctually although it was 20 minutes late leaving Brussels.  The shops and bars were still open and it felt like a quiet Saturday but not the deserted town the media were portraying it as.  The bus was heated, had a USB port for me to charge my phone and, incredibly, the wifi was working.  Not bad for 12€ return!  The bus took a little over 3 hours due to traffic around Rotterdam.

The Zuiderseeweg ‘Park and Ride’ where the bus stops is connected to Amsterdam Central by the number 26 tram, which gets you into town in under 10 minutes.  A ticket for 24 hours (not a calendar day, but for a full 24 hours) on the trams and metro is €7.50 and works similarly to an Oyster card in that you scan when getting on and off the tram.  You can buy the ticket from the booth in the middle of the tram.  In general, the public transport in Tramsterdam was fantastic. It just works.  Like the roads with lanes for cars, bicycles, trams and pedestrians.  These things are done with a more of a carefree abandon in Belgium and aren’t done at all in the UK.

Tickets and Accommodation

My hotel was 2 minutes walk from Dam Square.  Amsterdam looks even more amazing with Christmas lights everywhere.  The Nova hotel http://www.novahotel.nl/EN/english.html met my needs perfectly.  I checked in to the hotel, checked in with my family at home and then went to check out the Amsterdam ArenA.

The Arena can be reached via train or metro but it is the same stop. 15-20 minutes from Centraal station and you’re there.  It’s quick and efficient and is obviously in receipt of reasonable investment.

I didn’t need to order tickets thanks to a free press pass (thanks Ajax!) but the club might want to review this policy.  Dutch fans who want to attend a game need to have an Ajax Club Card, which you can order by clciking http://www.ajax.nl/tickets-support/tickets.htm  If you are from outside the Netherlands, you must order via http://www.visitajax.com/ and the tickets are much more expensive!   There were a lot of empty seats in this game and yet visitajax.com said ‘Sold Out’.  Charging people more money because they are not from the Netherlands just isn’t ethical.

The Stadium

From the road, the ArenA looks like an unstable muffin.  The overhanging roof is topped with solar panels and the retracting mechanism.  You can park in the stadium itself and a road leads into the stadium.  It really is spectacular.

ajax plaza
ajax plaza
view from station
view from station

Clearly during the planning stage for the ArenA, people sat down and thought about it.  What would fans like?  How else could we make use of the facilities in the vicinity?  It is close to perfect.  Upon arrival at the station, you go down the escalator into a large ‘plaza’ area – I don’t have the vocabulary in English to give it a better name. There is a large concert venue, an IMAX cinema, some large shops and loads of bars and restaurants.  It naturally lends itself to people arriving early for the game and having some food and drink together and congregating in large numbers.  A few mounted cops surveyed everything outside the bars but there was no sign of chimpery or nonsense.  I grabbed a hot dog (interestingly, served with cheese as a default option) and made my way to the stadium as the club had requested that I arrive early due to additional security checks in light of recent events.

The South (Zuid) Entrance was lit up as a French Tricouleur and is adjacent to a bar called Burger Bitch (burgerbitch.nl/) which seemed to me as an imperfect use of English slang and reminded me of ‘My Tea is Rich’ from ‘A Year in the Merde.’

Toddling round to the Main Entrance, clutching my email printout like Charlie Bucket with his Golden Ticket, I wandered into this reception area that is shinier than my head after applying after-sun.  The receptionist found my name on the press list, printed my ticket and I made my way to security.  They simply verified that my camera case contained a camera and then I ascended the 6 flights of hospitality, function suites etc until I got to the top and was shown to the press room.

Here, I managed to catch the first half of the Real Madrid v Barcelona match (where an ex-Ajax forward was causing havoc) and I had a free ham roll and coffee.   The room was set up for a press conference, with names, which made me wonder if Frank de Boer was giving a pre-match announcement.  Forty five minutes before kick off, I walked out of the press room and into the cafeteria concourse area with the real fans, drunk a nice draught Grolsch for 3€ before heading to my press seat.

seat with a view
seat with a view
Note the bottom tier
Note the bottom tier
Up on the roof
Up on the roof
Hmmm
Hmmm
Amsterdam
Amsterdam
homogenise these seats!
homogenise these seats!
clasico on the TV
clasico on the TV
will it fill?
will it fill?

I was pretty pleased that the roof was closed.  The last time I visited a stadium with a roof was at Schalke, where the kept the roof open even though it rained throughout the entire match.  Once inside, the stadium is impressive.  My only gripe about the stadium is that the seat colours are stupid.  Deck it out in predominantly red with white writing.  There’s nothing intimidating about seeing a kaleidoscope of colour in the stands.  Ironically, the fans themselves were not very colourful.  By that I mean there was a notable absence of club colours being worn.  Again, this gives the impression that the stadium is filled with tourists like me.

I watched some of the Clasico on the fabulous big screens waiting for the atmosphere to build but the volume and atmosphere remained tepid – only the octaves built up indicating a high density of children in the vicinity.  I was intrigued by the empty seats behind the goals.  I was hoping that meant a big tifo was to be unveiled or maybe that the tickets weren’t sold in that area unless needed.

The ‘Anthem’ is played which could be rousing but few people sing along.  The focusing on fans around the stadium on the big screen is a nice touch though.  The teams come out and a minute of silence is observed very well.  I knew it had ended by the teams breaking up.

The Match

Ajax set out playing a fairly defined 4-3-3.  However, they lacked any genuine penetration or width from out wide and Milik was disappointing despite his goal.  They were frustrating but entertaining simultaneously.  Veltman and Riedewald played plenty of long diagonal passes to the wings in the style of Frank de Boer. Klaasen was the main creative and attacking force as the advanced central midfielder.

kick off
kick off
corner before the goal
corner before the goal

Bizarrely, all of the first half goals came from crosses or corners and the marking was abysmal.  SC Cambuur were unlucky to be 3 goals down at half time but the tragedy that is zonal marking ensured that the goals would flow.  Ajax also looked shaky at the back when crosses came in.  If I were managing a team against them it would be cross balls all the way.

4-1 up at half time, you could have forgiven Ajax for simply seeing the game out.  However, they actually played better in the second half.  Younes woke up and became a threat and Cambuur did look beaten.  The star of the evening for Ajax was Mitchell Dijks at left back.  He defended well and was probably Ajax’s best attacker.  The number 10 was also Klaasen in a glaasen.  They need a striker though.  Milik didn’t convince at all, despite heading a nice goal from a cross.

Winner!
Winner!

The half time keepy up challenge for kids is a great idea.  Places emphasis development and on ball control instead of glorifying the chubby middle-aged man trying to lob a ball off of a crossbar.  I enjoyed this.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about this match was the entrance of fans behind the goal at half time.  Like ants emerging from a hole, they spread out in the stand to a chorus of boos.  It was clearly some kind of protesting but what were they protesting against?  When those latecomers started singing, they were again booed.  Seeing fans of the same team booing each other is a new one on me. Perhaps if they spoke to each other, their team would have a more vocal support.

To describe the experience in a few words, I’d say: amazing city, fabulous transport links, wonderful stadium, decent team but flat support.  When it comes to atmosphere, I haven’t seen anything to convince me that Germany isn’t king.

ajax 040

Stadium Ratings

  • Quality of match:  ***
  • Stadium character: *****
  • Stadium atmosphere:  **
  • Hospitality: *****
  • Ease of access: *****
  • Things to do around the stadium: *****
  • Overall: ****.5

 

Football: The Trivial Model for Unity

An opinion:  Football: The Trivial Model for Unity

In the aftermath of the tragic events all over the world this week (Paris, Baghdad, Lebanon and all those granted less press coverage in Syria and elsewhere), there has been a swelling tide of opinion that now is not the time to think about trivial things like football.  It’s ‘disrespectful’, ‘insignificant’ or ‘irrelevant’.  I disagree.  It is at times like this we must celebrate football: its unifying power, its friendly rivalries and, most importantly, its universal nature.

In a world where fissures are being exploited by politicians and religious fundamentalists in order to further their ideology or cause, football remains refreshingly binding.  The same core values are celebrated the world over.  Teamwork.  Determination.  Eleven against eleven: a fair ‘fight’.

A goal in a theocratic state such as Saudi Arabia is the same as a goal in pluralist France.  A penalty in Iran is awarded for the same reasons as in Spain.   The same values and skills are vital components of a successful team irrespective of the socio-political or religious paradigm prevalent in that country or region.

Many of the core underlying messages of religion are expressed on the football field and amongst the greater fan community. Brotherhood between teammates and the fans.  Trying your best to make the most of your talents; God-given, genetic or whatever. Being humble in victory, gracious in defeat.  Respecting your opponent.

Football can be used as a metaphor for humanity at the moment. People play the game in different styles but with the same ultimate goal.  Different aspects of the game are prioritized in different countries but a balance is nevertheless required for success.  People highlight, exaggerate and caricature different styles of football in the way that they do religion or worship.  And yet, deep down, they are not that different.  The similarities, seldom highlighted, significantly outnumber the differences.

Football is a global phenomenon that unifies and harmonizes the best parts of the human condition in a way that religion or language could never do.  The football community always responds to disaster respectfully and acts accordingly.  Think about the tragic events at Heysel, Hillsborough, Ibrox and Bradford, to name but a few.  Did people stop going to church?  Should they have?

It is through this medium that the world can be more united.  So should we stop playing it and stop writing about because a few fundamentalists decide to cause havoc?  Those who died in Paris were celebrating all that is good about life: enjoying food, drink and company; enjoying a football match or unifying in love of music. Should all of these things be put on hold?

By refraining from living your normal life and celebrating the things you love, the fear-inducing actions of the few succeed in achieving one of their goals.  Do not allow your love of anything to be paralysed by these events.  Stand defiant and celebrate life.  The medium of football is a great conduit for positivity in the backdrop of sadness.  We should use it as a force for good.  It is a common denominator the world over that can build bridges, not barricade them.

A football doesn’t care where you’ve come from, what language you speak or whether you pray or not.  It doesn’t care if you are a refugee or a bigot.  Rivalries are constructs of fans that, usually, are controlled and friendly.  While football and its community has its faults, it can mend fault-lines.  Divisions and rivalries can co-exist. Fundamentalism exists within football too but football is fundamentally unifying.   When the world seems ugly, a reminder of the beauty and variety of life is needed.  That may be through music, poetry, art or nature.  Football can provide that beauty in its own way.  Let’s celebrate it and not hide it behind the poorly-drawn curtains of misplaced respect and fear.

 

The Tielemans Conundrum

Sometimes ‘failure’ can help build future successes.  By learning what does and doesn’t work, one can evolve.  Anderlecht were excellent but flawed against Spurs on Thursday night.  Okaka was a beast for about 20 minutes, Defour was omnipresent and even the much-maligned N’Sakala turned up for the first time this season to put in a performance.  However, a great many eyes are currently focused on Youri Tielemans, Golden Boy Nominee and, in all probability, a future record transfer for Anderlecht.  How good is he? Where will he go?  What is he worth?

The answer to all of those questions is surely heavily dependent on Anderlecht working out how best to use him.  Tielemans sprung to prominence shortly after the sale of Lucas Biglia to Lazio.  John van den Brom gave him his debut two and a half years ago in a deep-lying central midfield role.  He continued to excel in this position under Hasi, in partnership with Cheikou Kouyaté, keeping the established Gillet and Kljestan out of the team.  However, thereafter, things have been a little more inconsistent for Tielemans.  Oft cited reasons include his exams (justifiable) and general fatigue.  What often seems to be ignored is that his manager perceives him as more polyvalent than he currently is.

Tielemans was deployed as a ‘no 10″ in a 4-5-1 formation against Spurs.  I have been crying out for Anderlecht to play this way all season and they were excellent against Spurs.  It took a wonder goal from Dembele to separate teams whose budgets are incomparable. Yet Tielemans, often regarded as Anderlecht’s prize asset, was conspicuous only in his ineffectiveness.  In a way, this shows that the team are not reliant on him.  After all, he hasn’t been an automatic choice in the past month.  This, coupled with the return to form of Defour, has given the manager selection problems.

Tielemans does not have the skillset to play in such an advanced role.  His talents lie in his ability to pick out a pass, keep the game flowing and finish from the edge of the box.  He is not gifted in playing with his back to goal and he doesn’t have the trickery or pace to beat players.  In terms of established players, Tielemans has similar (but less developed) skills and talents to Xabi Alonso or maybe even Pirlo.  He is a dictator of play from deep and never a number 10.

He is currently being deployed in this position in Dennis Praet’s injury-enforced absence and has played here before but never with any great success.  Anderlecht have an excellent collection of midfielders but so far this season, there have been a lot of square pegs in round holes – Tielemans at number 10 being one.

The manager needs to have the conviction to follow through on playing Tielemans alongside Defour in midfield, dropping Dendoncker or playing him at centre back.  Dendoncker is an honest player with good defensive qualities, discipline and a decent shot but he is not of the quality of Tielemans or Defour.  Against Tottenham, the 4-5-1 shape gave the best team performance of the season.  It was riddled with individual errors but it was undoubtedly a fine choice by Hasi.

Some old deficiencies flared up in the game mind you: Acheampong’s wastefulness and the lack of support for the centre forward – although Okaka is perfect for this role.  In Praet’s absence – he is the obvious number ten if Hasi sticks with the shape – I would suggest playing Gillet (who surely must be given  a new contract) in a supporting role with Najar at RB and Dodi Lukebakio in the right wing position.  Lukebakio has shown enough in his substitute performances to suggest that he has the pace and unpredictability to support Okaka and torment defenders.  I’d like to see him do that against Standard this weekend.

There were so many encouraging things about RSCA’s performance against Tottenham.  So much that could be built upon.  I still think that Hasi makes a lot of ‘wrong’ calls like leaving Acheampong playing left back and taking off N’Sakala when Acheampong was cramping.  He brought on Conté at 1-1 who has never shown a defensive gesture in his frustratingly poor time at Anderlecht.

Kara and Deschacht both had good games individually against Spurs but still don’t look like a partnership to the detriment of the team. Do they talk to each other?   I’m still not convinced by either of them playing together – work must be done on the training ground with them.   Hasi likes Dendoncker as he diligently performs a role but his ceiling is much lower than that of Tielemans.  Only by playing Tielemans in his best position will he and Anderlecht truly flourish. For all you Football Manager fans out there, that is DLP-S and not AP-S as Hasi has deployed him.

Should he be the ‘Golden Boy’?  On current form, no.  On talent, perhaps.  He features in every lazily-written misinformed ‘top 10’ the Twittersphere has ever seen but he needs to be properly deployed to ensure he becomes the player he can.  On Sunday, I would like to see Anderlecht line up like this:

Please pick this team Hasi
Please pick this team Hasi