Were we still in the midst of the nineties, that most glorious of decades for football, nobody would have batted an eyelid were Manchester United to have faced Ajax in a Champions League final. The Class of '92 would have been on the rise at Old Trafford, paving the way for a spate of domestic titles; Ajax would have been able to field a team of insanely talented young Dutchmen ranging from Marc Overmars, Frank Rijkaard, Patrick Kluivert and Clarence Seedorf to the De Boer brothers, Edgar Davids and Edwin van der Sar. While Alex Ferguson was building a team with a distinct identity which would help to define the early Premier League era, Louis van Gaal had launched his own philosophical revolution in Amsterdam, bringing his ideas and tactical alterations to the exhilarating football of his great rival, Johan Cruyff. Though Ajax won the Champions League in 1995 – finishing runners up a year later – and United went on to triumph on that famous night at the Camp Nou in 1999, the football fates saw fit to keep the two sides apart in the interim. Sadly, such a match can only be contested in our imaginations, and we can only speculate as to who the winner of a final between them might have been.
Now, however, one would have to stretch the imagination to its very limits to envision either club getting to a Champions League final, at least in the foreseeable future. While there are very different reasons for their struggles relative to the shimmering glories of their nineties heyday, Manchester United and Ajax have both fallen from their perches at the absolute pinnacle of the game. With the Eredivisie well behind the biggest leagues in Europe in terms of marketing, television money and global appeal, Ajax have been left behind on the continent in terms of their financial potential, a trend which was compounded by a slump in the mid noughties and several underwhelming managerial appointments. Meanwhile, though United's downturn is a more recent phenomenon, their failure to absorb the shockwaves of Ferguson's retirement have seen much of the culture he fostered crumble away.
The disintegration of the old culture at United stands in stark contrast to Ajax, who despite their troubles on and off the pitch still have an identifiable philosophy at the club. Just as Overmars, the De Boer brothers, Van der Sar and the like left Amsterdam for considerable transfer fees in the nineties, so too does the club have a productive and lucrative academy today. Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Christian Eriksen and Maarten Stekelenburg are just a few of the active academy graduates who Ajax have sold on, this after an accumulative 23 years of first-team service. While there are no doubt Ajax fans who are frustrated to see the club lose their best players, they at least have a coherent system in place by which they nurture Dutch talent, reap the benefits on the pitch and then use player sales to keep their model sustainable in the long-term.
This is not to say that the model at Ajax ensures complete economic security, but it has kept them financially healthy at a time when many other Eredivisie clubs have struggled. They have also seen it deliver a better rate of success in recent times, having won four titles since the start of the decade as well as a KNVB Cup. Despite losing out in the league to fierce rivals Feyenoord this season, they have swashbuckled their way to the Europa League final with knockout-stage wins over Legia Warsaw, FC Copenhagen, Schalke and Lyon, scoring 13 goals along the way. In the final on Wednesday evening, in Stockholm, they will meet Manchester United, a club who couldn't have taken a much more different approach in their pursuit of success.
On several occasions over the course of their Europa League campaign, Ajax have fielded a team with an average age of just over 20, this including several 17 year olds and with barely anyone over the age of 25. They have a core of Dutch academy graduates in the side including Kenny Tete, Joel Veltman, Jairo Riedewald and Davy Klaassen, not to mention Justin Kluivert, the son and namesake of the legendary striker who scored the winning goal when Ajax won the Champions League in 1995. The club spent a total of €23m last summer on transfers, this after making €58m on the high-profile sales of, amongst others, Jasper Cillessen to Barcelona and Arek Milik to Napoli. Meanwhile, Manchester United splurged £157m over the same period, with £89.3m of that figure spent on a former academy graduate who they had lost to Juventus only a few years before.
If the enormous cost of reacquiring Paul Pogba should be a source of serious embarrassment to the United hierarchy, then so too should the fact that with almost eight times the expenditure they find themselves no better off than Ajax at the moment. The two sides will go into the Europa League final as equals and, considering the economic disparity between them, that is a damning indictment of United's financial strategy and the comparative return on their investments. While Ajax are already in the Champions League qualifying rounds for next season owing to finishing second in the Eredivisie, United need to triumph in the final to have any hope of returning to Europe's top table. If anything, it is the Premier League club which has more to lose, and Pogba and co. who will play under more pressure from the media, shareholders and supporters.
Though Jose Mourinho cannot be accused of entirely shunning youth during his first season at Old Trafford – Marcus Rashford has made 52 appearances, while Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial have made 41 apiece – other youngsters like Luke Shaw and Timothy Fosu-Mensah have seen their opportunities limited, with the former on the receiving end of harsh personal criticism which has often bordered on the unconstructive. The average age of the playing squad is around 27, which reflects the club's transfer strategy to a tee. Over the past few seasons, United have attempted to parachute in established professionals in what is starting to resemble a Galacticos-lite policy, with the likes of Juan Mata, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Angel di Maria, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic acquired with mixed success. These players do not represent considered investments so much as bids for instant gratification, with none ever likely to be moved on for a profit and some with a negligible sell-on value.
Manchester United and Ajax are very different clubs, of course, with a behemoth of the Premier League far more able to absorb such punishing expenditure. Ajax maintain a financially cautious model because it is necessary for their survival, while United are covered by huge global incomes and an obscenely lucrative television deal. However, in working within their means, Ajax have created an environment at the club which works in the favour of Dutch football. The way that Manchester United operate does little to benefit football in England, and indeed only demonstrates that something has gone badly wrong with the national game.
Of the Dutch academy graduates who currently play for Ajax, five are full Holland internationals. Because of their focus on academy football and need to nurture players who are intelligent, skilled and ultimately valuable, Ajax are motivated to bring through Dutch talent and provide them not only with first-team opportunities but also an exceptional investment of energy and time. Rather than acting as a youthful supporting cast to a core of monied veterans imported from elsewhere, Ajax's youngsters are the lifeblood of the club and are treated with the requisite care. That means they are given the chance to learn and develop in a competitive setting, and a chance to find their feet in football without their path to the first team being blocked by someone brought in with the aim of providing instant results.
While there is much hand-wringing in England as to why we seem to be producing fewer talented youngsters than we used to, not to mention countless misdiagnoses of the issue from the pundits, columnists and commentators who so often call for some arbitrary cap on overseas players, the problem certainly stems back in part to the economic model of the Premier League. Manchester United are not the only club with massive outgoings on supposedly proven players, with Manchester City, Liverpool and even Arsenal – formerly the poster boys for fiscal prudence – guilty to some degree of a similar approach in recent years. The summer business done by Arsenal makes for a perfect example, with the club spending the majority of their £91.1m on players like Shkodran Mustafi, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Perez, this at a time when their academy seems to flounder. The priorities of the biggest Premier League clubs have moved away from cultivating and encouraging youth, and more towards squandering prodigious sums on players who are meant to have an impact straightaway.
The folly of this approach is that, as Arsenal fans can testify, its effectiveness is often questionable. Spending over £90m would have been a dream for the North London club during their years of extreme over-reliance on youngsters, and yet it is the season in which they have spent most freely that they have failed to qualify for the Champions League. Manchester United have burned through a mountain of cash this season in an attempt to earn a place in that competition, and have little more to show for their efforts than an Ajax side built on academy graduates. In the end, the fact that Ajax have nurtured and supported those players will pay dividends for the club and Dutch football more generally. Meanwhile, in England, it increasingly seems like the biggest clubs have opted for showy expenditure and short-termism over shrewdness and sustainability, which perhaps explains why – when judged by the standards of their European peers – they seem to be in such a malaise.