De Jong, De Ligt, Ziyech, Van de Beek: Ten Hag’s apprentices all failed
Erik ten Hag’s glorious young Ajax team lit up the 2018-19 Champions League.
After cruising through a group that contained Bayern Munich unbeaten, they pulled off two huge scalps in the knockout stages.
First of all they eliminated the reigning champions Real Madrid in the last-16, thrashing the Spaniards 4-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu.
And then they knocked out Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus in the quarter-finals with another famous second-leg win away from home.
In the semis they were just seconds away from reaching the final when they had their hearts broken by a last-gasp Lucas Moura hat-trick goal in Amsterdam.
There was no doubt, though, that Ajax had been the team of the tournament for the neutrals.
With a budget that dwarfed in comparison to Europe’s super clubs, a team full of youngsters played the most exhilarating and beautiful, free-flowing, open football.
However, three years on and none of this quartet has gone close to meeting the standards and fulfilling the potential expected of them.
Frenkie de Jong
De Jong joined Barcelona in the summer of 2019 for a fee of €75 million. He was tipped by many to become the best central midfielder in the world and he certainly seemed to have the talent to do it.
Blessed with brilliant technique, close ball control, elite press-resistance and a perfect short-passing game, he appeared man-made for Barcelona.
But it’s not worked out for him at Camp Nou. He has rarely been able to play in his preferred role at the base of the midfield due to the presence of Sergio Busquets, while he is now being upstaged by young wonderkids Pedri and Gavi.
Barcelona are ready to sell him this summer to Manchester United, with the clubs in deep negotiations. De Jong would reunite with Ten Hag and hope that he can resurrect his career.
Matthijs de Ligt
Out of the four players mentioned, De Ligt is the only one who hasn’t outright been a failure at the club he left Ajax for.
De Ligt has been decent to good for much of his time in Turin. But he also hasn’t hit the heights expected of him and certainly not justified the €75m Juventus paid.
He has sometimes been clumsy and heavy-footed and has had a propensity to concede penalties, particularly from handling the ball.
With two years left on his contract, Juventus are now at a crossroads over whether to renew his deal or sell him. At the age of 22, he will surely become a top-class defender in the near future but he hasn’t been one at Juventus so far.
Ziyech has never really looked like a Chelsea-level player since his big-money move from Ajax two years ago.
He has scored only six Premier League goals in two years, delivering six assists. For such a big team like Chelsea, that is clearly not enough output given his €40m transfer fee.
Ziyech has never nailed down a first-team shirt and all the fantasy and confidence that was on display during his time at Ajax under Ten Hag has never been present at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea are in negotiations to sign Raheem Sterling from Man City and possibly even Ousmane Dembele on a Bosman Transfer, which signals the end of Ziyech’s chances of succeeding at Chelsea.
Donny van de Beek
A €40m signing who made just four Premier League starts in 18 months without injury sums up what a disaster Van de Beek has been at United.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer never fancied Van de Beek, who was a benchwarmer throughout his time together with the Norwegian. Things did not improve when Ralf Rangnick took over in December 2021.
Van de Beek was eventually sent out on loan to Everton in January 2022 and he endured a miserable time at Goodison Park with just five starts, one goal and no assists.
He returns to Man Utd now and, like De Jong, hopes that the man who made him at Ajax – Ten Hag – can resurrect him.