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How Ajax's former Champions League stars including Donny van de Beek are struggling

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Donny van de Beek has struggled since joining Manchester United last summer from Ajax, with the £40million arrival having been hugely underwhelming so far.

With just four Premier League starts he has struggled to land a place in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side and on Wednesday was taken off at half-time in the club’s 2-1 Champions League defeat at Young Boys.

The Dutchman’s reputation has taken a massive hit in the last year since being identified as one of the key stars behind Ajax’s incredible run to the 2019 Champions League semi-final.

But it appears Van de Beek is not the only key member of that side who has found the grass is not always greener outside of Amsterdam as Sportsmail looks at the fortunes of the 24-year-old and the rest of the Dutch outfit’s stars who were sold to Europe’s elite after their Champions League exploits. 

Ajax's key players including Hakim Ziyech (front centre left) Matthijs de Ligt (centre right), Frenkie de Jong (second right and Donny van de Beek (second left) were sold shortly after their 2019 Champions League run and Dutch title success (above)

Ajax’s key players including Hakim Ziyech (front centre left) Matthijs de Ligt (centre right), Frenkie de Jong (second right and Donny van de Beek (second left) were sold shortly after their 2019 Champions League run and Dutch title success (above)

Ajax reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2019. Rear from left: Matthijs de Ligt, Daley Blind, Donny Van de Beek, Dusan Tadic, Joel Veltman and goalkeeper Andre Onana. Front from left: Frenkie de Jong, Hakim Ziyech, Lasse Schoene, David Neres and Nicolas Tagliafico

Ajax reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2019. Rear from left: Matthijs de Ligt, Daley Blind, Donny Van de Beek, Dusan Tadic, Joel Veltman and goalkeeper Andre Onana. Front from left: Frenkie de Jong, Hakim Ziyech, Lasse Schoene, David Neres and Nicolas Tagliafico

Donny van de Beek 

Sadly for Van de Beek, he looked doomed to fail at Manchester United from the day he arrived at the club in a high profile £40m move last summer.

It’s an odd thing to suggest for a player being signed for that fee and for a talent who had been tracked by Europe’s finest sides before deciding on a United switch.

He played in all 12 of Ajax’s Champions League games in the 2018-19 season, starting 11 of them and netting in the quarter-final against Juventus and the semi-final at Tottenham. 

The problem was he wasn’t first choice at United and was widely seen as a panic buy by club chiefs following their embarrassing handling and failed 2020 pursuit of Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho.

Not once has Van de Beek ever looked like breaking into the United first-team and holding down a spot, starting just four of his 20 Premier League appearances for the club.

He scored on his Premier League debut in a 3-1 defeat by Crystal Palace but hasn’t found the net since – although in the Premier League at least he is rarely given more than a 20-minute cameo at the end of the game if he even makes it onto the pitch at all.

Donny van de Beek was key in the central midfield to Ajax as he celebrates scoring against Chelsea for Ajax in a 2019 Champions League clash at Stamford Bridge

Donny van de Beek was key in the central midfield to Ajax as he celebrates scoring against Chelsea for Ajax in a 2019 Champions League clash at Stamford Bridge

Very quickly he has become an afterthought to manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, with the likes of Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Nemanja Matic, Fred, Scott McTominay and Jesse Lingard all arguably ahead of him in the pecking order.

To make matters even worse, United eventually signed Sancho anyway this summer and his future at Old Trafford is looking increasingly bleak after he was substituted at half-time on Wednesday during United’s 2-1 Champions League loss at Young Boys.

While it can be argued this was a tactical move by Solskjaer to cover an Aaron Wan-Bissaka red card, it did nothing to show the Norwegian has been impressed by Van de Beek.

The 24-year-old’s nightmare year was compounded when he missed out on Euro 2020 through injury and his lack of minutes have seen him since lose his place in the Holland squad. 

Holland boss Louis van Gaal has admitted: ‘I told him that he needs to start playing games.’

Dutch legend Marco van Basten has been even more scathing of Van de Beek’s decision to join United.

‘It just wasn’t smart choices. If you say you spoke to Real Madrid and then you go to Manchester United, you are betting way too high,’ Van Basten said.

‘Van de Beek is not that good. As No 10 at Ajax it is much easier than as No 10 in Spain or England.

‘In the Netherlands you get a lot of help, you get opportunities, but that is not the case abroad.’

But Van de Beek quickly became a forgotten man at Manchester United, despite scoring on his debut against Crystal Palace (above)

But Van de Beek quickly became a forgotten man at Manchester United, despite scoring on his debut against Crystal Palace (above)

Hakim Ziyech

Chelsea got the jump on everyone in February 2020 when they announced a five-year deal to sign Ziyech for the following summer, with many clubs still trying to review their January transfer business.

With the Blues having been on a transfer embargo for the season, it looked an excellent piece of business to take the club forward under Frank Lampard, whose young side were already on their way back into the Champions League.

The Moroccan came alive playing on the wing in the knockout stage for Ajax in 2019, showing his eye for goal by netting in both legs of the last-16 win over Real Madrid, providing an assist against Juventus, teeing up Van De Beek’s goal at Tottenham and then scoring against the north London side in the return leg in Amsterdam.

Yet his career at Stamford Bridge has been stop/start and while he has shown good form, the 28-year-old doesn’t look an integral part of the club following his £36million move.

Incredibly, of his 43 games for the Blues he has only completed 90 minutes twice – the most recent of those was last weekend in the victory over Aston Villa. 

Hakim Ziyech celebrates scoring at Chelsea just three months before joining them from Ajax

Hakim Ziyech celebrates scoring at Chelsea just three months before joining them from Ajax

The first half of last season saw him suffer with knee and hip injuries and by the time he had shaken both off, Lampard was gone from the Blues dugout, being replaced by Thomas Tuchel.

Since then he has played a more central midfield role behind the attack, sometimes as a support striker, but the goals and assists have not exactly flowed.

The 28-year-old has just two Premier League goals, and hasn’t provided a top flight assist since November.

Bad luck has also struck Ziyech though, who looked like one of the Blues best players in pre-season before picking up a shoulder injury which has once more derailed his progress.

Ziyech is again struggling to show his best form in a central position where he is vying for a starting spot alongside Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and arguably even Timo Werner.

It may be he gets lost in the shuffle at Stamford Bridge where he has not matched his Ajax excellence. 

Ziyech has struggled to settle at the Blues and seems a misfit in Thomas Tuchel's system

Ziyech has struggled to settle at the Blues and seems a misfit in Thomas Tuchel’s system

Frenkie de Jong 

Such was the buzz around De Jong that he was sold by Ajax long before their crazy Champions League adventure kicked into gear in the 2019 knockout stages.

The central midfielder was one of Europe’s most most sought after talents but it was Barcelona, in the days before they started looking at their bank statements, who won the race to sign him in January 2019 with a £65million transfer arranged for the following summer.

Sitting in front of the defence his ability to read the game and pull off key passes gave the image of a 21st century Franz Beckenbauer.

Barca looked like they had pulled off a major piece of business especially having seen off rivals Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain to land the midfielder.

The 24-year-old is now a long established member of the Barcelona first-team, as well as the Dutch national side but the fizz has gone a bit flat over his talent in the last two years.

De Jong’s biggest issue is that he has joined the right club at the wrong time.

Expected to help keep the domestic titles pouring in at Barcelona while also battling for European supremacy, the Dutchman has been unable to provide the impetus for either.

His first season, saw him deployed in an advanced position in the midfield rather than his more comfortable deeper role where he can dictate the game and it had an effect on his form as the likes of Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setien came and went as managers. 

Frenkie de Jong takes on Tottenham duo Moussa Sissoko (left) and Dele Alli during the 2019 Champions League semi-final first leg at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium

Frenkie de Jong takes on Tottenham duo Moussa Sissoko (left) and Dele Alli during the 2019 Champions League semi-final first leg at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium

His form has since improved under compatriot Ronald Koeman, but a Barca side without Lionel Messi are still continuing to struggle and De Jong doesn’t appear to have the authority in matches and is failing to create the same hype that he did while at Ajax.

Dutch legend Ruud Gullit has previously claimed that De Jong needs to adapt to Barcelona rather than the other way round, and admits he wants to see more improvement from the midfielder. 

‘I think Frenkie is a great player, but I just set the bar higher for him,’ Gullit said on Ziggo Sports in August. ‘I just don’t think it’s good enough for what he can do. I’ve seen matches that went really well. For example, when the Netherlands lagged behind Germany.

‘Then it was great. I know you can’t play every game like this. But I do think that you can express the expectation that he has a number of assists, that he will score a goal. A little bit more.

‘I think he’s just praised too much. I think we set the bar way too low for him.

‘In the matches that mattered, against Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid, I didn’t see him then. I set the bar higher than most people because I like Frenkie.

‘But look at the European Championship. Also nothing. Do you understand. And that’s why I say, “If you’re as good as they say, I want to see it too.” I want people in the Netherlands to be much more critical of De Jong in order to raise that bar. Otherwise you as a player are satisfied with what you are doing now.’

De Jong joined Barcelona later that summer but is still finding his feet in the club's midfield

De Jong joined Barcelona later that summer but is still finding his feet in the club’s midfield

Matthijs de Ligt

Shortly after the heartbreaking last-gasp Champions League exit at the hands of Tottenham, Matthijs de Ligt helped Ajax win the Dutch league title before joining De Jong out of the exit door to sign for Juventus.

Once more it was a big fee for the Ajax captain, costing the Italian outfit £67.5million, but even then it looked sensible business for the then 19-year-old who had huge potential to develop into a major star.

In 2018 he became Ajax’s youngest captain at just 18-years-old and later in the year landed the prestigious Golden Boy award to mark the best young player competing in Europe.

Pivotal in holding together the Ajax defence to see off the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus in the Champions League, it was of little surprise to see Juve having to see off challenges from Manchester United, Barcelona and PSG to land the defender.

Matthijs de Ligt was captain of Ajax during the Champions League run, leading the defence

Matthijs de Ligt was captain of Ajax during the Champions League run, leading the defence

Like De Jong, he is an established piece of the first team at his new club but his development appears to have become stunted.

Despite playing alongside defensive legends including Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, he has become more of a useful player to the Italian giants rather than an essential first-team selection.

Inconsistencies in form have plagued his time at the Allianz Stadium, although he is still just 22-years-old.

Van Basten though has been highly critical of his compatriot’s struggles to assert himself in games, as well as picking the wrong side to join after leaving Ajax. 

‘De Ligt is a centre-back. He must give more leadership and be heard. He has to assert himself because he has to lead the defence,’ he said in August.

‘He runs after his player, leaving huge holes. De Ligt went to Italy to learn how to defend, but I don’t think he learned much there.’

A year earlier he also claimed: ‘I think he would have learned more at Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester City.’

But after joining Juventus his progress has stalled in the last couple of years in Italy

But after joining Juventus his progress has stalled in the last couple of years in Italy

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