More than one month ago, Dusan Tadic played one of the best matches of his life at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. He was Ajax’s main leader when they were trying to fight back after a 2-1 loss against Real Madrid at home, and he managed to inspire them to a surprising 4-1 victory.
Tadic was the star man of a memorable evening, as he sent two great passes to Hakim Ziyech and David Neres for them to score, and added a third goal after an awesome shot to the top corner. “This is probably the best game of football I have ever played,” he told journalists after the game.
Here was the player who was that evening superior to, let’s say, the Golden Ball winner Luka Modric, even if he suffered in Southampton’s (successful) relegation battle in the Premier League only a couple of months before that.
The 30-year-old Serbian, who identified Zinedine Zidane as his biggest football idol while growing up, ended Real Madrid’s Champions League campaign – and now, he can do the same to Juventus, another former club of the famous Frenchman.
Hardly anyone would have expected that when Ajax bought him for more than €11m at the end of June in a transfer that was not discussed much, but it has proved to be one of the biggest bargains Ajax have made over the last few years.
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Players like Tadic are not common at Ajax. The club has focused on bringing their youth products in and the team’s average results in European competitions were also caused by a lack of experienced players in the team.
Ajax’s legendary defender Barry Hulshoff, who played there in the 1970s, explained this to me back in 2015: “An experienced player whom Ajax can afford is an average player who is not as good as the young players in terms of basics. So, why should you buy an experienced player who does not reach a level of Ajax’s player?”
He added: “A young player is always fragile – he will go up and down very quickly. If you want to have an experienced player to help the team, he must be a very good player. But Ajax cannot buy these players, because they cost €15 or 20 million. They cannot afford that.”
It got better last year, when Ajax managed to hold Matthijs De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong in the team despite huge interest, and they filled the squad with experienced players like Tadić and Daley Blind. It proved to be a good move – in Eredivisie, Tadic has 20 goals and 10 assists in 28 games, and he has added 9 goals and 7 assists in other 14 Champions League games.
While his excellent statistics in the Dutch league might be downplayed due to the competition’s lower quality, Tadic’s great performance against Real Madrid or Bayern Munich in the group stage are definitely not a coincidence.
Tadic has been consistently doing what he is best at – being creative, innovative, making great passes, and scoring goals. Certainly, it is the best season in the career of a player, who started playing senior football as sixteen-year-old at Vojvodina Novi Sad, a Serbian club well known for their patience with young players, where he was also given a chance to play in European competitions at a young age.
After four years at Vojvodina, Dutch club FC Groningen bought him and Holland proved to be a perfect next step. Merijn Slagter, a freelance journalist who follows Groningen regularly, says: “We all remember him as the same great player we know now. His passing, his skills, his insights… Every week, it was a pleasure to watch him playing.”
At Groningen, Tadic formed a great offensive partnership with Slovenian striker Tim Matavz, currently playing for Vitesse Arnhem. “Matavz scored a lot and got a transfer to PSV Eindhoven, but he never shined as much as he did in Groningen, as Tadić hasn’t played there – that was probably the reason why he was not so good in Eindhoven.”
Tadic was so great at Groningen (and later at Twente) that he found himself on the radar of clubs from top European leagues – and he got his big transfer in 2014, when Ronald Koeman bought him to Southampton, shortly after Adam Lallana had moved to Liverpool. Under Koeman, Tadic was in his best form with the Saints. He benefitted from Southampton’s brave attacking playing style, but after Koeman’s departure, he struggled.
Even if he often showed how brilliant he was, Southampton gradually declined – and sold Tadic’s great partner Sadio Mane to Liverpool. Last season was very disappointing, as Southampton had to fight to survive in the Premier League after a period of inconsistency and managerial changes.
That is why Tadic’s big impact at Ajax this season did not seem to be so obvious when they bought him. However, in Amsterdam he has reinvented himself in a left-wing position in a 4-3-3 system, while he also frequently moves into the centre of the pitch and dictates the tempo.
Now, creative responsibility does not lie only on his shoulders. He has been able to develop a great understanding with David Neres, Hakim Ziyech and future Barcelona player De Jong, who plays deeper than Tadic. Also, Tadic has been used as a striker – he holds the ball well and has proved to be very effective when Ajax’s coach Erik ten Hag has shifted him into the attack, especially in big Champions League games.
Similarly as at Ajax, Tadic has also become a key player for the Serbian national team. He is one of the leaders of the generation that came after Dejan Stankovic and Nemanja Vidic.
Milan Zdravković, a journalist working for Mozzart Sport website, says: "He is our playmaker, and also a captain if Nemanja Matic and Aleksandar Kolarov are out. On the pitch, he is doing basically everything. What Ronaldo means in Portugal or Messi in Argentina, here in Serbia it’s about Tadic. After (Ajax’s) game against Real Madrid, everything in Serbia is about Tadić, he is our biggest star right now.”
With Tadic in the centre, Serbia won their UEFA Nations League C group (where they also played Romania), and they are attempting to qualify for their first Euros since playing in the quarter-finals nineteen years ago (under the name “FR Yugoslavia”). At the start of the qualifying campaign they drew 1-1 in Portugal and it was again Tadic who scored – he converted a penalty kick.
Now, Ajax’s fans can dream again. They might have struggled in recent years - having last won the Champions League back in 1995 - but they have found their improbable hero in Tadic, who has shown he can be the decisive player against the biggest opponents. If they get past Juventus too, it will be their first last four appearance since 1996-1997. Can he do it again?