After securing the Dutch double last season, coming within seconds of reaching the Champions League final and winning the hearts of neutral fans across the globe in the process, Ajax entered the 2019-2020 season knowing it would be a different season. Yes, there would be an opportunity to learn from last year while continuing to develop its philosophy with its young, talented squad. But there was plenty of offseason change, too, which isn't too unusual for the club.
Roster churn is the norm at a place like Ajax, which is known for producing young talent, selling it off and repeating the process. After last season's storybook run, 12 players left, while new incoming transfers and graduates from Ajax’s famed academy came in to replace them.
Midfield architect Frenkie de Jong left for Barcelona, Kasper Dolberg joined Nice and Matthijs de Ligt completed his move to Serie A by joining Juventus. It could have been considerably worse, only for the likes of David Neres, Donny van de Beek, Hakim Ziyech and Nicolas Taglifico to stay put. Nevertheless, Ajax responded to its sales by bringing together specific, versatile acquisitions to make its transition as seamless as possible. The idea was to bring in players who could not only learn the Ajax way but also provide head coach Erik ten Hag with multiple positional possibilities.
Enter Mexico international Edson Alvarez, a versatile 21-year-old who can play in the midfield or defense. He arrived this summer from Club America for approximately $17 million and signed a five-year deal. At first, many thought this move was a direct replacement for De Ligt, but ten Hag has primarily been using him in the club’s midfield trio, usually next to van de Beek and another new transfer, Lisandro Martinez.
“I started as a center back, but managers also saw me as center mid, so wherever I go I can play,” a confident Alvarez told SI.com. “Basically, I do what my technical coaches want me to do, what my manager wants. And I do it.”
Despite the Mexican’s assurance on his own game, however, Ajax legend and youth coach Ronald de Boer recently questioned Alvarez’s ability to play in the midfield, causing somewhat of a mini-rift within the club.
“Against Valencia or Chelsea, which are good teams and have quality players, Edson could play as a midfielder, said De Boer, speaking to ESPN right before the club’s opening match in the Champions League against Lille. "But when Ajax has the ball, maybe he doesn't have the necessary creativity; he's not very creative in my opinion, but I have to see how he develops."
But Alvarez, ever the professional who doesn’t allow many things to bother him, took this criticism, listened, and then moved on. In fact, he did so a day later by scoring–quite brilliantly, at that.
It was his second goal for Ajax, following the one vs. APOEL in the final Champions League qualifying round that wound up being the series winner in the 2-0 aggregate triumph.
“I really feel the media goes crazy sometimes. It’s really out of nothing. Sometimes this is what media loves to do,” Alvarez said defiantly. “You guys love to push stories where there really isn’t one, and this is just an example. For me, when I receive any criticism, I listen, sure, but I don’t let it affect me. As I said earlier, I do what my coaches want. And I move on and I keep working hard.”
This no-nonsense, hard-working mentality is why Alvarez attracts so many admirers, including Tata Martino, who sees him as an important part of Mexico’s future. Equally, the player sees how crucial Martino has been for El Tri, as tactics aside, the Argentine manager has been able to give the team an identity and sense of cohesion.
“We’re doing great things with Tata and his coaching team. I enjoy his tactics. We’re all really close and feel very good about the future of our team,” Alvarez said. “Sadly, we didn’t well play against Argentina in the last international window, but we’re a tight family and bounce back almost immediately.”
In moving to Ajax, Alvarez joined Hirving Lozano (who recently left PSV Eindhoven for Napoli) and Erick Gutierrez (PSV) as Mexican players to recently make the jump from Liga MX to the Netherlands' top flight, and hopes this trend continues.
“I feel so proud, especially with the fact that I am the first Mexican to play for Ajax,” Alvarez said. “But it’s not just about me, it’s also about opening doors for other talented young Mexican players as they look to come to Europe. Every time I enter the pitch every week, I feel so proud, because aside from representing Ajax I am also doing it for Mexico.”
That’s probably where his head was at when he tweeted “Stay f-----g strong,” after scoring his goal against Lille. For Alvarez, the goal was a moment of joy and reflection and the tweet, well, that was to let it all out.
“People who know me, know exactly how much that goal meant to me, so I know fans back home loved my tweet as much as the goal itself," Alvarez said, laughing. "That’s why I manage my own account, because it’s a great way for me to engage with fans and those who have supported me throughout.”
At his age, it’s no surprise that Alvarez is social-media-savvy, but if you are thinking he’s a typical 21-year-old, then you would be mistaken. He is, essentially, an old soul. He's extremely comfortable with who he is, exuding confidence and maturity beyond his years.
“I get that a lot. Many people tell me that I’m an old soul, and it’s all because of my parents, and I thank them for it,” Alvarez said. “I left my home at 9, so I had to grow up very fast. And that’s really where it comes from. But I’m honestly the way I am thanks to how my parents raised me.”
The lessons he learned from his parents are about to come in handy, as he and his partner, Sofia Toache, await the birth of their daughter. It's just another significant life shift to have to adjust to on the fly, but all signs point to Alvarez passing the test in his new country.
“At first it was hard when I came here, complicated," Alvarez said. "But now I have my family here, my home and obviously the news of the baby makes us all even happier as we settle in. I feel great and really like it here.”
Feeling good, however, is just part of the story, as Alvarez knows that he needs to deliver for Ajax and do everything he can to not just continue to develop as an individual but also help the defending Dutch champion retain the title, the domestic cup and prove to the rest of the continent that last season’s Champions League campaign was not a fluke. After playing key roles in two 3-0 group wins, Alvarez is on his way to doing just that.
“I feel the pressure playing here, of course," Alvarez said. "The moment you feel there is an interest from a club like Ajax then you feel the pressure. But I come to be me, to play my game and to help this team and help Ajax. I feel the responsibility, but I also try and enjoy it, because we all know this just doesn’t happen to everyone. I feel the pressure but, in all honesty, I welcome it.”