395 DusanTadic

After losing his way at Southampton the Serbian forward has exceeded all expectations at Ajax, culminating in his nomination among the world's best players for December's ceremony

January 29 ~ Virgil van Dijk and Sadio Mané weren’t the only former Southampton players to make it onto the Ballon d’Or shortlist. Deserving of his spot alongside Liverpool’s Champions League-winning duo was Dusan Tadic. An entertaining if inconsistent player during his four years at St Mary’s, he’s become a reliable match-winner since moving to Ajax in the summer of 2018.

While Van Dijk and Mané finished second and fourth respectively in the final Ballon d’Or standings, Tadic was a distant 20th, level on points with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The ranking didn’t do justice to a special year for the Serbian, but it was a remarkable achievement all the same. The idea of him even featuring in a discussion of the world’s best players would have seemed absurd when he was often flattering to deceive in the Premier League.

Tadic arrived at Southampton from FC Twente in July 2014. He was Ronald Koeman’s first signing and twice helped the club to qualify for the Europa League. Early on he was a joyful, jinking presence in the Saints’ midfield, setting up a record four goals in the 8-0 thrashing of Sunderland just three months after joining.

Unfortunately, Tadic’s influence waned following the departure of Koeman in 2016. Since returning to the Premier League, Southampton had been hailed for their progressive playing style and far-sighted recruitment policy, but both were increasingly compromised by muddled decision-making. After a couple of years of fitful performances as an unstable club battled against relegation, they let Tadic leave for just £10 million.

He was expected to rediscover his spark back in the Netherlands, where he had previously shone for Groningen and Twente, but nobody could have predicted the scale of his impact, particularly in the Champions League. Tadic was outstanding as part of Ajax's unexpected run to the semi-finals, dominating at the Bernabéu as reigning champions Real Madrid were summarily dispatched.

That 4-1 win in the second leg of their round of 16 tie was the defining moment of an extraordinary campaign. Tadic made Real, who had won four of the previous five Champions League titles, look amateurish. He teed up the first for Hakim Ziyech and slid in David Neres for the second after gracefully pirouetting past Casemiro. He then curled an unstoppable shot into the top corner from just inside the box to make it 3-0.

It was a masterclass from someone performing at their absolute peak. Domestically he often played on the left wing, but in Europe he thrived as a false nine, dropping deep to collect the ball and create space for runners in behind. Regardless of where he was asked to operate from, he was almost uniformly brilliant. Across 56 appearances in all competitions Tadic contributed to an incredible 62 goals, scoring 38 and setting up 24.

His consistency at home and abroad was recognised with a place in the Eredivisie team of the season and the Champions League squad of the season. Tadic became a leader in the dressing room too, taking over from Matthijs de Ligt as captain when the young defender left for Juventus, and was handed a contract extension just a year into his original deal.

An unconventional signing for a club so obsessed with youth and potential, the 31-year-old has more than repaid the faith shown in him by Ajax, and the unusually large transfer fee they were prepared to spend on a player of his age. Like the returning Daley Blind, who now serves as his vice-captain, Tadic brought with him experience and a big-game mentality that has helped to nurture the next generation.

Ajax were even prepared to let striker Kasper Dolberg leave last summer without signing a direct replacement, so confident were they that Tadic could fill the void up front on a more permanent basis. He’s done so effortlessly, with another impressive haul of goals and assists. Although Ajax couldn’t repeat their Champions League heroics, finishing third in a tough group, they remain on course for another Eredivisie title.

There may have been an inevitable exodus of players after such a thrilling season, with Frenkie de Jong another huge loss, but Tadic continues to lead the way as the senior figure in an otherwise youthful side. In the 4-4 draw with Chelsea, he was the only player they fielded over 30. Sometimes a little flaky at Southampton, he’s matured and become much more decisive for Ajax, taking his performances to a new and unexpected level. Sean Cole

Image by Colorsport

This article first appeared in WSC 395, February 2020. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here

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