- Ajax are at the bottom of the Eredivisie after a terrible start to the season
- They finished third last season, missing out on Champions League qualification
- Head coach Maurice Steijn only lasted until November
- They lost players including Dušan Tadic, Jurriën Timber and Mohammed Kudus in the summer
Ajax are not supposed to be bottom of the Eredivisie. Even finishing out of the top three is a disaster, let alone being bottom of the league over two months into the season.
But that’s what happened at the weekend after they got thumped 5-2 at PSV Eindhoven, their fifth-successive top-flight defeat.
Imagine being told ten, or even five years ago that Brighton & Hove Albion would easily beat Ajax 2-0 in the Europa League and you’d have laughed it off. The idea that it would have been an easy, routine win for Brighton would have been nearly incomprehensible. But here we are. How did it happen?
A steady decline
Teams like Ajax, Benfica and Monaco who are usually among the front-runners in the comparatively weaker domestic leagues tend to go through cycles of rebuilding, having their squads ransacked by the Manchester Citys and Real Madrids of the world, and then rebuilding again.
For Ajax, their last exceptional season was the 2018-19 season, in which they not only won the league but also came within a whisker of making the Champions League final. It was a season in which Dušan Tadić had the form of his life with 38 goals in all competitions. Elsewhere the team had some exciting young players like Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong, and Donny Van de Beek.
That summer, they lost de Jong and de Ligt, buying future Manchester United defender Lisandro Martinez. They still managed to win the league, but only made the group stage of the Champions League. The following summer, they lost van de Beek as well as Hakim Ziyech, but again won the league after buying Antony, Mohammed Kudus, and Sébastien Haller.
The 2021-22 season, again, saw an Eredivisie win, but they made no standout signings to replenish and refresh the squad. And then, at the end of the season, they lost manager Erik ten Hag to Man United.
The club hasn’t coped with the departure of ten Hag, or even former director of football Marc Overmars who resigned in February 2022 after admitting to sending inappropriate messages to female colleagues. And new director of football Sven Mislintat, who only joined the club in April, was sacked in September and he’s also under investigation over a potential conflict of interest when he bought a player for Ajax through a broker in which he owned a 35% share.
Issues last season
It was last season where cracks truly started to show, however. They ended up finishing third in the league, with ten Hag’s replacement Alfred Schreuder only lasting until January and being replaced by John Heitinga who moved up from managing Jong Ajax.
While they made some good signings like Steven Bergwijn and Calvin Bassey, they lost influential players like Antony, Haller, Martinez, Daley Blind, André Onana and Ryan Gravenberch.
Fast forward to the start of the 2023-24 season, and yet more bigger names would depart. West Ham United signed Kudus and Edson Álvarez, Tadić left for Fenerbahçe on a free transfer, Jurriën Timber went to Arsenal, and Bassey left for Fulham.
More managerial upheaval
And as Ajax missed out on Champions League qualification at the end of last season, they had to cut back on both wages and transfer fees. Head coach Maurice Steijn took over in the summer after Heitinga left to become a coach at West Ham, but he only lasted until October. Hedwiges Maduro was caretaker manager for a week, before John van ‘t Schip became interim manager at the end of the month.
While Ajax were active in the transfer market, signing players including Chuba Akpom from Middlesbrough, Josip Šutalo from Dinamo Zagreb, and Carlos Forbs from Man City, the team has failed to kick on.
While their squad is probably the weakest it’s been for years, it’s still relatively strong by Eredivise standards. They boast Dutch, Argentinian, and Croatian internationals among their ranks. Striker Brian Brobbey has been linked with Man United, while young players like midfielder Kenneth Taylor and forward Amourricho van Axel Dongen have been linked to some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Surely, Ajax won’t be relegated. Teams like FC Volendam, Almere City and Heracles Almelo can’t match the quality Ajax have throughout their team, and over the course of the season they should have enough to stay up.
Of course, that’s not exactly good enough for a team of Ajax’s stature. With such a rich footballing history, their stadium is called the Johan Cruyff Arena after all, it’s not as if fans will tolerate even mid-table.
At the end of the current season, the top two teams will qualify for the main stage of the Champions League, with third place entering the third qualifying round. Anything less than this would be seen as unacceptable. Even finishing fourth and entering the second qualifying round of the Europa League wouldn’t be particularly well-received.
Though they might not go down, it looks set to be a rough season for everybody associated with Ajax unless they can somehow make a miraculous return to the top three.
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