Rejuvenating Ajax: What needs to be done to challenge for the title next season?

It’s been an incredibly disappointing season for Ajax, who currently sit third in the Eredivisie having lost four and drawn nine of their 32 games this season. The 21/22 Eredivisie champions are finishing a season without silverware for the first time since 2018. This season Ajax have failed to beat Feyenoord, PSV and AZ in a single Eredivisie season for the first time in their history. There are a few factors to blame for Ajax’s deterioration. Let’s take a further look at them.

Erik ten Hag’s departure

It was always going to be difficult for Ajax to find a suitable replacement for Erik ten Hag. The former Bayern Munich reserves boss spent four and a half seasons at Ajax before moving to Manchester United last summer. During his time at the club, he won three Eredivisie titles and two KNVB cups. In stepped Alfred Schreuder as Ten Hag’s replacement. The former Hoffenheim head coach took over at the start of this season, and things kicked off brilliantly. Schreuder won six of his first seven games in charge, with the side scoring 28 goals across those matches. But for any manager nowadays, it takes one small slip-up in form to lose your job. In January Schreuder was sacked after drawing seven and losing seven matches.

Former Ajax defender John Heitinga is currently in charge of the club, and the inconsistency in results is still present. The KNVB Cup final defeat to PSV in April summed up the season. With three games remaining, they’re scrapping for a place in Europe.

Marc Overmars Mayhem

Former Ajax and Arsenal legend Marc Overmars spent 10 years working as the director of football at Ajax before his sour departure last year. During his time in the role, the club’s transfer strategy was superb, shirts were selling out in seconds and they were reaching the summit of European football. 

In February 2022, just 62 days after signing a new contract, Overmars resigned from his role after multiple complaints were made by female colleagues over inappropriate messages. Overmars is currently the director of football at Royal Antwerp, who lead the race for the Belgian title. Last month Ajax appointed former Borussia Dortmund head of scouting, Sven Mislintat as the new director of football.

Ins and Outs 

Having won the title last season, the club were prepared for some player departures. They probably weren’t prepared to be trimmed of eight key players. Antony and Lisandro Martinez both joined Ten Hag at Manchester United, Ryan Gravenberch and Noussair Mazraoui joined Bayern Munich, Sebastien Haller Joined Borussia Dortmund and Andre Onana joined Inter Milan. Defenders Nicolas Tagliafico and Perr Schuurs also left. In January 33-year-old Daley Blind left the club after falling out with Alfred Schreuder. Blind was a leader on and off the pitch for Ajax, meaning it was a huge blow for the club.

Having gained over €200m from players sold, Ajax went and spent over €100m on an almost entirely new squad at the start of the season. The biggest arrivals were Steven Bergwijn from Tottenham for over €30m and Calvin Bassey from Rangers for over €20m. Ajax have scored 82 goals and conceded 34 this season. Last season they scored 98 goals in total and conceded just 19. This is evidence that the issues exist in all areas of the pitch. Put simply, they’re not scoring enough and they’re conceding far too many to compete for the title.

What do Ajax need to do to challenge for the title next season?

It’s unclear if John Heitinga will be head coach next season. If Ajax are to replace the 39-year-old, they should be looking at a motivator, someone who can lift morale around the camp. There’s been lots of discontent around the squad this season, with club captain Dusan Tadic saying the squad ‘Needs more quality’.

This summer will be crucial in terms of recruitment. The club only has one main striker and that’s 21-year-old Brian Brobbey. He’s scored 12 times in 30 league appearances this season, but Ajax will need someone capable of bagging 20 or more goals like they had last campaign with Sebastien Haller.

Last season Ajax had several defensive options. Jurrien Timber, Lisandro Martinez, Daley Blind and Tagliafico would be Ten Hag’s most used back four, with several strong backup options if any of them were unavailable. This season, Ajax have plenty of defensive options but are missing the experience and leadership qualities of Daley Blind, they’re also missing Lisandro Martinez’s ability to start dangerous attacks and they’re missing speed up either flank. Ajax have five centre-backs in the squad, all of them are aged 23 or under. 25-year-old Edson Alvarez has often had to drop into defence, despite predominantly playing as a midfielder. Ajax must recruit an experienced defender this summer.  

It’s likely to be a busy transfer window for the club. CEO, Edwin van der Sar is under a lot of pressure. He and the clubs director of football Sven Mislintat will have to make some huge decisions as to who leaves and who signs. If they want to win the title next season they’re going to have to get these decisions right.

GBeNeFN | Hugo Hargreaves

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