Soon after Saturday’s miserable 2-2 draw at Excelsior, a dozen or so new employees of Ajax found out precisely what it’s like to represent the biggest club in the Netherlands.
That extends to newly installed manager Maurice Steijn, director of football Sven Mislintat, and the cosmopolitan posse of new recruits he has spent the summer hiring.
The Amsterdam giants are in the midst of what you’d kindly describe as a transition, perhaps more accurately label a decline – and it’s one entirely of their own making.
The backlash to their draw with the Rotterdam minnows was not a surprise. It comes after a turbulent 18 months that has seen their envied squad dismantled and fundamental change at every level of the club. Often not for the better.
While Ajax are ever only one bad result away from criticism – their ex-players turned pundits enjoy large platforms and are never short of opinions – Saturday’s stalemate was a pointed reminder it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.
“It was frighteningly bad. I’m worried about Ajax,” former striker Marco Van Basten told Rondo, a late-night chat show featuring some of Dutch football’s biggest names.
“It’s really nothing,” he added when asked about the club’s board. “A strange team and a strange club. Because who do you hear now? This is not Ajax. This is FC Amsterdam. In two years it went bad very quickly, that is really bizarre.”
Van Basten’s aim, unsurprisingly, was right on target.
Such dysfunction is especially alarming at a club usually considered a paragon of good practice. In Amsterdam, the Johan Cruyff Institute cultivates football’s future leaders, their alumni including Ajax’s now ex-CEO Edwin van der Sar.
Tonight, the club will get another reminder of just how far they have fallen when they travel to Ludogorets in Bulgaria for their first European game of the season.
They say there’s no sense in being the richest man in the graveyard, or in the case of Ajax, the richest club in the qualifying play-offs for the Europa League’s group stage.
Less than 18 months ago, they started a Champions League last-16 tie with Benfica as favourites, and were considered by many to have an outside chance of going all the way. Three years earlier they’d beaten Real Madrid and Juventus on their way to the semi-finals.
They lost that last-16 clash in Lisbon but went on to win a third league title in four years before manager Erik ten Hag left for Manchester United in the summer of 2022.
The auction of star players began almost immediately.
In the 12 months since, they have brought in around €330 million in player sales – soon to swell beyond €370m once somebody meets their asking price for Mohammed Kudus – but have recruited poorly and have been left with their weakest team in recent memory.
In 2022-23 they finished third in the Eredivisie on 69 points, behind great rivals Feyenoord and PSV, with their lowest total for a season since they last came third, in 2009.
Ajax is a club accustomed to Champions League football and their failure to secure it has left a hole in their budget, one now filled with a portion of the proceeds from player sales, which in turn has impacted their spending power. It’s understandable why some feel the club is in a downwards spiral.
It would be easy to highlight Ten Hag’s departure as a turning point – his successor Alfred Schreuder, now in the UAE with Al Ain, was a disaster, while the next man up, John Heitinga, fared little better – but perhaps a more consequential exit had occurred six months earlier.
In January 2022, director of football Marc Overmars left the club in disgrace after admitting to sending inappropriate material to female colleagues.
It’s a common theme with Ajax fans that while he had to go, Overmars’ acumen in the market has been sorely missed.
It is a slight misconception that Ajax’s success is all down to one of the finest academies in world football.
Elite home-grown talent will always give them a competitive advantage, but the club really soars when this is in harmony with expert recruitment.
It certainly wasn’t lost on Ajax fans that at his next club, Royal Antwerp, one solitary summer transfer window was all Overmars required to lay the groundwork for their first Belgian league title in 66 years.
Last season’s failures prompted CEO Van der Sar to step down before club captain Dusan Tadic, at the age of 34, asked for his contract to be dissolved, the size of Ajax’s rebuild too vast for a player in the twilight of his career.
That meant in just 18 months the club had lost its CEO, director of football, three managers and team captain. The spine of the club disintegrated. Which brings us back to Steijn and Mislintat – and Van Basten.
“If someone leaves or someone is no longer there, there has to be a new one,” the 58-year-old triple Ballon d’Or winner said of the club’s leadership crisis. “Who is Ajax now? Mislintat? Is he Ajax? Isn’t that crazy? At Ajax there must be five, six, seven people who have things to say.”
Ultimately results will speak loudest and Steijn and Mislintat are under immediate pressure to provide them – starting tonight in Bulgaria. Steijn, who spent a spell in the UAE with Al Wahda, must find a way of combining the remnants of last season’s squad with the nine players Mislintat has lured to Amsterdam this summer.
But Van Basten said: “I don’t see good football, no initiative. I don’t see a team that dominates and plays from the back. This is not a team with flair.”
His frustration is obvious – and shared by many supporters. Yet having watched them nosedive from the heights of Champions League knockout football to being the third best team in the Eredivisie, it’s justifiable.
Now they find themselves gambling on some alchemy from Mislintat and that some unexpected treasure will emerge from the academy. It feels like a long road back.