Over the years Ajax have been renowned for sustaining success despite selling key players every summer, yet they may have gone too far this transfer window
The famous Ajax Amsterdam is known as one of the great footballing institutions because of the abundance of trophies, the European history, and perhaps in contemporary football primarily for having an astoundingly consistent ability to nurture talented young players, through their academy and acquired from elsewhere, all indoctrinated in the tactically demanding but aesthetically glorious Johan Cruijff style of play.
This latter feature has been crucial, along with an effective transfer policy, in Ajax’s equally renowned ability to keep regenerating its playing squad. Nearly every summer at least a couple of their key players are sold for a healthy profit. And pretty much every time either an intelligently scouted replacement or a naturally fitting, ready-made model from the production line slots seamlessly into the hole that has been left.
If you need a recent example, just look at how Erik ten Hag, now attempting to sip from the poisoned Manchester United chalice, was able to lead the team to two more league titles and a Dutch Cup despite losing Matthijs de Ligt, Kasper Dolberg, Sergiño Dest, Hakim Ziyech, Donny van de Beek and Frenkie de Jong all in the space of a year after nearly reaching the Champions League Final in 2019. Perhaps only Borussia Dortmund can match Ajax in terms of sustaining success despite such high player churn.
Yet the question this summer is – are they in danger of taking it too far?
Indeed, if you look at the transfer window activity to date at the Johan Cruijff ArenA, and consider the departures that might still happen, then it would not be baseless to suggest that the 2022 championship-winning team is at risk of being pulled apart to severely detrimental levels.
Firstly, Ryan Gravenberch, one of the most talented young central midfielders in Europe, was sold to Bayern Munich. He will be playing with old teammate Noussair Mazraoui, who also left Amsterdam for Bavaria this summer after becoming perhaps the Eredivisie’s best right-back over the previous four seasons. On top of this, Ajax’s leading goalscorer from last season, Sébastien Haller, was surprisingly sold to Borussia Dortmund (we are wishing Haller a healthy recovery from testicular cancer). Furthermore, the first choice goalkeeper, André Onana, has departed to Inter Milan. And now they have lost their player of the season from the last campaign, talented Argentinian centre-half Lisandro Martínez, who left for big money to Manchester United. Meanwhile, Nicolás Tagliafico, whilst not necessarily the first choice left back anymore, is still a player of high-quality who had become a real leader within the squad. He too has now been sold to Lyon.
And still no Ajax fan can confidently say that their star Brazilian winger Antony will be there come the start of the season, such is the heavy interest in the player from some of Europe’s hefty hitters. Those supporters must still be wiping the sweat off their respective brows from the start of the transfer window, when Jurien Timber was eventually convinced to stay by his national coach Louis van Gaal.
Can a team really maintain the previous campaign’s high standards after losing five, and possibly six, of its key players? It is true that Ajax have bought intelligently by signing lightspeed and versatile forward Steven Bergwijn and impressive young left-back Owen Wijndal, who the Oranje cited before as a star in the making. They have also re-signed Brian Brobbey from Red Bull Leipzig and additional young talents in centre-half Calvin Bassey from Rangers and forward Francisco Conceição from Porto. Yet whether it be age, experience or past inconsistency, it is debatable if any of these players have the immediate ability to fill the shoes of those they are replacing.
And then there is the change in management. With no disrespect to new coach Alfred Schreuder, who has led Club Brugge, Twente and Hoffenheim and been an Assistant Manager at Ajax and Barcelona, but the loss of Erik ten Hag to Manchester United could be huge. As fans in England may soon see, this is a coach who very much shapes a team in his own image. Being at the helm of a club for four and a half years might not sound that substantial, but ten Hag had a profound influence on the squad collectively and individually during that time. How long will it take the players to adapt to Schreuder? Will it be seamless continuity or a real challenge? We often see team’s getting a new manager bounce yet this could well end up being an initial slump.
Another problem on the horizon for most of Europe’s largest clubs is the first ever winter World Cup in 2022. The strain of intense domestic seasons on players for teams such as Ajax, combining league matches with multiple European contests, is well known. Throw in a four-week World Cup and that intensity goes up yet another notch. Granted, this is something that will impact many, but Ajax could easily have up to 13, perhaps even more, of their first team squad playing in the tournament. As this has never been done before, it is difficult to predict quite how the players will cope afterwards. However, injury and mental fatigue will inevitably be a big worry. It is hardly ideal for Ajax if there is already some uncertainty about squad depth before a ball has even been kicked.
If you want to play the doom and gloom card further, one could also look at the natural cycle of success that we often find leading clubs go through. Perhaps this summer of relative player upheaval and managerial change could be the trigger for a campaign of transition. In the past, Ajax have been no exception to this Darwinian-esque footballing law. To give two recent examples, preceding this current period of dominance with three consecutive titles, Ajax had actually been through four barren seasons that even included an embarrassing 5-1 Dutch Cup Final loss to PEC Zwolle. There was significant fan discontent during this period, including when ten Hag arrived in 2017 due to his links to local rivals FC Utrecht. Before that difficult period Ajax had lifted four-straight Eredivisie trophies, yet what is interesting to note is that the first of those came after six seasons in which PSV Eindhoven dominated and even Twente and AZ Alkmaar got in on the act. Even the greatest football behemoths can struggle to escape the peaks and troughs of success.
Finally, it is worth highlighting just how close last season actually was. It certainly wasn’t a case of Ajax jogging casually over the finishing line; more them straining their collective muscles for one final push whilst nervously checking over their shoulder. The gap between Ajax and second place PSV Eindhoven was only two points and it was certainly a race of fine margins. The PSV fans will still be ruing a controversial 2-1 defeat at home to Ajax at the turn of the year, as well as an injury-time penalty that denied them three points against Feyenoord. Indeed, for a long-time it looked like it could be a three-horse title race with Feyenoord, until two late goals from Ajax, including a fine winner from Antony, turned a famous win in Amsterdam into a painful defeat. It is true that both PSV and Feyenoord have lost a number of players this summer too – particularly the Rotterdam club that so nearly won the Europa Conference League – yet both will now have a further incentive and belief that they can topple their historic rival this year. In the context of the direct competition, the timing of the squad uncertainties could hardly be worse for Ajax.
This of course is all pure speculation before the action has even started. We could see a revamped squad, which still contains prolific captain Dusan Tadic, Timber and Antony (for now), race away with it again. And whilst fans will be concerned, overcoming enormous squad overalls is something that Ajax have become masters of.
And yet. It does feel like the jigsaw that ten Hag carefully constructed has been picked up and chucked into the air, the pieces falling sporadically all over the floor. For the neutral, it will be intriguing to see how quickly it can be put together again.
The imminent Dutch Super Cup against PSV will allow us to begin seeing just how ready Ajax are to defend their crown and secure a 37th Dutch title. If you’ve not really followed an Eredivisie season before, the 2022/23 campaign would certainly be a good one to start with – as Ajax may have left that door to success slightly ajar…