No manager, no direction and disorder in the stands - what the hell is happening at Ajax?

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Ajax are enduring their worst start to a season for almost 60 years and sit in the Eredivise relegation zone - so why have the European giants fallen so far?

No manager, no director of football, no wins since August and a fanbase in violent disarray – the Ajax that fell to a 2-0 defeat in Brighton on Thursday evening are a far cry from the side that has periodically dominated the Dutch Eredivisie or from that which reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2019. This is an Ajax that has collapsed into a state of crisis.

Brighton & Hove Albion’s first ever win in European competition is cause for celebration regardless of the opposition, but in this case the Seagulls were clear favourites – Ajax are 17th in the Dutch top tier, in the relegation zone with just one league win to their name. They haven’t beaten anyone since winning against Bulgarian side Ludogorets in the Europa League play-offs on 24 August. Since that match they have dismissed their manager, Maurice Steijn, and fired director of football Sven Mislintat just hours after their own fans rioted at the Johann Cruijff ArenA. Neither have been replaced, and the chaos behind the scenes is beginning to match the regular scenes of disorder in the stands.

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So why has it all fallen apart for Ajax, less than 18 months after winning the Dutch championship for the 36th time with Erik ten Hag in charge? The root causes seem to be a combination of confusion at boardroom level and poor work in the transfer market which has left them with a lack of leadership off the field and quality on it.

Ajax’s boardroom was, until recently, largely made up of former players who knew the club and its needs inside-out, but many have either been fired or forced to step down for a variety of reasons, and the result has been a power vacuum and a lack of direction.

The first to go was Marc Overmars, the former Arsenal winger who resigned as director of football in February 2022 after admitting to sending inappropriate text messages to female colleagues. His replacement, former Arsenal director Mislintat, was fired in September after falling out with the board. One potential replacement, former striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, has since stepped back from his duties as technical director citing burnout. Edwin van der Sar, who acted as club CEO, also resigned in May following a disappointing campaign which saw Ajax miss out on Champions League football, stating that he was “exhausted.”

Clearly, whatever exactly is happening behind the scenes, it is taking a toll on experienced executives and leaving the club with seats to fill throughout the boardroom. To compound the issue new manager Steijn, appointed over the summer after impressing with his work at Sparta Rotterdam, has been removed from his role as a result of Ajax’s awful start to the season. Hedwiges Maduro, who stepped in as caretaker for the second half of last year’s campaign, is back in the hotseat again but as it stands there has been no new appointment and there is no director of football to guide the hiring process.

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Mislintat’s departure comes off the back of a summer which saw massive squad turnover and quality players replaced by new faces who have struggled to take up the slack – Mohammed Kudus, Jurriën Timber, Edson Álvarez and Calvin Bassey all left for the Premier League, while experienced midfielders Dušan Tadić and Davy Klaassen departed for Turkey and Italy respectively. They made an estimated profit of €50m (£44m) on the deals, but the replacements have not worked out.

No fewer than 12 players came in on permanent deals, but nine of them were under the age of 23 and the more senior players that have been brought in have failed to make a major impact – including striker Chuba Akpom, signed from Middlesbrough for €12.3m (£10.7m), who has yet to score a single goal for the club despite leading the scoring charts in the Championship last season. Their most exciting signing on paper, highly-regarded Croatia defender Josip Šutalo, has failed to find form.

And these are not the first transfers Ajax have made in recent years which have yet to pan out. In 2022, they signed Calvin Bassey (€23m, £20m) and Owen Wijndal (€10m, £8.7m) before selling the former on at a slight loss to Fulham a year later and loaning the latter out to Royal Antwerp. Heavily-hyped young forward Brian Brobbey, who came through the academy, returned from RB Leipzig for a fee rising to €20m (£17.4m) but has struggled for consistency, scoring 16 goals in 47 games. Steven Bergwijn was brought it from Tottenham Hotspur but while he has played well and been handed the captain’s armband, his fee of over €30m (£26m) seemed excessive.

The age of the players brought in is significant, too – the many youngsters signed this summer has been necessitated after the flow of young talent from Jong Ajax to the first team dried up. Of the starting eleven who faced Brighton, just three came through the club’s youth ranks, including Brobbey who was sold and brought back at a substantial loss. A combination of a couple of relatively lean years of production from the academy and the sale of their best graduates has resulted in a situation where more purchasing was necessary – and their money has not been well spent.

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The consequence of all this has been deeply sub-par performances on the field. Ajax have enjoyed plenty of possession in most of their games but their use of it has been lethargic and unstructured – only four teams in the Eredivisie have made fewer forward passes. They are off the boil out of possession, too, recovering the ball fewer times than any other team in the Dutch top tier. Most of their players are new to the club and Steijn failed to find a way to gel them together quickly, not helped by constant tinkering with the line-up.

Perhaps they will grow as a squad over the course of the season as they adapt to each others’ games, but there is no clear playing style or strategy from which to build and nobody in charge to implement a more coherent plan. If Ajax get their next round of appointments wrong, they could be in serious trouble.

The sense of panic and frustration has extended to the fans. Dutch football has already been struggling with an upsurge in hooliganism after the coronavirus pandemic, but Ajax supporters have become the worst offenders. After disorder in the stands and clashes with riot police outside the ground led to the match against PSV being suspended and completed behind closed doors, their away game at FC Utrecht was suspended twice in the closing minutes as Ajax ultras threw objects onto the field, once at 3-3 when an Utrecht forward was through on goal, and then again after the home side found a winner anyway. There were also clashes between a small group of Ajax fans and police in Brighton on Thursday night, with a video of the incident circulating on social media. Matters have already reached boiling point.

It remains unlikely that Ajax will be relegated from the Eredivisie. They have two games in hand and need win only one to get out of the relegation zone – although given their nine-game winless streak, even one win may be a tall order at the moment. Nonetheless, their resources are vast compared to the rest of the teams in the bottom half of the table. They will need only the most basic degree of competence in their next manager and director of football to at least ensure they don’t drop into the Eerste Divisie.

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But Ajax aim for far more than basic competence. They may not have ever had a true monopoly on Dutch football, but they expect to be contenders every year at a bare minimum, and after their worst start to a season since 1964 they have rarely looked less the part. Whatever comes next, it had better be good – for the sake of the club and for the sake of returning order to the stands.

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