Don’t Worry About a Thing: The Shocking Decline of Ajax

Football is a funny old sport. Treated as the last great equal playing field, it’s not really, is it? All the prizes usually go to a select few teams. But, if you’re one of those teams, then who’s complaining? It’s perfect, just carry on, and watch the success roll in. Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple. Transitions happen, and they don’t always go well. Sometimes, it’s a car crash. Nowhere has this been more evident in recent years than in one of Europe’s most successful teams: Ajax.


On the surface, anything less than the best would seem like a failure for the team from Amsterdam. They’re one of the world’s most successful teams, home to some of the world’s best players, and with one of the world’s best academies. So, what happened?


Carlos Borges: Ajax’s Portuguese Winger


Our story begins in 2019. Ajax had just finished the 2018/19 season by winning the domestic double and coming within seconds of reaching the Champions League final. Their management structure, consisting of Manager Erik ten Hag, Sporting Director Marc Overmars, and CEO Edwin Van der Sar, had built and coached one of the best young teams in the world, as they proved over the next three years.


Between 2019 and 2022, Ajax won five major trophies and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League, despite selling more than €400m worth of talent. The club was in the midst of a golden era, and as the famed Bob Marley song Three Little Birds says: “Don’t worry about a thing.” But happy endings are boring.


It turned out Ajax’s success was built on a house of cards. 2022 was the gust that blew it down. By 2022, years of attrition within the squad had seen quality decline. While the sale of star players like Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt had netted the club around €600m, there had been a predictable drop in quality. The club was going to be more reliant on shrewd management than ever.


The cards started falling down. The first card fell on February 8th. Marc Overmars resigned in disgrace after being investigated for sending inappropriate messages to colleagues. Now, he might have been a bad person, but Overmars was a genius recruiter. He’d developed a masterful scouting network in South America, convinced the club to relax their rigid wage structure to sign stars like Dušan Tadić, and overseen the capture of 9 trophies and over £500m in player sales.


Josip Sutalo: Ajax’s Croatian Defender


Unfortunately, he didn’t record anything. Rather than note down names, meetings, etc., everything was carried out either informally or via WhatsApp. So, not only did Ajax lose his scouting network, ideas, and talent, but nobody knew how to run the department; they were blind. This meant his replacement, former player Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, struggled.


But it’s fine. As long as everyone else stays where they are, we can fix it, right? Wrong. In April of 2022, it was announced that Erik ten Hag would be leaving Ajax to take control of Manchester United. With him, he took star players Antony & Lisandro Martínez. That summer, the club signed former Club Brugge coach Alfred Schreuder to replace Ten Hag.


In a truly bizarre sequence of events, they also signed his agent, Miloš Malenović, to help Huntelaar sign players. Surprisingly, this turned out better than expected. They spent €113m on 11 new players; they had some success with the likes of Brian Brobbey and Steven Bergwijn, but it didn’t stop the rot. By January, they’d been knocked out of Europe, were out of the title race, and Schreuder had been sacked, replaced with club legend John Heitinga.


Unfortunately, that didn’t help either. The 2022/23 season proved to be one of Ajax’s worst in recent memory. They finished 3rd, missing out on the Champions League, and lost the KNVB Cup Final to PSV. This all proved to be too much for Van Der Sar, who resigned at the end of the season, stating: “It doesn’t feel good to have to make imminent decisions about the future of this beautiful club. Hence my decision to stop now.”


Jorrel Hato: Ajax’s Latest Teenage Starlet




While things might’ve seemed dire, it looked like there was hope on the horizon. One of Van Der Sar’s last acts as CEO was to appoint Sven Mislintat as the club’s new sporting director. Mislintat was highly regarded. He’d spent 11 years working as chief scout for Borussia Dortmund where the discovery of players like Robert Lewandowski and Ousmane Dembélé had earned him the nickname “Diamantenauge” (Diamond Eye).


The club’s new, highly regarded sporting director then hired a highly regarded manager. Maurice Steijn had just finished 6th in the Eredivisie with Sparta Rotterdam, a man Mislintat referred to as an “overachiever.” The new management team then spent €110m on another 10 new, mostly unproven players. Sure, it wasn’t very “Ajax”, but if it worked, who cares?


Unfortunately, it failed, in spectacular fashion as neither man made it to the end of the calendar year. Off the field, scandal hit. Mislintat was forced to resign in September when it was discovered that he owned a 35% stake in the company helping to broker the transfer to Ajax of left-back Borna Sosa. On the field, it was just as bad. Amidst a raft of issues with new signings and tactics described as too negative, Steijn resigned in October with the club adrift in 10th, enduring their worst start for 54 years.


The Rebuild


Before I explain the next bit, I need to explain Ajax. The club doesn’t have an owner in the traditional sense; they’re owned by a members’ association. What this means is that you or I can become a member at Ajax and then have a say in how the club is run. Members appoint a supervisory board which ultimately instructs club leadership. Okay, back to the story.


Player Analysis: Branco van den Boomen


Unbelievably, the club’s worst start in 54 years stung the club’s membership into action. An army of Ajax legends was hired, including the likes of Louis van Gaal and Danny Blind as footballing advisers, along with former player John van ‘t Schip, who was appointed as interim coach.


It’s started to have the desired impact on the starting 11 too. Young defender Jorrel Hato has broken countless records, including being Ajax’s youngest captain, Mislintat signing Branco Van Den Boomen has started performing, and Brian Brobbey has rediscovered his form in front of goal.


While they’ve got a long way to go before they can challenge for the title again (they’re 29 points off PSV), the club is showing signs of life. They’ve won 11 out of 18 games since Van ‘t Schip took over, and fans are hopeful that they’re just in transition. Ajax have seen red in three of their last five matches, falling to 10 men in the 66th minute of their 4-0 loss at Aston Villa in the Europa Conference League. After being dumped out of Europe, they’ll be looking to bounce back on Sunday with a trip to Sparta Rotterdam.


By: Kieran Alder / @The_Own_Goal

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Soccrates Images / Getty Images