After the Title, What Next for Ajax?
Ajax secured a 36th Eredivisie title with a 5-0 win over Heerenveen last week. It was also their third domestic title in four years under coach Erik ten Hag, and it also means they’ve ended every complete season under him with the domestic title.
For Ten Hag, it was the perfect way to end the season as well as his four-and-a-half-year Ajax tenure, as he leaves Amsterdam to start the rebuilding job at Manchester United for the 2022-23 season.
Ten Hag won’t be the only person leaving or the only change at Ajax in the coming months – it’s set to be a busy summer in Amsterdam, with players and staff set to change as Ajax enter a new era.
It’s not common for Ajax to see so much turnover. Ten Hag himself had to build two great teams: one that made history in the Champions League run of 2019, and one that recently won the club’s 36th Eredivisie title. However, change on this scale hasn’t been seen in quite some time.
The 2021-22 season has been quite complicated for Ajax, especially in its second half. The first portion of it saw greatness, and an Ajax team destined to break records. In the first 23 matches of the Eredivisie season, they only conceded five goals, while in the Champions League, they won all six of their group stage matches for the first time in their history.
It seemed as though they were on course to repeat the heroics of 2018-19, or perhaps better it, but the second half of the campaign was tough, and a lot of the scenarios that panned out were beyond the team’s control.
In January and February, it seemed as though they were on course to make history. Their form was impeccable, and included 3-0, 2-1 and 5-0 wins over Utrecht, PSV and Twente, amongst others, but it fell apart from there.
A Champions League exit at the hands of Benfica, where they lost the second leg at home by a goal to nil, conceding from the Portuguese side’s only shot on target, was a dagger to the heart, and matters of the pitch only added further stains to the season.
The transfer window was poor, as they let go of David Neres to Shakhtar Donetsk and didn’t get in a replacement, having chased Tottenham’s Steven Bergwijn all winter. This was a poorly-executed plan, something that was rare over the last few years.
Additionally, they could have done better on the goalkeeping situation, having had to rely on older players like Maarten Stekelenburg and Remko Pasveer all season. To top it all off, the situation with Marc Overmars in February did not help the club. He had to go.
Ajax’s form was slightly more inconsistent after the European exit. They were winning games, but no longer in the same convincing manner that they were used to, and often had to rely on late goals to secure points. The team was conceding more too.
Still, they persevered – a 3-2 win over Feyenoord at the Johan Cruyff Arena was the highlight of the season, with a late Antony goal proving to be the winner. After Ajax lost the KNVB Cup final to PSV, winning the league title became a priority to ensure Ten Hag’s reign ended in the best possible manner.
They did just that, despite the drama of the final few weeks, Ajax were comprehensive in their win over Heerenveen, and begin a new era as champions of the Netherlands, something they weren’t able to do when Ten Hag joined. Now, though, there will be a busy summer, and this could well shape how the next few years pan out for the Amsterdammers.
First things first, Alfred Schreuder is set to replace Ten Hag as Ajax’s new head coach, confirmed soon after Ajax secured the title. The 49-year-old returns to Amsterdam with a fine reputation in the game.
Having been a part of Ten Hag’s coaching set-up in their famous 2018-19 season – when Ajax reached the Champions League semi-final – he has a good standing in Amsterdam.
Schreuder was often credited with providing plenty of input into the tactical set-up for the European run, and the famed “Tadić-variant”, which saw Dušan Tadić deployed as the team’s number nine with Donny van de Beek as the man behind him and David Neres and Hakim Ziyech on the wings, wreaked havoc across Europe.
Having that experience of working with Ten Hag worked massively in his favour, and after drawing up a list of candidates for the job, that experience and possible continuity made the club lean towards him.
His CV since leaving Ajax has been quite impressive too, working as the head coach at Hoffenheim for a season (having previously been there as Julian Nagelsmann’s assistant) before moving to Barcelona to work under Ronald Koeman, then joining Club Brugge in January 2022 and winning the domestic league title just days after Ajax won theirs over in the Netherlands.
It is likely that he’ll be joined by two new assistants – Dick Schreuder, his brother, who has previously worked with him, and John Heitinga, who has done fine work with Jong Ajax.
Above him, there will be changes as well. Edwin van der Sar still remains CEO, but in the football department, the long-term succession has fallen in the hands of Gerry Hamstra and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
Both have a long history with Ajax. Hamstra joined Ajax in April 2021 from Groningen, being the Technical Director and supporting Overmars, the Director of Football Affairs. Huntelaar, meanwhile, played for the club between 2006 and 2009 and later between 2017 and 2021. Now, though, it’s a different, and probably more difficult task.
In his time as Technical Director, Hamstra’s focus was on scouting and finding talents for the second team and youth set-up. He worked closely with the academy, but since Overmars’ departure, he has been more focused on the senior set-up.
Ajax previously said they would continue looking for a new Director of Football Affairs to replace Overmars, even reportedly lining up Jordi Cruyff, but have since decided to proceed with the duo of Hamstra and Huntelaar, and they were involved in the process of selecting Schreuder as the new head coach.
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Huntelaar returned to Ajax in his current role in March, and that seems like the ideal place for him to grow in. Ajax have always been welcoming to former stars returning to enhance their off-pitch or post-retirement careers, and alongside the experience of Hamstra, he can learn.
Upon his return, he also announced that he was going to start working on his badges in July this year. Since retiring as a player last year, Huntelaar has frequently attended Ajax management meetings, and that made it clear he was interested in working at the club in the future. Now is his chance.
The pair will have a busy summer to start with. Noussair Mazraoui and Ryan Gravenberch are almost certain to leave the club and join Bayern Munich – for the latter, Ajax are hoping to get a fee.
Along with that André Onana is set to go on a free as well: after so many great years, the last two have been sour ones and the relationship between player and club is at its lowest. Along with them, there have been rumours of so many other names leaving, with the likes of Antony, Lisandro Martínez, Jurriën Timber, Nicolás Tagliafico and Sébastien Haller all linked with moves away.
Ajax’s squad will need a revamp with players set to leave, and there were improvements that needed to be made anyways. In goal, there may be a new starter.
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Jay Gorter has been highly-rated by those in Amsterdam, and he was given a chance on the final day of the Eredivisie season against Vitesse – he may retain the starting spot, with Remko Pasveer behind him.
At right-back, Deyne Rensch hasn’t always been impressive, but Ten Hag had been paying close attention to the rise of academy talent Youri Regeer (18), and Schreuder could give him more chances.
Should Timber stay, he is likely to be paired with Edson Álvarez at the back, as they had done for most of the 2021-22 season. Daley Blind had been the team’s preferred left-back for much of the campaign, but Ajax were impressed by AZ’s emerging Owen Wijndal, and buying the 22-year-old would be a shrewd, long-term transfer.
The Dutchman has been excellent this season – even against Ajax earlier in May – and could even be Louis van Gaal’s first choice for the national team’s future matches as well as the Nations League later in the year, ahead of the World Cup.
In midfield, with Gravenberch set to go, Kenneth Taylor was given more opportunities at the end of the season, and he responded with a series of assists. Those chances are likely to increase under Schreuder. Ajax have also reportedly been looking to sign Quinten Timber – Jurriën’s twin brother.
Quinten left Ajax last summer to join Utrecht, and has impressed, which has caught the attention of the club and they want to bring him back to Amsterdam. The 20-year-old midfielder would be a valuable addition to the team and one to improve.
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Along with that, Ajax will be hoping their gamble on Mohamed Ihattaren pays off. Once regarded as one of Dutch football’s brightest talents, the 20-year-old had a turbulent 2021-22 campaign.
He joined Juventus from PSV, then went to Sampdoria on loan, struggled to settle in Italy and then moved to Ajax, once again in a temporary deal.
The Amsterdam side have the option to buy him for a €2m, and he would make another addition to the midfield. Ten Hag wasn’t always impressed by him, but Schreuder may see it differently, should the move go through.
In attack, there are two primary deals Ajax have been looking at. First, it’s the loan return of Brian Brobbey. The forward left Ajax last year, then returned on loan from RB Leipzig in January and played his part in the title-winning season, scoring seven goals.
Ajax want him to return on loan again, and a move could very well be possible. Apart from that, the club will resume their chase of Steven Bergwijn, hoping to add to their depth on the wings with a player who already has enough Eredivisie and European experience.
It’s a big summer ahead for Ajax and for those involved. Hamstra, Huntelaar and Schreuder can take comfort in the fact that the club are in a good position domestically. They’re league champions, and their nearest rivals, PSV, are going through changes as well.
That would perhaps open the door for Feyenoord to take advantage, and they’ve done well under Arne Slot, with the possibility of it getting better, should they beat Roma in the final of the Conference League.
On the European scene, there may be a few more bumps, but there is comfort in the fact that Ajax have a certain place in the Champions League group stages, unlike second-placed PSV. Now, though, the work begins, and it could shape the next few years at the Johan Cruyff Arena.
By: Karan Tejwani / @karan_tejwani26
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Soccrates Images / Getty Images