- Ajax seems to have taken a downward turn after Erik ten Hag left for Man United
- His successor Alfred Schreuder kept his job following a crisis meeting
- They sit fifth in the Eredivisie table and were hopeless in the Champions League
While Erik ten Hag rebuilds Manchester United into a trophy-winning force, his successor at crisis-hit Ajax finds himself clinging to his job.
Alfred Schreuder was selected to take Ajax forward because he knew the club inside out and understood the sky-high expectations. Indeed, he was Ten Hag’s assistant at one point.
But with the team winless since November, fifth in the Eredivisie, and holding emergency board meetings to discuss Schreuder’s future after almost all the squad gave him a vote of no confidence, that decision increasingly looks an ill-judged one.
For now, Schreuder has been given a stay of execution ahead of a run of winnable games but everything is certainly far from rosy at the reigning Dutch champions.
We have seen at United that Ten Hag is a strict manager and can rub some players up the wrong way. However, his discipline gets results and that is something that is currently missing at Ajax.
Ajax has drawn their last five league matches and is winless in six on either side of the World Cup break – quite often, they only drop points in six matches across a whole season, so this very much constitutes a crisis.
They have been top of the standings this season but they’re presently eight points adrift of leaders Feyenoord. AZ Alkmaar, PSV Eindhoven, and FC Twente are also above them.
A battling second-half performance at De Kuip earned a 1-1 draw with leaders Feyenoord on Sunday, with Davy Klaassen equalizing 19 minutes from time.
Without that goal, Schreuder would likely have been fired. But when the Ajax hierarchy met at the Johan Cruijff Arena on Monday, it was noted that the players fought for their manager.
Ajax’s Champions League campaign was a disaster. Admittedly, they were drawn into a tough group containing Liverpool, Napoli, and Rangers but they finished a distant third.
Rangers were beaten home and away with plenty to spare but Ajax simply could not compete with Liverpool and Napoli, losing all four meetings.
Even worse, Napoli smashed them 6-1 in Amsterdam, the club’s record home defeat in Europe.
It made a mockery of Ten Hag’s claim in his farewell interview with Ajax’s website last summer that the team was ‘Europe-proof’.
‘There’s a sense of disappointment when Ajax get eliminated, even by a big club,’ said the man who guided them to within minutes of a Champions League final in 2019.
But this season, Ajax wasn’t anywhere near the class of Napoli and Liverpool in a clear sign of regression.
What is worrying is that Ajax has failed to win every time they’ve been confronted by a big opponent under Schreuder, adding in defeats to PSV in the Eredivisie and the Johan Cruyff Shield in July.
It emerged after Sunday’s draw in the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf that several senior players, including Dusan Tadic and Steven Berghuis, requested a team meeting with Ajax’s mental coach Joost Leenders to voice their concerns about the coaching set-up.
During this chat, Leenders reportedly asked the players to raise their hands if they thought the coaching staff was to blame for this season’s failings.
‘Most, if not all’ duly raised their hands, an emphatic vote of no confidence in Schreuder and his team.
The Dutch media described it as a ‘fist on the chin’ for a coach ‘who has one leg in the grave’ but it was also pointed out that grievances about, say, the fitness coach or the goalkeeping coach, had all been lumped together.
Anyway, there was no evidence of the players throwing in the towel to accelerate Schreuder’s departure during Sunday’s Klassieker.
‘We are growing but maybe I am the only one who sees this,’ Schreuder said afterward.
For his sake, thankfully not. The Ajax hierarchy, during their crisis meeting on Monday, focused on the mitigating circumstances that have kept him in his job for the time being.
The performance in Rotterdam was one, also a forgiving fixture list that sees Ajax’s next four league fixtures come against teams in the lower half – Volendam at home on Thursday, then Excelsior, rock bottom Cambuur and RKC Waalwijk.
There was an admission that Schreuder might need a bigger bbrain’strust, with an extra assistant to be added to Matthias Kaltenbach, Michael Reiziger, and Richard Witschge.
It has been reported that several players would like to see former Ajax and Chelsea defender Winston Bogarde, who left as an assistant coach when Ten Hag did, return.
But the board also acknowledged that promises made to Schreuder over player sales had not been kept.
Speaking to De Telegraaf ahead of the weekend, Schreuder said: ‘The club told me that a maximum of four players were going to be sold in the summer.’
He continued: ‘Due to the offers that were being made, I understand that the club decided to sell. But then you know the start will be difficult for a manager.
‘I wasn’t happy when Antony left [to reunite with Ten Hag at Old Trafford]. We still have a good squad, but he was an extra weapon.’
United fans may beg to differ on current form but Ajax couldn’t resist the £ 85 million on offer for the Brazilian, who was agitating for a move.
Trouble was, his departure came off the back of other high-profile exits such as Lisandro Martinez (also Man United), Sebastien Haller (Borussia Dortmund), Ryan Gravenberch (Bayern Munich), and Nicolas Tagliafico (Lyon), which all made Ajax rather toothless.
Ajax indeed reinvested a substantial chunk of the money. Holland international winger Steven Bergwijn came from Tottenham, forward Brian Brobbey returned from RB Leipzig, while Calvin Bassey, Owen Wijndal, and Lucas Ocampos (on loan) strengthened the defense.
Bassey, who came in from Rangers, has been especially criticized for his performances. The former Holland midfielder turned pundit Wesley Sneijder has been scathing, telling Schreuder to drop the Nigerian back in November.
After the Feyenoord game, Sneijder said Bassey and Jorge Sanchez, his counterpart on the right side of the defense, were ‘two of the worst defenders in the top eight of the Eredivisie’ and guilty of ‘playing hide and seek’ with the ball.
Schreuder disagrees, or cannot see their faults, because both are firmly established as The 1 choices in their positions.
Despite that, the coach has been criticized for his chopping and changing of the team, a sign he is unable to decide on the strongest line-up and an indictment of the summer transfer strategy.
It is now accepted that the failure to replace Marc Overmars as technical director led to summer transfer dealings not being as focused as during the Ten Hag years.
Overmars, the former Arsenal winger, quit his role in February last year after sending a series of ‘inappropriate messages to female colleagues.
He has since suffered serious health issues, with his heart suffering ‘irreparable’ damage following a mild stroke last month.
Gerry Hamstra and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, the club’s two directors of football, have tried to fill the void but neither are as shrewd as Overmars when it comes to recruitment, impacting Schreuder.
‘It is important that a technical director will arrive at Ajax to replace Overmars,’ Schreuder said at the weekend.
‘Hamstra and Huntelaar are not getting the full responsibility in the technical area. Much work is now being spread.’
Schreuder also mentioned the need to replace Daley Blind, the vice-captain under Ten Hag and a much-trusted and versatile member of the team.
Blind, 32, has signed for Bayern Munich but the abrupt nature of his exit from the club he’d hoped to finish his career at – or at least his side of the story – raised plenty of eyebrows.
In an interview with AD, Blind spoke about how he envisaged walking out in front of the Ajax crowd with his son Lowen after a farewell game, just as his dad Danny did with him.
‘But it reached a point where I was not even welcome at the club anymore, the club where I walked around since I was seven years old,’ Blind said.
‘On the 26th of December, the club told me I was no longer welcome from the 27th of December on.’
He recounted an argument with Schreuder in the dressing room during the match with RKC in October – after demanding the coach be clearer with his instructions about pressing, Schreuder replied: ‘You shut up! Shut your mouth, and sit down!’
Soon Blind had been demoted to fourth-choice left-back and he said nobody in the club’s hierarchy made any effort to patch things up.
‘Nobody from the Ajax direction made ANY attempt. Zero. The opposite, they made it look like I was the one who wanted to get out,’ he said.
Given Blind has played 333 games for Ajax over two spells there, it seemed a very shoddy way to treat a club stalwart and a sign of the present dysfunction.
Sneijder remarked: ‘He [Schreuder] can’t manage. I’ve said it before: managing a team is much more important than setting the lines. Anyone can do that.
‘But how do you deal with those players? He’s slowly losing the dressing room.’
Schreuder was showing signs of feeling the pressure just three months into the job. He snapped at reporters who’d been critical in mid-October after a 7-1 thrashing of Excelsior.
‘The truth is that I cannot build a completely new team in three months. I do my best, but I have to be given time. If I don’t get that it’s a shame,’ he ranted.
‘If they fire me for that, I don’t care. But I decide here at Ajax who plays and who doesn’t play. This team needs time. If people think it will happen in three months, forget it.
‘Go and get your coaching diplomas and don’t preach nonsense on television, because you have no idea at all.’
Unfortunately for Schreuder, plenty of Ajax fans are now saying the same about him.