We'll tell you about Ajax's problems on and off the field.
One of Europe's respected clubs is going through the worst historical period. The recent 'De Klassieker' match serves as a vivid example. Disorder from fans is not uncommon when Ajax faces Feyenoord. But what happened during the game was not typical of fan aggression. Ajax fans expressed their dissatisfaction by destroying their own club's property.
The situation escalated when Feyenoord scored a second unanswered goal against Ajax on their home turf, still in the first half. Fireworks were thrown onto the field after halftime. When it became clear that the match would not be completed (though it was eventually finished), police and tear gas were used to disperse the crowd. However, this didn't stop a group of Ajax fans from breaking away from the crowd and breaking through the stadium's main entrance. Eventually, the order was restored, but literal damage had already been done, not just in the derby.
The humiliation on the field in the match against their arch-rival proved to be the final straw. Still, tensions between Ajax's management and the club's fans had been building for several months. The behind-the-scenes chaos that engulfed the Dutch club began in February 2022 when Marc Overmars stepped down as sporting director after sending a "series of inappropriate messages to several female colleagues."
At the time, the Chairman of the Supervisory Board, Len Meijer, stated that continuing Overmars' work in this position would be inappropriate. He called Marc "the best sporting director Ajax has ever had." Edwin van der Sar, the CEO then, supported this opinion. Overmars' departure left a power vacuum at the club that needed to be filled. It was within this vacuum that most of Ajax's problems emerged.
After Overmars, Erik ten Hag's departure followed who, in the summer of 2022, decided to take charge of Manchester United. During his time in Amsterdam, the coach won the Dutch League three times, leading Ajax to the Champions League semi-finals in 2019. He also helped develop many young players, including Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, and Donny van de Beek, who were lucratively sold to top clubs. Ten Hag left Ajax in a strong position. In the summer of 2022, they were a dominant force in the country and could boast a healthy financial balance.
Ten Hag even strengthened his former employer's bank account, convincing United to pay 160 million euros for Lisandro Martínez and Antony. Along with the transfer fees received that summer for Sébastien Haller and Ryan Gravenberch, these funds provided Ajax with even more financial resources for restructuring.
Since Overmars was not replaced by a new sporting director, Jan-Klaas Huntelaar and Jerry Hamstra were responsible for the transfers. This pair achieved significant financial outlays by Eredivisie standards. Under them, Ajax paid a record 31 million euros to Tottenham for Steven Bergwijn. The club also spent substantial amounts on Rangers defender Calvin Bassey (23 million euros) and RB Leipzig forward Brian Brobbey (16.3 million).
Ten Hag replaced Alfred Schreuder, who was supposed to continue the winning streak with the already revamped team. However, it didn't happen. A series of six consecutive draws in the national championship from November to January and an exit from the Champions League group stage led to his dismissal. Johnny Heitinga replaced Schreuder, but his results could have been better. Under his guidance, Ajax finished third in the Eredivisie, was eliminated from the Europa League in the round of 16, and lost the Dutch Cup final to Feyenoord in a penalty shootout.
Realizing the need for severe changes, Ajax appointed a new sporting director, Sven Mislintat. During his time as Borussia Dortmund's chief scout, the German earned the nickname "Diamond Eye" for his ability to spot potential stars. Among the players he discovered were Robert Lewandowski, Ousmane Dembélé, Mats Hummels, and Jadon Sancho.
However, Mislintat's reputation took a hit after he was hired for a similar role at Arsenal. During his tenure at the Emirates from 2017 to 2019, he was criticized for his excessive focus on signing former Borussia players. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sokratis, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan joined the Gunners while Mislintat was there, achieving varying degrees of success. On the other hand, the signing of William Saliba by Arsenal was his accomplishment.
As is often the case at Ajax, there were more player sales last summer. Jurriën Timber, Mohammed Kudus, and Edson Álvarez were sold to Premier League clubs for substantial sums. There were also many newcomers - 12 of them. However, most of them were young players who hadn't yet proven themselves at a high level but had the potential to be sold for good money in the future.
By the time the summer transfer window closed, Ajax had spent over 100 million euros on new players, which is remarkable by Eredivisie standards. Several transfers also involved the controversial agent Vlado Lemić, who was involved in a tax fraud case about renegotiating Luka Modrić's contract with Real Madrid in 2018.
The season started positively with a 4-1 victory over Heracles. However, Ajax suffered a disappointing 2-2 draw away to modest Excelsior seven days later. The mood improved when they defeated Ludogorets in the Europa League qualifiers, but that was quickly forgotten due to a goalless draw with Fortuna, a 1-3 defeat to Twente, and a 3-3 draw in the Europa League with Marseille. This meant that before the derby against Feyenoord, Ajax had yet to win a single game in three matches.
Alongside on-field troubles, a battle was brewing between Mislintat and the new head coach, Maurice Steijn, who joined from Sparta in the summer. The first signs of trouble emerged after the draw with Fortuna. When asked by journalists if he was involved in squad selection, Steijn replied, "We put forward our ideas, but Mislintat made a different choice."
Steijn left seven of the 12 newcomers on the bench in the match against Feyenoord in defiance of Mislintat. The following day, the executive stunned club employees by openly discussing the possible dismissal of the coach if the team lost the derby. This was a shocking move because, according to current supervisory board chairman Pierre Eringa, Mislintat should not have made such statements publicly.
In the end, Ajax sacked the sporting director. Firstly, the executive needed more support within the club. Secondly, the Germans faced issues due to a potential conflict of interest related to the transfer of Croatian defender Borna Sosa from Stuttgart. The reason was Mislintat's stake in Matchmetrics, a football data analysis company. Since the summer, the same company has been associated with the player consulting agency AKA Global GmbH, which recently organized Sosa's transfer to Ajax for 8 million euros.
Before Ajax can focus on replacing Mislintat, they must devise a plan to appease their disgruntled fans. Improving results will be crucial in achieving this goal. After the departure of the sporting director, Steijn reportedly still has the board's support for now. Still, what will he do with most players he didn't want to sign?
If results don't improve, the coach could also be dismissed. And there are currently no signs of improvement. It isn't easy to understand where Ajax will go from here, but the club needs to develop a plan to reclaim its place at the top of Dutch football.
Published by Patrick Jane