Ghana's No. 1

What's wrong at Ajax? Pressure grows on Van der Sar

Published on: 07 February 2023

Edwin van der Sar has been chief executive at Ajax since 2016

Bob Marley's Three Little Birds is famously associated with Ajax.

Before games and during half-time, it is sung passionately around the Johan Cruyff Arena, regardless of opponent, form or result. A line of the song - "Every little thing is going to be all right" - particularly resonates with the fans.

Recently, though, things haven't been all right, which is a new - and unwelcome - feeling around Amsterdam. Not too long ago everything seemed to be fine.

But on 26 January, soon after the 1-1 draw at home to lowly Volendam, Ajax announced the sacking of head coach Alfred Schreuder, the man given the heavy task of following the successful - and widely popular - Erik ten Hag, now of Manchester United.

The job wasn't easy. Schreuder succeeded a man who had won three league titles, two Dutch Cups and guided Ajax to the knockout rounds of the Champions League twice, including the semi-final in 2019.

At the time of his sacking, Ajax had been winless in seven league games - their longest run since 1965.

In the game against Volendam, the white handkerchiefs were out in full force, which is never a good sign.

For a number of previous home games, anti-Schreuder chants were prominent. He looked out of his depth, and the fans were happy to let their feelings be known.

There was a sense of relief around his sacking, and positive reception for John Heitinga, the former Everton defender who has now been appointed as interim head coach for the rest of the season.

The problems go beyond just the head coach, though. For Ajax, there need to be wholesale changes once again.

'Haphazard football decisions'Alfred Schreuder was sacked with Ajax fifth in the Eredivise

It begins above the playing squad, with the supervisory board.

For a long time, there hasn't been a clear line of detailed communication and effectiveness between them and the football side of the club. The supervisory board calls all the shots - from approving transfers, to overseeing appointments, to calling for sackings.

Its current chairman is Leen Meijaard, part of the board since 2016, and his position has been under fire as of late for taking his hands off the football side of things, leaving it all to club chief executive Edwin van der Sar.

Ever since the sacking of Marc Overmars as technical director last year, Ajax's football decisions have been haphazard.

Overmars had to go - his actions, where he repeatedly sent inappropriate messages and pictures to female members of the club's staff - were unacceptable.

However, his departure has left a hole at the club, as there wasn't a direct replacement for the former winger.

Instead, the club appointed the technical duo of Gerry Hamstra, a former player who worked in several directorial and scouting roles at clubs like Heerenveen and Vitesse, and ex-Ajax forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who had been training as a director under Overmars.

Despite that, the duo weren't given that much power or responsibility. That remained with Van der Sar, who called the shots.

Decisions made by Van der Sar (and partly Hamstra and Huntelaar) over the last year include overseeing the transition from Ten Hag to Schreuder, a hectic transfer window that saw more than 110m euros spent on signings - something unprecedented for an Eredivisie side - and 210m euros worth of talent, including the likes of Lisandro Martinez, Antony and Sebastien Haller, leave.

Ten Hag pushed towards UnitedHow Ten Hag made Ajax Champions League contenders

Van der Sar has plenty of heat on him - and at a level he has never experienced before at Ajax.

Last week, it was reported by Algmeen Dagblad that he was in charge of appointing the new head coach, and the operation was botched.

Ten Hag was open to the idea of staying last year, but he wasn't provided with a clear long-term plan, pushing him towards Manchester United.

Ajax were also in talks with Go Ahead Eagles technical director Alex Kroes. He was ready to join in July, even selling his shares in the Eagles as required by the rules to start, but Van der Sar appointed Schreuder without consulting Kroes, which put him off.

It has now been said that Van der Sar wants to be the chief executive and de-facto technical director of the club, with Hamstra and Huntelaar supporting him, but that hasn't gone down well. The fact Ajax waited so long to sack Schreuder, despite a Champions League exit and poor league form, wasn't welcome.

Now, they are all under fire for the way it has been managed. Fans want things to be focused on football again, and that requires a permanent technical director and head coach appointed by said director with a similar football vision. The ideal way this would all happen is three-fold.

Firstly, an interim boss sees out the rest of the season. It is already official that Heitinga will be that man, despite the fact Ajax and Van der Sar didn't think he was ready for the role not too long ago.

Heitinga will be hoping to at least earn Ajax Champions League football, and has Dwight Lodeweges, the former PSV and Netherlands national team assistant, to help out as his own assistant.

In the meantime, a new member or chairman of the supervisory board brings the club and football affairs closer. While that is happening, a new technical director is appointed, ready for the summer.

Lisandro Martinez and Antony both left Ajax for Manchester United in the summer

Ajax haven't been in this much of a mess for about a decade. They need results to pick up, and they can't miss out on Champions League football. It is essential for the financial sustainability of the club.

Getting in a technical director is probably a bigger priority than a head coach. They have gone nearly a year without one and the effects are noticeable.

Heitinga has done well with the youth sides at Ajax, but whether he is capable of leading the senior team for the rest of the season and clinching Champions League football is a doubt.

Who the new head coach is also remains to be seen. For the first time since 1997, Ajax are considering appointing a foreign person for the job. Marcelo Gallardo has been linked, but has ruled himself out.

Ambitious names like Marcelo Bielsa and Luis Enrique have also been murmured, but they are incredibly unlikely to join. Peter Bosz's return hasn't been ruled out, but he had poor relations with Van der Sar last time around. There will be many months of rumours ahead.

In 2010, club legend Johan Cruyff called for the 'Velvet Revolution' at Ajax - a series of changes that enabled the club to go from strugglers to serial domestic champions and challenging on the European scene.

That worked successfully, albeit with plenty of trial and error. Something similar is required now.

For a few months now, every little thing hasn't been all right at Ajax, and it needs to change quickly, or the Dutch champions risk slipping again.


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