Life after Eriksen: Ajax’ midfield options
By Elko Born
With a mere two days left until the closure of the transfer window, Ajax’ director of football Marc Overmars finally did exactly what every Ajax fan was afraid of all summer long: he sold Christian Eriksen, undeniably one of the best players to play for Ajax this past season, to a club from a bigger league.
A frustrating course of events, to say the least. Not just because Eriksen was a key member of the ‘three in a row’ championship winning Ajax side – that’s a given – but because of what happened earlier this summer, when bids for two different prospective replacements for Eriksen were rejected.
First, there was Marco van Ginkel, Vitesse’s highly talented midfielder who later joined Chelsea. Van Ginkel, who likes to run from deep and has great positioning skills, seems to be developing all the skills the game requires from a modern midfielder, and in terms of current skill level, he might even be ahead of Eriksen. He would have been a perfect replacement for Eriksen, if not an upgrade.
But the mysterious partnership between Vitesse and Chelsea – as well as Vitesse’s desire not to sell to another Dutch club – prevented the Arnhem side from accepting Ajax’ €7 million bid. ‘We asked Marco, and he would have loved to come to Ajax,’ Marc Overmars later told De Telegraaf, but by then, Van Ginkel was already in London.
Then, there was the much talked about Adam Maher, who stated on multiple occasions that whatever happened, he was planning on leaving AZ for either PSV or Ajax. A clear statement of intent – or rather: a come-get-me-plea – and an open invitation to both Overmars and Marcel Brands (PSV’s director of football) to start a bidding war. But while Brands sharpened his blades, Overmars backed off. For some reason or other, Ajax weren’t prepared to go all the way for Maher.
Presumably, Overmars is not a fan of bidding wars. Conveying some of the arrogance/confidence (select applicable) Ajax is known for, the former winger wants players to make a clear cut decision: you either want to come to Ajax, or you don’t. Besides that, in the past year Overmars has revealed himself to be extremely frugal and stringent. If there’s a euro to be saved – just one – ‘nett Marco’ will do so.
This strategy is, of course, part of the ‘new’ Ajax philosophy as propagated by Johan Cruijff. Ajax is and always has been renowned for its youth department, this philosophy claims, and therefore the youth department is exactly where the first team should look for new players. Rather than spending millions on transfers, money should be invested in developing youth, or be kept in the bank.
Cue the two most obvious candidates for replacing Eriksen: Thulani Serero and Davy Klaassen. Of the two, the 23-year-old Serero is probably the slight favourite. The South African, who joined Ajax from their satellite club Ajax Cape Town in 2011, is older than Klaassen, and slightly more experienced. Near the end of the 2012-2013 season, De Boer told the Dutch press: ‘At the beginning of this season, he was almost in the first eleven, but then he got an injury. He’s had a lot of bad luck.’
Serero certainly impressed when he scored two goals against Heerenveen in September 2012 – the timeframe De Boer referred to. But just as memorable as his goals was the red card Serero was shown after his bad tackle on Heerenveen’s Filip Đuričić. The match ended in a 2-2 draw, and quite a few fans blamed Ajax’s failure to win on the South African’s recklessness.
Klaassen’s slate, on the other hand, is relatively clean. The 20-year-old Dutchman only made four appearances for Ajax since arriving in Amsterdam in 2011, partly due to a horrible groin injury that kept him on the sidelines for more than nine months. After travelling to Catalonia to be treated by Barcelona’s specialist physio’s in early 2013, Klaassen has only recently regained fitness. He might need some more time to regain his form.
Generally, Klaassen is regarded to be the most talented out of the two. But Serero is older, and besides that, more used to first-team football. Looking for a replacement for Eriksen, it is likely De Boer will put his faith in Serero first. But that doesn’t mean the South African can sit back and relax: when Klaassen is truly ready, he will surely be given the opportunity to challenge for a spot in the first eleven.
There is, of course, a slim chance Ajax will spend some money after all. But the Amsterdammers saw a €2.5 million bid for Heracles’ Lerin Duarte rejected just a few days ago. No new offers have been made, and with time ticking away, it’s looking less likely Ajax will add anyone to the squad by the minute. And even if Duarte ends up at Ajax, he’ll still need to compete with Serero and Klaassen: two players the manager has known for years.
In any case, this transfer window is likely to leave a sour taste in many an Ajax fan’s mouth, if only because all of Eriksen’s possible replacements have one thing in common: they’re not as good as Eriksen. ‘To reign is to foresee,’ a Dutch saying goes, and critics might argue Ajax did not take ample measures this summer. At the very least, PSV (including Maher) will be more than eager to finally end Ajax’s reign of Eredivisie dominance.