Where has it all gone wrong at Ajax?
Although they have won all five of their league matches at home and drawn the remainder against AC Milan, undone by a very late and undeserved penalty, Ajax have been exceptionally flat and worryingly inconsistent so far this term. They haven’t won a single game away from home and Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat to Celtic was an example of how far De Godenzonen have fallen in the opening part of the season.
The sale of Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld left them with two rather large holes in the team. They have covered for the sale of the Belgian defender seamlessly, with home grown centre-back Stefano Denswil coming in and having an immediate impact. It is the departure of the young Danish playmaker which has left Frank de Boer’s team virtually impotent in attack.
However, the issues were evident even before their goldenboy joined Tottenham Hotspur.
An unconvincing win over Roda on opening day was followed by a 3-2 defeat to AZ, a poor performance which was disguised by the red card to Ricardo van Rhijn and injury to goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer. They stuttered their way through the Klassieker in Amsterdam, before scraping a point against Heerenveen in a 3-3 draw.
There was no fluidity nor momentum about Ajax in those opening four weeks and very little pace. That, however, wasn’t down to Eriksen. He was the only working light in a very dark street. His passes were a work of art. However, too often a below-par Viktor Fischer would either fail to see it coming or wouldn’t know what to do with it. Or else a slow Kolbeinn Sigthorsson wouldn’t catch it or simply squander the opportunity.
In four games, though, Eriksen scored two and set up three, playing a pivotal role for Ajax. Following his sale, Ajax became even more sluggish, predictable and rather boring. Even when they were winning.
Lucky to get a point against Groningen, uninspired for the most part in a 2-1 win over Zwolle, then utterly hammered against Barcelona. They were in a rut.
A 4-0 trouncing at the hands of PSV? They were in a crisis.
Weak at the back, tame up front. “They should have bought Virgil van Dijk instead of the expensive and less talented Mike van der Hoorn to replace Alderweireld,” rang the critics. “They should have taken the risk to buy Adam Maher,” they continued.
It got worse.
They smashed six past Go Ahead Eagles, but only after a mediocre first-half display in the Amsterdam Arena. An own goal opened the scoring, then five minutes later it was 4-0.
Next up came AC Milan in the Champions League. By half-time Ajax had 70% possession and Milan had failed to get a single shot on target in the first-half, but Ajax were completely ineffective against a Rossoneri who are struggling domestically even more than Ajax. After Denswil’s 90th minute goal, it seemed they’d won the game, but for a dive from Mario Balotelli to receive a penalty which the Italian striker then converted.
Ajax had seen enough of the ball to cancel out any such poor decisions from the officials and take all three points, but they failed to make their dominance count. Again, they were lacking movement, creativity and speed to their game.
It was the same against Celtic. A stupid decision from Denswil to gift the penalty, then an unfortunate deflection to see a second goal hit the back of the net. But once again Ajax had dominated and created enough chances to at least even out their bad luck and get a draw. They failed.
The story was the same. Sigthorsson was poor, Fischer was uninspired and De Jong wasn’t as influential as he can be, while Serero buckled under pressure.
Andersen looked relatively bright, but there’s only so much a 19-year-old can do out on the right wing. Poulsen did well to set the tempo and was unlucky to hit the post in the first-half, but there was nothing more he could do to change the outcome.
Improvements have been made since those first few weeks of the post-Eriksen era, but they still look ultimately flat when confronted with even a capable back line.
Sigthorsson is perhaps not of the level required for Ajax. He is a talented number nine, he can pounce on a chance and can and has scored against more than a few Dutch defences. But at the highest level (he hasn’t scored for the club in Europe), his control is sub-standard and there is a growing argument that he doesn’t fit the requirements of an Ajax frontman because he doesn’t suit the style. Speed and technical excellence are as important as the ability to hit the net, and in both respects the 23-year-old falls short. Danny Hoesen is the alternative and is developing well, but he isn’t ready to take over as the undisputed frontman.
However, the service Sigthorsson has received in recent weeks hasn’t made it easy for him. While Eriksen would play a pass which would give an abundance of space to the forwards in behind opposing defenders, there is no such precision about the balls in the final third at the moment. Fischer hasn’t quite mastered the trade himself, while De Jong is a different type of player altogether.
Defensively, at least, Ajax are improving. All that is really required is for Denswil and Moisander to form a formidable partnership. Veltman is ample backup, perhaps Van der Hoorn will be too one day.
In the attacking sense, there is potential with Andersen and Davy Klaassen showing they are making positive steps forward, while Fischer’s influence in the centre is increasing. But it’s going to take De Boer some time to get the right balance when sticking these youngsters in.
Under the coach, Ajax always hit their peak in the second half of the season. It has guided them to three straight league titles. As they do enough to stay within touching distance throughout the first part of the campaign, they capitalise on the fatigue of their opponents.
With this in mind, it instils belief that they will eventually smooth out the rough patches of their team. But the flaws in the team this season are much greater than those of the previous years. Not to mention PSV, Twente, Feyenoord and Vitesse all look very strong this season.
The youngsters will become more influential, for sure, whether or not it will be enough to see them lift an unprecedented fourth league title is another story. What we do know, though, is that the inability to start the season well has well and truly killed off Ajax’s chances of getting beyond the group stage of the Champions League – in a year in which De Boer made it the goal.
Third place is still a possibility and De Boer has every reason to be confident that his side can beat Celtic when they meet in Amsterdam in two weeks. But they have to put in a more ruthless performance when the day comes.
They dominated against Milan and again on Tuesday. But that’s not enough. Unless they find the punch to their game that is so clearly lacking, they’ll stumble through the rest of their Champions League group stage, and perhaps the rest of the season, doomed to failure.