Zen and the Art of Ajax’s Ambivalence
On the morning of 24th May, 2017, Ajax posted two (very well-made, admittedly) videos on their social media channels.
The gist of the first was ‘This is Us’. Vignettes of glory followed one after the other. Frank Rijkaard wheeling away in celebration, feeling every emotion as he assisted Patrick Kluivert to win the Champions League with Ajax in his final professional game. Jari Litmanen, screaming in disbelief, after his second goal of the game put the Amsterdam club 4-1 up against Bayern Munich. Piet Keizer sending in the cross from the left wing for Dick van Dijk to open the scoring vs Panathinaikos in 1971 and send Ajax on their way to tasting European glory for the first time. Van Basten’s bicycle kick, Ibrahimovic’s nimble feet, Van der Vaart’s backheel. And Cruijff, here, there, everywhere.
The second video Ajax posted on 24th May 2017 carried the hashtag #WeAreBack. The voice-over said, “We can’t buy a €100m midfielder. We don’t sell a billion jerseys every year. But we do believe in our own DNA.”
Three months on, Ajax probably still can’t buy a €100m midfielder, and they probably still don’t sell a billion jerseys every year. But even their belief in their DNA no longer seems as steadfast.
Three months on, from when Davy Klaassen led out his teammates – the youngest team to ever play a European final, Ajax have not even qualified to play in Europe this season. This is the first time that Amsterdam will not entertain European opposition since 1967, apart from 1990-91 when they were banned from participating due to the Stafincident.
Romanticism is rife when it comes to Ajax. There is little talk of the present without that of the past, and the present in a way is already the future, given how Ajax’s players and even coaches are not yet finished products and are instated with belief in their potential. It is symbolic that the Ajax academy complex, which also serves as the first team’s training ground, is called De Toekomst (The Future).
Even as Ajax lost the Europa League final to a team that has seven times the revenue and resources, there was a sense of optimism; that this could be the start of something good. Yet, essentially everything about that team from last season has fallen apart, disintegrating like cotton candy in moisture.
At the risk of adding more romanticism into the mix, it almost reads like a Greek tragedy. Icarus, with his €30-odd-million team budget was not meant to fly this close to the blazing white-hot Sun of the European elite, and now finds himself with his wings molten and trajectory nose-diving.
The departure of Peter Bosz was acrimonious as it was, with the reported ‘revolt’ of assistant coaches Hennie Spijkerman, Carlo L’Ami, and Dennis Bergkamp, who ‘supervises’ the head coach in a way with his role in the technical heart.
A brief background of the Technical Heart is that it is a body within the Ajax leadership structure that is comprised of ex-Ajax footballers and largely dominates the decision-making process at the club. It was born out of the Velvet Revolution which Johan Cruijff led back in 2011, and roughly consists of the head of academy, the first team head coach, an assistant coach who acts as a liaison between youth and first team, some directors (and/or the CEO, which is what Van der Sar is now). The roster originally was Wim Jonk, Frank de Boer, Dennis Bergkamp as well as Marc Overmars and Edwin van der Sar, respectively, but it has been two years already since fissures emerged and working relationships in that group seemed to go a bit sour. Turbidity seemed to constantly loom, in requirements, responsibilities and relevance of the issues each member deemed important. In November 2015, Jonk, along with Ruben Jongkind, ended up walking out, and Cruijff followed them, ending his association with what originally began as ‘Plan Cruijff’.
The logic behind the technical heart sounds great in theory, on paper: a core group of individuals who have a long association with the club and help ensure the stability and sustenance of a ‘culture’ – a bit like the ‘black box’ system at Southampton, but on a more structural level. That an assistant coach is part of this group should ideally help to facilitate smooth transitions even as first team coaches change. That the sporting director was a former player should ideally mean that the scouting process is fine-tuned to sieve out players who don’t suit the club’s play, or are simply not good enough.
And yet, the key word there remains ideally, because – at the risk of sounding defeatist or alarmist – the current situation seems anything but ideal. What it seems to have bred instead, is a ‘yes-man’ culture, where anyone in the circle who seems to raise opposing views, appears to be conveniently ousted. Edwin van der Sar denied this in July, but naturally there is a small pinch of salt to be taken there.
Their ideal aim for recruitment seems to be finding people who are rightly qualified to propagate and have a history at Ajax, but last season proved on many counts that those two things can be mutually exclusive. Bosz, if anything, had the opposite of a superficial ‘Ajax past’, having been a Feyenoord player, and Keizer, whose Jong Ajax side won plaudits, came through at Ajax but was never an established player. He had an ‘Ajax past’ but not one that would necessarily stand out. There is a distinction between hiring someone who truly aligns with the footballing ‘philosophy’ and hiring someone purely because they once played for Ajax. If the scale of appointments tilts increasingly towards the latter, the process starts to look on the outside like it just involves promoting old pals.
One factor that is a pre-requisite in the logic of the technical heart is that ex-players are able relatively seamlessly adapt to working within the business of football. Naturally, this is not always the case and thus, does Ajax then become a ‘development’ club not only for players and coaches but also directors? The idea of former players running ‘their’ club is nice on the surface. They understand football primarily, and some of them have played at the very highest level at the greatest football clubs in the world. However, fundamentally the appointment requires them to be competent, which might not necessarily come immediately.
There is a peculiar sense of deja vu about this, albeit harsher than last summer. It was around the same time that the word ‘crisis’ was being thrown about and Bosz was being doubted.
“The team was too young and had too little creativity,” said Overmars earlier in the summer about the start of the 2016-17 season. “In fact, we saddled Peter with our mistakes. That’s why we decided to pick Hakim Ziyech….Now there is balance, before there was not.”
It was then, perhaps, ironic or truly poetic, that it was Hakim Ziyech who said on TV, after the home loss against Rosenborg that ‘the club hasn’t learned from last year’s mistakes’. “That’s the harsh reality and very frustrating.”
He brushed off the gravity of those comments over the weekend, but again remarked on Wednesday that it was ‘disgrace’, how Ajax threw the game away. He was precisely right too – Ziyech himself created chance after chance for his teammates, but saw them all go to waste.
The thing about knock-out matches is that – as it was last season – the alarmism can tend to be a bit over the top. It is not yet the end of the world, or the end of Ajax. This may well still pan out to be an ‘alright’ season if Ajax pick up their form (already a bit of a tough ask at the moment) and a domestic trophy or two.
But the long-term issues are repeated too often to not be given some consideration. Not to entirely absolve Keizer’s tactics, but just as last season, the management behind the scenes seem to have ‘saddled’ the manager with some of their mistakes this time too. Although inevitably, if it comes to it, Keizer is likely the one who will end up being the fall guy.
It has been a reality for a while already but the Sanchez deal was perhaps the biggest verdict to the question of where Ajax stand as a club now; a situation where they were financially healthy and were apparently even ready to break their wage structure to offer him an extension, but the player desired the move to the clearly better team, in the clearly better league. That Ajax got a record fee is all well and dandy, but that bag of money cannot replace the commanding presence Sanchez brought in defence, and the quality of the first team suffers.
Given they seem to know their players are on the receiving end of a lot of interest, and according to Overmars, already had potential replacements for key players in mind, it is surprising how reactive Ajax seem in the transfer market. The need to be proactive also arises out of the fact that their season starts a lot earlier, with all the European qualification games. But the fact that 28-year-old Siem de Jong has now emerged as a major transfer target speaks volumes about the transfer strategy – or lack thereof.
And from whatever little knowledge we have on the outside, the situation seems to have no clear, definite solution.
Confirmation bias led to the conclusion that last season served as the pinnacle of what was initiated in 2011: there was a strong core in the side that had come through the Ajax youth, the new signings all actually made the team better with their presence, and the football fostered by the manager was fast, free and fluid. And they had almost reached the sub-top of Europe; the Kanchenjunga of the continent in reality, but what would have felt like an Everest-esque accomplishment for Ajax.
In hindsight, it may just have been a massive, massive outlier. And the theory of hubris sets out that no great success comes without accompanying loss, but perhaps the Greek tragedy to compare to is not that of Icarus.
Having very nearly reached the summit, it is Sisyphus who finds himself back at the foot of the hill, having to labour with callused hands and lactic-acid-loaded muscles, to push the boulder back up the slope as far as he can, before it seemingly inevitably rolls back down again.