Ajax, once the envy of Europe for their solid club structure, have deteriorated in just 12 months. As they head into a playoff to reach the knockout phase of the Europa League, they are on their third manager in a year and are still without a technical director as two of their three "central pillars" collapsed: sporting director Marc Overmars resigned in disgrace last February, and Erik ten Hag left to join Manchester United in the summer.
It was Edwin van der Sar -- the last remaining pillar -- who had to put Ajax back together again.
- Ajax vs. Sparta Rotterdam: LIVE 2/19, 10:45 a.m. on ESPN+ (U.S.)
A year on, Ajax haven't yet replaced Overmars and Ten Hag's successor, Alfred Schreuder, has just been sacked as well. The club, third in the Eredivisie and out of the Champions League, have turned to John Heitinga to steer the team through to the end of the season and while he's a son of the club, his elevation wasn't meant to come this soon. But he has started brilliantly, with four wins from four.
As Ajax prepare for their two-legged Europa League playoff against Union Berlin, the club is trying to navigate its way through some choppy waters. Can they salvage something from a disastrous season so far?
Overmars leaves a void
Rewind to December 2021 and all was well in Amsterdam. The club, still with several of the players who reached the 2019 Champions League semifinal, had enjoyed a historic Champions League group stage as they won all six of their matches and were top of the Eredivisie.
Overmars had signed a new deal through to 2026 as the club fended off the admiring Newcastle United, among other suitors, while Ten Hag was increasingly tempted to prolong his stay in Amsterdam despite being one of the most sought-after managers in Europe. The club's transfer strategy was on point, their Bob Marley-inspired third kit was selling out inside seconds and Van der Sar was brimming with pride at the job they'd done to restore Ajax to the summit of European football.
But by early February, their best-laid plans had been torched. Just 62 days after signing a new contract, Overmars resigned after multiple complaints from female colleagues over inappropriate messages. "I find the situation appalling for everyone," Van der Sar said. "In my role, I also feel responsible to help colleagues. A safe sport and working climate is very important."
The club refrained from appointing a replacement and by April, they were looking for a new manager after Ten Hag agreed to join Manchester United. Sources have told ESPN that, just a couple of months earlier, there was optimism within the club that Ten Hag was contemplating turning down offers from elsewhere to try to win a European title in Amsterdam, such was the strength and cohesion of the club's project. But United's pitch was too attractive and by early May, Ajax were left looking for a new technical director and manager.
They acted quickly to replace Ten Hag with Schreuder, who was an assistant to Ten Hag at Ajax for 18 months and with Ronald Koeman at Barcelona across the 2020-21 season. He has been head coach at FC Twente and Bundesliga club Hoffenheim and led Club Brugge to the 2021-22 Belgium First Division title in a five-month spell.
"We've made progress and become Europe-proof," Ten Hag said in his farewell interview. "Schreuder has the advantage that he's familiar with the club. He was there from the start. That's a huge advantage, and he knows what to expect. A foundation has been laid that he can use to expand upon."
Schreuder was told the club would likely transfer out four first-team players over the summer, but it proved to be a far larger overhaul than anyone expected. With Overmars gone, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Gerry Hamstra (Overmars' assistant) took charge of recruitment as technical managers, but they weren't at director level like Overmars. There were reports Ajax were looking at Alex Kroes as their new technical supremo, but the decision to appoint Schreuder without his approval meant those talks broke down.
This disconnect in duties meant that transfers became a more drawn-out process, with any recruitment needing sign-off at board level, whereas before, Overmars had more jurisdiction and power to make calls. It led to one notable transfer breaking down, with the club's board vetoing the €20 million signing of Lucas Ocampos on Aug. 30. But just two days later, Ocampos joined Ajax on loan as the club looked for a last-minute replacement for Antony, who went to Man United and reunited with Ten Hag. It was a week that summed up the confusion and instability behind the scenes.
Schreuder was on the back foot. The club were braced for the departures of Noussair Mazraoui, Sebastien Haller, Nicolas Tagliafico and Ryan Gravenberch, but hadn't mitigated for Lisandro Martinez and Antony forcing through moves to join Ten Hag at Old Trafford.
"It was so difficult to leave our manager with such a void," Hamstra said in September. "We all think we lost too many first-team players who always start. We had a summer with totally different expectations. We wanted to keep the group together as much as possible to be able to perform well in the Champions League and to carry on being successful."
Schreuder had the unenviable task of integrating eight new signings into the team, including the pricey €23m acquisition of Calvin Bassey from Rangers and the deadline-day recruitment of Germany international Florian Grillitsch. The season had already started at that point, with Ajax falling to a 5-3 defeat against PSV Eindhoven in the Johan Cruyff Shield. It looked like goalkeeper Jay Gorter would be No. 1 for the season, with Schreuder talking him up. But after a couple of errors against PSV, by the time the Eredivisie season started it was 38-year-old Remko Pasveer back in goal. Sources told ESPN that the team and goalkeeper were surprised by the U-turn and lack of explanation.
Behind the scenes, the board tried to bring some calm to the club. On Sept. 9, Van der Sar signed a new deal and reiterated the hope the club would continue to challenge in the Champions League on an annual basis. Speaking of Schreuder, Van der Sar said: "The team needs to gel now, a coach needs peace, time and energy to do that." He spoke of how "rigorous" the team had been in recruitment but finished with the qualification: "In the end we're a company, the coach has to win on Sunday."
It was a tough start to the season, and their Champions League campaign was over before it began as they lost three of their opening four matches (off the back of their 100% record the previous season). The pressure began to mount on Schreuder, with the fact he spent some of his playing career at Ajax's rivals Feyenoord not helping matters. And it came to a head in October when he finally lost his cool with the media after they'd beaten Excelsior 7-1. In the face of criticism after a run of results that included losing to Napoli across their two matches with an aggregate score of 10-3, and a disappointing 1-1 draw at home with Go Ahead Eagles, Schreuder said: "The truth is that I cannot build a completely new team in three months. I do my best, but I have to be given time. If I don't get that, it's a shame. If they fire me for that, I don't care."
He added, after his decision to start Mohammed Kudus ahead of Brian Brobbey was also criticised: "I decide here at Ajax who plays and who doesn't play. This team needs time. If people think it will happen in three months, forget it. Go and get your coaching diplomas and don't preach nonsense on television, because you have no idea at all." And Schreuder even had to defend the role his agent, Milos Malenovic, had in Ajax's recruitment, saying: "My agent helped with bringing players to Ajax? That's right. You know why? Because Overmars left. For every person within the club things became new."
Blind's dream ended
While the team was underperforming on the field, the fans were also growing increasingly disillusioned with the club's deteriorating relationship with Daley Blind, a son of Ajax and the club's vice captain. According to Blind, the defender and Schreuder fell out after a half-time argument in Ajax's 4-1 win over RKC Waalwijk. From there he was dropped down the pecking order and, after starting all five of Netherlands' games at the World Cup, he was released from his Ajax contract on Dec. 27.
Blind had kept quiet about his departure but, after Huntelaar had spoken about the situation, he said in an interview with Algemeen Dagblad on Jan. 18. "He shouldn't speak for me. ... And that the coach totally ignored me anyway after a row at half-time against RKC. Huntelaar made me look like the bad guy to supporters like that."
He added, about the deterioration of his relationship with Schreuder: "Let me be clear, I have no doubt that it became personal after RKC. I'm convinced of it."
By this time, he had already signed for Bayern Munich as a free agent. Blind's dream of retiring at Ajax, walking out with his children for the final match of his career at the same club his father, Danny, had represented with such distinction for 13 years, would not become a reality.
The end for Schreuder
Van der Sar hoped the World Cup break would give Schreuder valuable time to turn the club around. They moved quickly in January to bring in a new goalkeeper, with Geronimo Rulli joining from Villarreal for €8m. But it was a painful return, with a 1-1 at NEC and then a 0-0 stalemate with Twente seeing Schreuder become the first manager in Ajax's history to draw four consecutive Eredivisie games.
Schreuder then spent the news conferences before and after their 1-1 draw with Feyenoord assessing the state of Ajax. He spoke of how he was promised the club would lose only four key players, and he also called on Ajax to improve their recruitment strategy. He said: "It is important that a technical director arrives at Ajax to replace Overmars. Hamstra and Huntelaar are not getting the full responsibility at the technical area. Much work is now being spread."
But there were reports around this time that the players had lost faith in Schreuder. One report said the players' council met and the mental coach Joost Leenders asked the players if they did not believe in the existing group -- most players answered by raising a hand.
The club held an emergency meeting on Jan. 23, the day after the 1-1 draw with Feyenoord. Three days later was a game against Volendam, a match Ajax were overwhelming favourites to win, but their performance petered out to a 1-1 draw. It was the first time in 58 years that Ajax had gone seven top-flight games without a win. Such was their dismal first-half performance, some reports said that Van der Sar knew at that point he had to sack Schreuder. At the south end of the stadium, a banner behind the goal read: "Sar a figurehead forever, but lost his way as a director." An hour or so after full-time, Van der Sar announced on ESPN the club had parted ways with Schreuder.
"We must be able to play at the top level in the Netherlands, and at this moment with these results and this loss of points it's not ... it's not enough," Van der Sar told ESPN. He then moved to a news conference in which he was questioned on the decision to sack Schreuder, his own position at the club, the thinly veiled disgruntlement levelled in his direction about the number of players who'd departed, the vacant technical director spot and the lack of a footballing voice on the club's supervisory board.
"For Ajax the way of playing is important, the enthusiasm we should have in the group, the determination. We miss that a bit," Van der Sar said. "In some matches we saw hints of it or periods of it. But not enough. And we also lacked the faith that that would change in the future, or in the next few matches." Van der Sar also said some of the player's development was "flagging." But the chief theme above the intricacies of Schreuder's departure was over the structure of the club. "True enough we find ourselves in a vacuum at the moment," Van der Sar said. "We have no [supervisory board] football man, the technical director function is filled in by Klaas-Jan and Gerry, and myself, in that respect. But yes, we're working on a proper succession for the group, and to make sure it has quality."
Ajax turned to Heitinga as their interim manager. The former Ajax defender had worked his way through the ranks in Amsterdam, taking charge of the under-19s and then Jong Ajax. He was lined up to join Schreuder as assistant following the Volendam game, but he ended up getting the top job. Before taking it, he consulted Henk ten Cate and Dwight Lodeweges, Netherlands' assistant manager. After getting the top job, Heitinga would later bring in Lodeweges as an experienced head to work alongside him. Heitinga made an immediate impact, as Ajax snapped their winless run with a 4-1 victory at Excelsior.
"He made a big impression," club captain Dusan Tadic said. "He is a real Ajax player and the fans love him. He has a lot of energy and enthusiasm. He is very clear with the players and that is good. He is a child of Ajax. It's not my choice, but the first impression is great and I think he has the qualities to be the Ajax manager."
Heitinga then claimed a 5-0 victory at Cambuur, including two late goals from Brobbey who was continuing to find his feet back at Ajax after the summer move. He then masterminded a 1-0 at in-form FC Twente in the KNVB Beker and followed that up with a 3-1 victory over RKC on Sunday. It's four from four. The fans are behind him, and happy with his tactical decisions: Tadic back in his usual spot, Bassey in the middle rather than left-back.
It's unclear if Heitinga will get the job full time. The club was linked with ex-River Plate boss Marcelo Gallardo, who has distanced himself from any talk of interest. But Heitinga has got the laughter and smiles back in Amsterdam. After their 3-1 win over RKC (stream a replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.,) the song "Oh Johnny" played in the stadium. It is a song that comes from Jordaan, a neighbourhood in Amsterdam. The cameras turned to Heitinga. The fans applauded. He smiled back. If Heitinga keeps on winning, then maybe the answer to life post-Ten Hag was under Ajax's nose the whole time.
ESPN Netherlands' Jitse Bos contributed to this report