Derek Brookman discusses the possibility that Ajax's recent mediocrity may not just be a passing phase
When Martin Jol's Ajax embarked on a magnificent late-season run in the spring, winning their last 13 league matches in a row while scoring 47 times in the process, it seemed like – for the club's supporters at least – the natural order was being restored.
Granted, the club still finished second, one point behind champions FC Twente, but that was sufficient for entry into the Champions League qualifiers. And this season, after having managed to hold on to the club captain and talisman Luis Suárez during the summer, they duly qualified for the Champions League group stages for the first time in three seasons. Surely ending the seven-year league title drought would now just be a formality.
Not quite. Despite a relatively promising start, a couple of unexpected defeats in November saw the 29-times Dutch champions slip to joint fourth in the table. The future suddenly didn't look quite so rosy, especially as the team is unhealthily reliant on Suárez, who scored 49 goals in all club competitions last year. He hasn't been playing too badly this season, but his scoring rate has dropped rather dramatically, and by the end of November he was still in single figures. Things will stay that way for a while; his seven-match suspension for biting Otman Bakkal during a confrontational game with PSV Eindhoven will keep him out of action until after the winter break.
So what's gone wrong? Is it all down to bad luck (Suárez had already hit the woodwork 11 times in the league) or is there a deeper malaise? It depends on who you listen to. Jol has been predictably sanguine, pointing out that his side were unbeaten for ten months and scored 155 goals last season. "We still are a good team, things will turn out OK," he said.
Just as predictably, Johan Cruyff, the perennial spectre at the feast, has yet again been sniping from the sidelines. "I don't recognise my Ajax any more," he complained. "It's a club full of contradictions and adversaries. There is not one former first-team player on the supervisory board or on the board of directors. Not one!" Jol was not particularly impressed by Cruyff's comments. "He's been peddling the same story for 25 years," said the former Tottenham and Hamburg boss. "It would be very interesting if he stepped in himself to help. But he won't."
Talking to supporters of other clubs, you will almost always get the same explanation. Ajax are typical of Amsterdam – brash, arrogant, cocky. They always expect to be champions, regardless of whether they have a decent side or not. And when they fail, the accusations start flying and – boom! – another crisis. The most recent one is something like the ninth this decade, more or less one for every year they haven't won the championship. The Ajax international scout Gerrie Mühren said that the pressure at his club was immense, at least by a factor of ten higher than at, say, FC Twente.
This notion of unreasonable expectation is very plausible. It can't be easy being involved with a club which has won the European Cup/Champions League four times, in the realisation that you are unlikely to ever get even close to winning it again. The last time the club was successful, winning the Champions League in 1995, the team was predominantly made up of young, home-grown talent. It remained largely intact and reached the final again in 1996.
Nowadays that would never happen. The best players to come through the youth system are sold on relatively quickly – Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart being two notable examples – and imported talent like Zlatan Ibrahimovic doesn't hang around too long either when there is interest from bigger, richer clubs.
There is still a well-trodden path from the juniors to the first team; seven of the starting 11 that faced Real Madrid last month in the Champions League had emerged from the club's ranks, but you have to question the quality. The 4-0 home defeat in that match was Ajax's biggest ever loss in European club competition.
Maybe Cruyff is right – the club is rotten from top to bottom and needs a root-and-branch overhaul. But even then, there is little reason to assume that New Ajax would be structurally any more capable of consistently challenging for (domestic) honours than, for example, PSV or Twente. This illustrious club may simply have to get used to setting the bar somewhat lower in the coming years.
From WSC 287 January 2011